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Archbishop Follo: Action Comes from Contemplation

With the wish to understand that humility allows us to guest Christ by true love

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Roman Rite
XVI Sunday in Ordinary Time- Year C- July 21, 2019
Gn 18:1-10a; Ps 15; 1 Col 24-28; Lk 10:38-42
Martha hosts and Mary welcomes
Ambrosian Rite
IX Sunday of Pentecost
1Sam 16:1-13; 2 Tim 2:8-13; MT 22; 41-46
Who Christ is for me?
1) Hosting Christ.
In addition to asking us to host the Messiah in our home( as Martha and Mary, Lazarus’s two sisters did) letting us turn ourselves upside down and be converted by him, the Gospel of this summer Sunday teaches us to engage in work at home and away from home giving the first place to Christ, who is interior light of Love and Truth. Without love, even the most important activities lose value and give no joy. Without a profound meaning, all our doing is reduced to a sterile and disordered activism. Who gives us Love and Truth if not Jesus Christ? Therefore, we learn to help one another and to collaborate, but, even before that, we learn to choose the best part, which is and will always be our greatest good.
The words with which Jesus responds to Martha remind us that service should not keep us busy to the point of forgetting to listen: «Martha, Martha, you worry about too many things …». To enclose these words of Jesus in the perspective of the active life in the world (Marta) and of the contemplative life of the cloister (Mary) means to mortify them. The perspective is broader and implies two attitudes that must be part of the life of any disciple: listening and service. The tension is not between listening and service, but between listening and distracting service.
Therefore, Jesus praises Mary who is at her feet and listens to his words unlike her sister Martha who is so busy that she is defined by the things to do more than by her relationship with Christ. This doesn’t mean that Jesus does not approve of Marta’s concern and industriousness, or that he exalts contemplative life overactive life, but simply that he sees in Mary the predilection for the «better part» that «qualifies» and gives meaning to every other activity: contemplative life, listening and attention. Certainly, action and initiative are in themselves laudable and indispensable for a good result of productivity; nevertheless, any work loses its value and becomes empty of meaning when it is not preceded by a simple act of faith: listening, attention and, above all, prayer. Following the example of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, we must be «contemplative in action and active in contemplation» so that we may be able to bring to others the «contemplated things» of our lives: God, his truth and his love.
Acceptance in charity is an expression of a mature and solid faith. Those who show generosity show that they believe. Abraham, our «father in faith», teaches this to us.
For having solicitously accepted the Lord who had presented himself incognito, this holy patriarch obtains the great and extraordinary gift of a son despite his and his wife’s old age. Sarah is skeptical of the promise of being able to give birth at a late age, but Abraham maintains a steadfast faith in the God to whom nothing is impossible, and who adequately rewards those who are loyal and attentive. Abraham is the father of faith and, when he recognizes the Lord in the three wayfarers, he accommodates them by associating faith with charity since the last is a derivative of the first. «The Lord loves who gives with joy», Paul teaches (2 Cor 9, 7). The true ultimate reason for joy is precisely faith, because believing and trusting are at the origin of every act of love.
2) Mary’s hospitality was dictated not by laziness but by love
Not only Martha but also Mary “did” something for Christ. In fact, she has chosen the best way “to do” it.
Let’s proceed in order.
The first reading and the Gospel of today’s Roman Rite shows an event where hospitality is practiced. I consider Abraham’s way of hospitality not too different from the one of Martha, and of Mary, Martha’s younger sister.
Abraham and Martha both go out of their way to be good hosts and to welcome the guest. However, the joy of the Lord’s visit becomes “exertion” for Martha and “perplexity” for Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of this Father in faith. He earned the honor to see God in human form and to welcome Him as his guest because he had offered himself to God and had welcomed Him. “He was lifted up to Him because he believed that men couldn’t be oriented to anything else, but considered every one of them as all and all as one.”[1] The given hospitality was transformed into the desired fecundity: “I will surely return to you about this time next year and Sarah, your wife, will then have a son” (Gn 18:10). After waiting for 25-years Abraham and Sarah could say: “We have blossomed as a new people and we have germinated like new and prosperous spikes”[2].
Let’s put ourselves in Martha’s shoes. She is happy because Jesus arrives in her home. Together with Jesus also Peter, James, John, even Judas and perhaps also the women who were his followers arrive. For this reason, the initial smile with which she welcomes Jesus becomes a grimace of nervousness the more people enter. Martha loses her patience towards her sister Mary because she is not helping, and even loses it with the Lord.
The problem of our life is that in welcoming the other (and there is always another to welcome) we don’t let us be embraced by the One that engenders and loves us. The problem and I should say the sin, is that we keep away from the One who engenders us loving us. All the exertion, all the sadness, all the anger and the waste of energy come from the fact that, like Martha, we are defined more by the things to do for the Host than by the relationship with the Loved One who knocks at the door of our heart and not only at the door of our house.
Let’s put ourselves in Mary’s shoes now. She lives Jesus’ coming into her house not with a specific inclination, but with the dimension typical of every Christian who cares for his friendship with Christ.
What does this “contemplative” do? She sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him. I think however that, before this, she had first washed his feet. She had already done so in the house of Simon, the Pharisee, utilizing a very expensive ointment. Surely, she did it also in her house for the brotherly friend who had forgiven her giving back her dignity and life and whose feet were dusty from the journey.
Martha embodies a typical feminine attitude towards the guest (at least according to the mentality of those times) being busy setting the table. However, we can see that there is already something new in this event. For us it is normal that the lady of the house welcomes the guest; it was not so at that time. The woman could not welcome the guest because the owner of the house was the man (we know that it was her brother Lazarus’ house). The evangelist Luke insists that it was a woman who welcomed Jesus. On the other hand, the first person who “welcomed” the Word of God was a woman, the Virgin Mary.
Mary goes further than her sister Martha. She engages herself with the guest taking on a position that was reserved to men. Moreover, sitting at the Teacher’s feet to listen to him, Mary takes on the typical position of the disciple. This is also a novelty. Rabbis didn’t accept women as followers and only men could become disciples. For Jesus it is not so. Women too are called to be listeners and disciples.

