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Gospel passages have layers of meaning — soteriological, ecclesial, anagogical — but they also have literal meanings.
The story of Martha and Mary this Sunday (16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C) is like that. The story can teach the value of the contemplative life, or the need for listening, or the right attitude toward guests (“All guests must be welcomed as Christ,” says St. Benedict).
But it it also, literally, about how to behave at Mass.
After all, at every Mass we too are at a meal with Jesus. We are at much more than a meal: We are at the eternal sacrifice of Our Lord on the Cross. But it is also a meal with Jesus. As a bonus, today’s readings give us the story of Abraham and the three mysterious guests who visit him, which reinforces the lesson.
First, let’s review. We learn from the Gospel that Martha and Mary are sisters. As Jesus eats with them, Mary sits at his feet, listening, as Martha is busy serving the party. Finally, Martha complains to Jesus, saying, “Tell her to help me!”
Jesus’ famous reply is: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”
At each Mass we have an opportunity to be like Martha or Mary.
If we are a Martha at Mass, we will be anxious and worried about many things. Our mind will go over what needs to happen later today, or later this week. We will worry about this coming week’s to-do list, or be anxious about last week’s to-do list.
We may even focus on what those around us are doing instead of what Jesus is doing on the altar and saying in the liturgy. Notice what this meal with Jesus looks like from Martha’s perspective: She doesn’t experience Jesus; she experiences herself and her sister experiencing Jesus, and she compares the two in her mind.
Isn’t that what happens to us at Mass? We don’t just experience Jesus; we experience ourselves and others experiencing Jesus as we size up their behavior and our own in our mind.
Mary, on the other hand, spends her meal with Jesus in a totally different way. She sits at his feet and stares up at him. She doesn’t worry about many things, or anything, really. She allows herself to be lost in love of her Lord.
If you aren’t the contemplative Mary type, though, don’t worry. In the first reading, the Church gives us another example of how an active person eats with the Lord: Abraham.
“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre as he sat in the entrance of his tent,” says the reading, from Genesis.
When Abraham recognized the three mysterious guests, a forerunner of the Trinity, he bows to them and says “please do not go on past your servant.” He bathes their feet, offers them a meal and becomes a flurry of activity: He runs to get his wife’s help, finds the best of his herd to offer, and then “waited on them under the tree while they ate.”
He never stops serving them, but he also never stops giving them his full attention. He doesn’t see himself as a martyr serving the Lord while others relax. He looks for opportunities to help others serve the Lord with him.
Abraham, like Mary, chooses the better part. He spends his meal with the Lord totally focused on what God wants, without worry or anxiety, sweeping others up into his active worship. The Lord blesses him for it too: He sends him a child.
And if we spend our Mass like Mary and Abraham, God will bless us too.