Today we begin the journey of Great and Holy Week. Over the course of the next week we will hear dozens of scripture readings and hundreds of hymns. Through these we will relive and relearn the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, and then use this experience as an occasion to reaffirm our faith and tighten our focus so that when Pascha has come, we are invigorated in our journey to holiness.
In today’s Gospel reading, we read the story of the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus was a friend of Christ. Mary and Martha were his sisters. When Jesus visited Mary and Martha in Luke 10: 38-42, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to Him speak while Martha is running around serving. Martha, stressed out by her domestic chores, complains to Jesus “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 10:40) Jesus answers 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.” (10: 41-42) This is a story where people tend to choose sides. Some disparage Mary for just sitting around and not working. And by extension, they disparage Christians for “just sitting around and praying.” Then there are those who disparage Martha for being a busy body and forgetting the needful thing. And by extension, many Christians are quick to complain about people who are “good” but never come to church. Common arguments among common people, from the time of Christ until now.
In today’s Gospel, we read about the death of Lazarus, and the grief of his two sisters. It seems that Jesus purposely delayed coming to visit them, even though He knew Lazarus was very sick. It was part of His plan to let Lazarus die, so that He could raise him from the dead, to show people His full divinity. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she ran to meet Him. This time, it was Mary who stayed behind. Her greeting is a common complaint—“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) In other words, “Why didn’t you do something to save Him?”
Jesus said to her “Your brother will rise again.” (11:23) Martha answered Jesus with faith, even though she was filled with grief and sorrow. She said “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” (11:24) Again, this is a common statement made by people who lose loved ones, whether they actually believe it or not.
Jesus answered her “I am the Resurrection and the life, he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26) Now, this is the crux of the Christian message. That whoever believes and lives in Christ will never die, that they will live forever in Christ in the Kingdom of heaven.
I’ve lost both of my parents, so I’ve been in grief before. On the days both my father and my mother passed away, no one came and preached to me, so I can’t say how I would have received a message about God’s Kingdom. Would I have been angry? Would I have been unable to listen to it? This is the common concern of a common person.
Martha’s answer shows a very mature faith. She said to Jesus “Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, He who is coming into the world.” Her answer says “I am still sad about the loss of my brother. I believe if You were here, the outcome would have been different. I don’t understand the delay in You coming. But if that was part of Your plan, I accept it. And YES, despite my pain and sorrow, I still BELIEVE.” And in front of Jewish leaders and other friends, she confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God.
I love this story of Mary and Martha, because while they were friends, and also loyal followers of Jesus, they still had fears, emotion and sadness. And yet they had faith. Indeed, they are common people, with common concerns, but they had an uncommon, mature faith.
The major lesson from today is that Christ was fully God (He raised Lazarus from the dead) and was fully man (He wept at the tomb of His friend). But just as important, we learn from Martha that we have to trust God, even when His plans don’t match ours, and even when it seems like they make no sense. Our confession of faith, that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, He who is coming into the world, this is, and should be, our guiding light in times of triumph and sorrow. For He is the Resurrection and the Life, and if we believe, when we die, we shall live, and whoever believes and lives in Christ, though He die, yet shall He live.
You took pity on the tears of Martha and Mary, and You ordered that the stone be rolled away from the tomb, O Christ our God. And then You called the dead man and resurrected him; and through him, O Giver of Life, you assured the world of its resurrection. Glory to Your dominion, O Savior; glory to Your authority; glory to You who established all things by Your word. (Kathisma, from the Matins of Saturday of Lazarus, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Mary and Martha are certainly people we can relate to. And in today’s encounter, we see Christ as fully man and also fully God!