  • The school of the Word

 The disciple (from the Latin verb discere = to learn) goes to school to learn. At the school of the Word made flesh she learns that the first service to be done to God -at to all- is to listen. It is from listening not from doing that the relationship begins. When the word becomes look then there is contemplation.
Maybe, in one hundred years they will recognize that the greatest revolution of modern times has been made by the tiny Mother Theresa of Calcutta. That is not for what she has done or made people do (it was – as she used to say- a small drop in the desert of the huge poverty of the world) but for the look with which, starting from the contemplation of Jesus, she has looked at men, at every man from the poorest to the most powerful. What counts is to listen to the Lord and to his words as the prophet Jeremiah did: “When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart, because I bear your name, Lord, God of hosts”  (Jer 15:16).
The Father said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; Listen to him” (Mt 17:5, Mk 9:6; Lk 9:35). “Listen” to Jesus and you will become Jesus in listening.
This is the attitude of the bride. The bride is the one that welcomes the Word that is the groom. The mission of every man is to be the bride of God, the one who listens and welcomes the Word, seed that transforms us to his image and alikeness.
Man is man because he listens and becomes the Word he listens to. If he listens to God, he becomes God. He understands God not as a concept, but as a presence that changes spiritually and physically the life and the body as it has happened to the Virgin Mary in whom the apex of humanity is represented.
Listening to God for us means to understand Him, to conceive Him, to let Him come and stay in us. Human hospitality is to let that the others dwell in us. Christian hospitality is to make the Other and the others dwell in us. I think that it is for this reason that Saint Benedict has strongly “imposed” hospitality to his monks[3].
Finally, we must remember that, when Jesus scolds in a brotherly way Martha saying that she is busy for too many things, he doesn’t criticize the preparing of the meal but the stress. He doesn’t question the generous heart of Martha, but the anxiety. The words with which Jesus answers to Martha remind us that service must not hassle us to the point of forgetting to listen: “Martha, Martha you are anxious and worried about many things.” These words of Jesus in the perspective of the active life in the world (Martha) and of the contemplative life of the cloister (Mary) means to change them. The perspective is wider and encloses two attitudes that must be part of the life of every disciple: listening and serving. The tension is not between listening and serving but between listening and a distracting service. Martha is so busy serving the guest that she has no time to entertain him. An old rabbi speaking of a colleague used to say: “He is so busy in speaking to God that he has forgotten that He exists”.
If we too sit at Christ’s feet, we will learn the most important thing: love. Love is not only the best part; it is the good one because it discerns the superfluous from the necessary and the fallacious from the eternal. God “acts” lovingly and we must “do” the same.
The consecrated Virgins are of example to us. With their dedication  they indicate to us the truth of the following biblical sentence: “I will betroth you for me forever; I will betroth you to me with justice and with judgment, with loyalty and with compassion;  I will betroth you to me with fidelity and you shall know the Lord” ( Hos 2:21-22). To the question of today’s Gospel in the Ambrosian Rite “Who is God for me?” these women answer” He is my groom” in this way renewing the “yes” said on the day of their consecration. “Do you want to be consecrated to Jesus Christ, Son of God the Highest, and to acknowledge Him as your groom?” “Yes, I do want it” (Rite of the Consecration of the Virgins, n. 14).
Let’s pray: “Lord, allow us to love you and to receive as a gift You who are the Love, and give us the gift to do well so that we make of our life a praise to You” (This is one of the invocations of the Monday’s Lauds of the second week).

