"JESUS LOVED MARTHA AND MARY HER SISTER AND LAZARUS HER BROTHER" - John 11:5
In the Church’s sanctoral calendar the Feast of Saint Martha is celebrated a week after the Feast of St. Magdalene, thus creating an informal octave of the two sister saints (again: in the liturgical tradition of the western Latin Church the Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are taken to be one and the same person.) The family appears in the Gospel of St. Luke and in the Gospel of St. John. In St. Luke, we have the account of one night of hospitality during which Our Lord drew a lesson in not allowing the cares of life to cloud our vision of the higher things of heaven. In St. John, we have the story of the Raising of Lazarus from the dead four days after he had died—the greatest of all Christ’s miracles before His own Resurrection from the Dead.
The account in St. Luke’s Gospel is found in Chapter 10, verses 38-42. It is the Gospel Lesson used for the Mass of St. Martha. Martha, as the elder sister, is the proper hostess of the home and she is busily engaged in all of the tasks involved in giving hospitality. Mary (Magdalene) her sister, however, is seated at the feet of the Lord, listening to His word. In frustration, Martha demands that Jesus tell Mary to help her. The Lord answers: “Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and upset about many things: but one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part which shall not be taken away from her.”
As one commentary on this Gospel Lesson explains it:
“Jesus did not reproach Martha, but explained that even in the midst of the service which we offer Him, our first duty is to listen to Him, to contemplate Him. The active life of service to Christ in our neighbor, with all its anxiety and fatigue endured for His love is very meritorious; but as St. Bernard says, ‘Happy the home where a Mary gives cause for Martha’s complaints,’ where the claims of external occupations are not allowed to take her away from a life of prayer. God wishes to be recognized for what He is, the source of all blessings. The contemplative life brings souls into direct contact with God, and so more effectively ensures their salvation, but it also certainly obtains the graces which make the active life fruitful.” (Saint Andrew’s Missal, 1952)
It should also be noted that Mary was already very much accustomed to actively caring for the Lord in the way that Martha was doing in their family home on that particular occasion. St. Luke tells us at the beginning of Chapter 8 that there were several worthy women of means, who had experienced conversion and healing from Christ and “who ministered unto Him of their substance.” That is to say, they took care to provide Christ with the necessary food and drink and afforded Him hospitality. Mary Magdelene is the first named of these holy women. We may say then that she did her part in the “active” apostolate as well as her sister Martha (and actually, taken all together, probably more of it.) How praiseworthy indeed Mary Magdalene’s capacity to (as one Massformulary prayer says), “judge wisely the things of earth and love the things of heaven.”