Now as they went on their way, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha received Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to Him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
The last prayer of each Divine Service of the Orthodox Church is called “The Dismissal.” It usually begins with the words “May Christ our true God, through the Intercessions of His most pure and spotless Holy Mother . . .” There are five names that are always read as part of the dismissal. They are Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Joachim and St. Anna. Of the thousands of saints we could ask for intercession as we end each service, it is the names of the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Joachim and Anna that are the only ones that are always mentioned. We’ll come back to that.
September 8 marks the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. Her birth was a miracle. Her parents, Joachim and Anna, were very old and did not have children. Back two thousand years ago, to not have children was thought to have meant that one did not have the favor of God. It is VERY important to note that this is not our understanding any more. There are many people who choose not to have children, others who are not able to have children, and others who adopt children. None of these people can we say do not have the favor of God.
In the Gospel lesson read on September 8, we read about the encounter between Jesus and Mary and Martha. They were two of Jesus’ closest friends. He visited their home often. Their brother was Lazarus, whom Jesus would later raise from the dead. In the Gospel passage, Martha is running around preparing the meal. Mary is sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to His teaching. Martha is frustrated that Mary is not helping and asks the Lord why He doesn’t tell her to help. Jesus tells her that she is anxious about many things, that one thing is needful and Mary has chosen that one thing, which will not be taken away from her.
There are lots of things we think we “need” in life. We think we need to go to college, we need to get married, we need to have children, to have a high paying job, to have a home, to have financial security, and to have good health. In reality, there is but ONE thing we need, and that is our salvation.
I wonder if Joachim and Anna were frustrated, perhaps even somewhat self-conscious that they didn’t have a child. I wonder if they thought, like most people of their time, that having children in the context of a marriage was a needful thing. Yet, they never wavered in their faith. They continued to be devout followers of God, through all the years they had hoped to have children. They must have been elated when they were finally expecting a child. God told them that their child would be special, that she would ultimately carry the Christ. Perhaps they went to the list of needs that parents have for their children—they will need to get married, have a skill in order to have a job. They will need to go to school, have fun and make memories. I’m sure that Joachim and Anna didn’t think they wouldn’t be alive to see any of these things happen. And yet they only lived for a few years after their daughter, Mary, was born.
Most children grow up needing their parents. In childhood, parents direct everything. In adulthood, parents become more friends and consultants, rather than directors. And yet the Virgin Mary, who needed parents like everyone else does, did not have them for long. She was raised in the temple, by strangers.
Most people think we need a long life, lots of friends, and a place to call home. St. John the Baptist lived alone in the wilderness, didn’t have a home, didn’t have many friends, and died at a young age.
The Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, Joachim and Anna—none of them had lives that we would consider ideal by the standards of modern society. They didn’t enjoy most of the things that we say we “need” in life today. Yet, they all had the ONE needful thing—a relationship with God, and a seat in the Kingdom of God.
There is nothing wrong with having goals, or making achievements. There is nothing wrong with doing well in college, or making a good wage at a job. What is wrong is when all of these worldly concerns cause us to forget the one needful thing, which is working our way towards the Kingdom of God.
If we are working our way towards the Kingdom of God, and if we come up short on other things, like not getting into a great college, or getting sick at a young age, if we never get married or have children, if we never own a home or go on an exotic trip, as long as we have the needful thing, we can still end up great for eternity. The needful thing in life its ultimate destination, heaven. Come up short with a few things in life and end up at the ultimate destination, Paradise, and that is the mark of a good life. Have a great life but come up a few steps short of Paradise, would be a failed life, because we would have not gotten the needful thing.
There is no escaping that we all have to be “Martha” in the world. There is no escaping the struggles of Joachim and Anna for some of us. There is no escaping the challenges of the Virgin Mary or the loneliness of St. John the Baptist. Yet, we remember these people in all of our divine services because they had the one needful thing. May we always remember the one needful thing, salvation, throughout life. Salvation is the one needful thing at the end of life. In this life, the one needful thing is faith, because faith is what keeps us walking on the path to salvation especially in the times we are not getting the things the world tells us we “need.”
Your Nativity, O Theotokos, imparted joy to the entire earth, for out of you has risen the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God. He nullified the curse and instead gave His blessing; and causing death to be neutralized, He granted us eternal life. (Apolytikion, Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Keep your eyes on the prize, salvation, every day. And work on the one needful thing, faith, each day. Keep walking in faith today.