Patristic reading


Chapter 53: Of the reception of guests

  1. Let all guests arriving at the monastery be received as Christ Himself, for He will one day say, «I was a stranger and you took Me in».
  2. And let due honor be paid to all, especially, however, to those who are of the household of the faith-and to strangers.
  3. When, therefore, a guest is announced, let him be met by the superior or by the brethren with all the marks of charity.
  4. Let them first pray together and then give the kiss of peace;
  5. but this kiss of peace must not be given without prayer having first been said, because of the delusions of the devil.
  6. In the salutation itself let all humility be shown. Both on their arrival and on their departure,
  7. Christ, Who is indeed received, shall be worshipped in all the guests by an inclination of the head or a full prostration of the body.
  8. After the guests have been received, let them be led to prayer, and then let the superior, or one authorized by him, sit with them;
  9. let the Divine Law be read before the guest that he may be edified; and then let all kindness be shown him.
  10. The superior may break the fast on account of a guest, unless it happens to be a principal fast day which cannot be broken.
  11. The brethren, however, shall observe the regular fasting.
  12. Let the Abbot pour water on the hands of the guests;
  13. and both he and the whole community shall wash the feet of all the guests.
  14. After this washing let them say this verse: «We have received Thy mercy, O God, in the midst of Thy temple.»
  15. Let great care and solicitude be shown particularly in the reception of the poor and of travelers, because it is in them that Christ is more especially received; for, as regards the rich, the very fear one has for them procures them honor.
  16. Let the kitchen for the Abbot and the guests be apart by itself, so that guests, who are never lacking in a monastery, may not disturb the brethren, coming as they do at uncertain hours.
  17. Two brothers who are fully competent shall be annually appointed to serve in this kitchen.
  18. According as these shall have need, let helpers be given them, that they may serve without murmuring. On the other hand, should their office not give them sufficient occupation, they are to go out to whatever work is commanded them
  19. And not only with regard to these, but also in all the offices in the monastery let this be the rule, that, when they shall have need, helpers be given them;
  20. and again, when they are unoccupied, they are to do what they are commanded.
  21. Moreover, let a brother whose soul is possessed by the fear of God have the guest house assigned to his care.
  22. Let a sufficient number of beds be provided here; and let the house of God be wisely governed by wise men.
  23. No brother who is not commanded to do so is permitted to associate with the guests or to converse with them.
  24. But if he chance to meet them or to see them, let him salute them humbly, as we have said, and having asked their blessing, let him pass by, saying that he is not allowed to converse with a guest.

[1] Saint Maxim the Confessor, Ep 2, page 91:400.
[2] Saint Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 119.
[3] See Rule of Saint Benedict. As a patristic reading here below, I’m proposing Chapter 53 on hospitality.

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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