This is just a quick note to any regular visitors, to say that yesterday’s post will be my last for a while as I shall be taking an extended break from blogging from here on in, as part of an overall attempt to minimise the amount of distractions in my life and try to focus more on discerning what sort of direction I should be going in (a bit ambiguous I know, but I can’t really go into any detail without ending up writing a full-blown and highly self-indulgent essay!) Anyway, I shall still look in to the blogs that I follow, and I shall hopefully return to writing here at some point in the not-too distant future (probably sometime after Easter Sunday – it may be longer than that, but is very unlikely to be sooner), so shall see you all again then. God bless, and thanks to all have visited, particularly those who have shown their support with some very kind, encouraging comments, and those who have shared my posts through re-blogs and twitter.
In the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel (vv.38-42), Jesus visits the house of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. Given the description we find of their relationship to Jesus in the Gospel of John, we know that they were very dear to Our Lord, and also that they had very distinct personalities. In John 11, when Jesus comes to the family after hearing of Lazarus’ illness, Martha runs out to meet him whilst Mary stays in the house. Whilst both sisters say to Jesus ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (vv.21, 32), Martha delivers the line with an urgency and matter-of-fact-ness reminiscent of Saint Peter, backing it up immediately with a profession of faith; Mary says the same thing, but in the midst of tears, and professes her faith by falling at Jesus’ feet.
In John then, we have a picture of two sisters, both of whom love and are committed to Our Lord, but who express their faith in very different ways. In Luke 10, this distinction is clarified and shown in starker contrast, as Luke expressly says that Martha was ‘distracted with much serving’ (v.40) whilst Mary ‘sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching’ (v.39). Another parallel with the Johannine text can be seen where Mary is seated at the feet of Jesus – a position which we naturally associate with deference and/or worship. Furthermore, as Mary’s sorrowful profession to Our Lord at the time of Lazarus’ death expressed a love so sincere that Jesus Himself was moved to tears, here he states calmly to Martha that Mary has ‘chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her (v.42).’
Traditionally, and rightly, the two sisters have been seen as representing the active (Martha) and contemplative (Mary) lives, two paths that can be seen as the main ways in which we respond in gratitude to God’s saving work and love for us. In the light of Easter then, I think a good question to ask is how we might best respond to the great work of redemption achieved for us by Christ in his passion, death and resurrection. Do we take the active path, or the contemplative; can we take both; does there have to be a difference?
It is clear from both passages that it is Mary’s response that is given precedence. She is said to have chosen the better portion, and Jesus is more moved by her tears than by Martha’s insistent faithfulness. This however, is not to disparage Martha’s activity or the obvious sincerity of her devotion to Jesus; rather it is that in her tears and her silent adoration of Jesus and humble reception of His teaching, Mary displays more overtly the quality of love. At Lazarus’ death, she does not have all the right words, but she is moved to the core of her very being with grief, yet without losing her faith in Jesus or her love for Him; inside the house, she is so overwhelmed by the grace of His teaching and His person, that she cannot do anything other than sit at His feet in loving adoration.
Martha is not rebuked for her busy-ness, and in their dialogue in John 11, it seems clear that Jesus is affirming the sincerity and depth of her faith. Yet, the urgency of her desire to respond to Jesus, and the expression of that desire in activity (either of word or deed) has not left enough room for her to simply sit and adore – to open wide her heart and love for love’s sake, knowing that Jesus does not need any of our words or our works, but asks only for us to give our selves to Him. It is almost as if Martha’s activity, whilst borne out of a genuine faith (and love), is trying too hard to prove to Jesus the depths of her devotion to Him, whereas Mary knows that He knows, and is so overwhelmed by His love for her, that she can do nothing else but sit and listen.
The question then of whether we have to choose one or the other of the two paths, the two ways of responding to God’s love, is perhaps slightly misleading. For whilst it is true that there are those whose personalities will be led to an expression of their faith in activity, and others who will be inclined to contemplation, both are united by this quality of love, and it is this, not contemplation per se, that Jesus is singling out as the ‘good portion’. Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, urges them to ‘pray constantly’ (5:17) – an exhortation, in other words, to pray at all times, whatever one is doing, and which can therefore be applied equally to the contemplative or the active life.
One can indeed pray without ceasing in anything one does, if it is done out of love for God. If one is washing the dishes, or like Martha, preparing and serving a meal, this can be prayer, if it is done out of love for God – for Him, in Him, before Him. When Jesus said to Martha that she was ‘anxious and troubled about many things’ and that ‘one thing is needful’ (Luke 10:41-42), it is clear that her activity was not the problem – it is that the activity had become her preoccupation, and was being performed either for its own sake, or as a means of self-justification. The ‘one thing’ that was lacking, and which Mary displayed by sitting patiently at the feet of her Lord, was the pure love of God, and the orientation towards Him which flows from that love – this is the heart of all prayer.
Thus one does not necessarily need to make an absolute choice between activity and contemplation – it is possible to turn work into prayer, and for someone who has dedicated their life to prayer to help out with the dishes! The goal is for prayer to be so woven into one’s life that any activity or contemplation becomes an extension and manifestation of that inner life of loving orientation towards God above all else. Without this orientation, activity can become divorced from love and turn into mere busy-ness for busy-ness’ sake, and contemplation can become self-indulgent and lacking the expression of love for one’s neighbour that realises and confirms our love of God; both can also lead to self-validation and pride.
So, in the light of Easter, the one thing to remember is that however we respond to God, as long as it has its source in a sincere love of God and gratitude for all He has done for us, the way in which we express that love is only of secondary importance. The glorious variety of personalities we find amongst the saints is due to the fact that they chose that one thing necessary, and let God do the rest, working with the material that was already there. We do not need to make ourselves – we only need to love the one who loved us first, and He will help us to become the people we have always been. It is one of the great paradoxes that the less we focus on ourselves, the more those selves come out into the open; the more we lose our lives, the more we find them.
In the early part of the 2nd Century AD, a collection of odes were written and attributed to Solomon. Some scholars have dated them as late as the 3rd Century, but this is usually due to the presupposition that they are Gnostic in character, an idea that has since been widely discredited due to the lack of any explicitly Gnostic doctrine in the odes (such as opposition to the goodness of creation or the emanation of divine beings from a remote Creator uninvolved with this world). The majority of scholars see them as having been written originally in either Greek or Syriac, and Syria as their place of origin.
They are also generally considered to have emerged from a Christian community (they refer often to Jesus Christ, as well as His virgin birth and the Holy Trinity), and although they don’t seem to have been used for public reading or in the liturgy, the way they are written suggests that they may have been intended for hymnody, and formed part of public worship by being sung in churches. Whatever the intention of the author(s) though, there is very little heterodox material in the odes, and they actually contain some highly evocative imagery that could safely be used as devotional material. The passage below, which speaks of Christ’s harrowing of hell, is one such piece:
I became useless to those who knew me not,
because I shall hide myself from those who possessed me not.
And I will be with those who love me.
All my persecutors have died,
and they who trusted in me sought me, because I am living!
I arose and am with them. and will speak by their mouths.
For they have rejected those who persecute them;
and I threw over them the yoke of my love.
Like the arm of the bridegroom over the bride (cf Sg 2,6),
so is my yoke over those who know me.
And as the bridal feast is spread out by the bridal pair’s home,
So is my love by those who believe in me.
I was not rejected
although I was considered to be so,
and I did not perish
although they thought it of me.
Sheol saw me and was shattered,
and Death ejected me and many with me.
I have been vinegar and bitterness to it,
and I went down with it as far as its depth.
Death was released,
because it was not able to endure my face.
And I made a congregation of living among his dead (1P 3,19; 4,6);
and I spoke with them by living lips;
in order that my word may not fail.
And those who had died ran toward me;
and they cried out and said, “Son of God, have pity on us.
And deal with us according to your kindness,
and bring us out from the chains of darkness.
And open for us the door
by which we may go forth to you,
for we perceive that our death does not approach you.
May we also be saved with you,
because you are our Savior.”
Then I heard their voice,
and placed their faith in my heart.
And I placed my name upon their forehead (Rv 14,1),
because they are free and they are mine.
Odes of Solomon, No. 42 (trans. ©J.H. Charlesworth). Courtesy of Daily Gospel
This passage speaks powerfully of Christ’s descent into the land of the dead, which is something hinted at in 1 Peter 3:19-20 (as well as 4:6) and mentioned explicitly in the Apostle’s Creed. The Catechism gives us a clearer understanding of how this was understood in the early Church here:
‘The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there…
…Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.’
The odes use imagery drawn from this descent of Our Lord into the realm of the dead to speak powerfully of the extent of Christ’s victory in overcoming the bonds of death; that His word of salvation knows no boundaries and extends even to those who did not know His name. This is a compelling reminder to us of just how far God’s grace can reach. When Our Lord reaches the spirits of the underworld, and sees their desire for Him, He ‘placed their faith in my heart’ and‘placed my name upon their forehead’ – this creative imagining of what the harrowing of hell may have been like thus speaks to us today also, showing us that wherever there is faith in Christ, wherever there is a desire for Him – His truth and love – there is yet hope.
The most dominant note in the ode above though, is the awesome power of Christ’s victory over the powers of death – a victory worked in and through the very process of death itself. We hear Jesus say that ‘Death ejected me and many with me’ and that ‘it was not able to endure my face’. What a wonderful thing to be reminded of during Lent! Easter is not far off now, and it is always good to recall what this period is in preparation for – the commemoration of Our Lord’s great victory over sin, disunity, hate, the will to power, and even death itself. By trusting in Him who wrought this victory, and uniting ourselves to Him, we can partake in it, become co-workers in the application of its fruits, and join ourselves to the very life of Love that is the source of all being.
Easter may not have arrived yet, but this ancient text can help to orient our minds towards the great triumph of light, life, love and truth that gives this period of Lent its shape and purpose. We deny ourselves and give things up now because we hope to redirect our wills towards something even greater than the goods of creation, and we try to attune our lives more closely to the will of God so that we may live in greater harmony with the very life of the Holy Trinity, which is Love – a love that is stronger than death.