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The Catholic Defender: Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus

On January 26, 2021, Pope Francis ordered the inscription of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus into the General Roman Calendar, to replace the existing celebration of Saint Martha alone.

Henceforth, July 29 will be celebrated as the feast day of Sts. Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the family at Bethany who were close friends of the Lord Jesus.

This recent decision by Pope Francis illustrates how the liturgical calendar helps us to understand the sacred scriptures.

There are thousands upon thousands of canonized saints. The Roman Martyrology is the liturgical book that records these canonized saints according to their feast days. Certain days may well have a dozen or more saints, for every saint (and blessed) has a feast day. Only a miniscule fraction of priests — let alone the lay faithful — even have a copy of the Martyrology (it’s only in Latin), so while it is a book of great importance, it is generally unknown.

Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus were evidently close friends of Jesus. He came to their home simply as a welcomed guest, rather than as one celebrating the conversion of a sinner like Zacchaeus or one unceremoniously received by a suspicious Pharisee. The sisters felt free to call on Jesus at their brother’s death, even though a return to Judea at that time seemed to spell almost certain death.

Martha’s great glory is her simple and strong statement of faith in Jesus after her brother’s death. “Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world’” (John 11:25-27).

No doubt Martha was an active sort of person. On one occasion, she prepares the meal for Jesus and possibly his fellow guests and forthrightly states the obvious: All hands should pitch in to help with the dinner.

The Lord recognizes that Martha is “worried about many things,” also noting that Mary, who has spent the preparation time at Jesus’ feet listening to his words “has chosen the better part.” John 12:1-8 describes Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet at Bethany, an act which he praised highly.

Immediately after we are told that the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus “because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him.” Lazarus was the one of whom the Jews said, “See how much he loved him.” In their sight Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.

Legends abound about the life of Lazarus after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is supposed to have left a written account of what he saw in the next world before he was called back to life. Some say he followed Peter into Syria. Another story is that despite being put into a leaking boat by the Jews at Jaffa, he, his sisters, and others landed safely in Cyprus. There he died peacefully after serving as bishop for 30 years.

It is certain there was early devotion to the saint. Around the year 390, the pilgrim lady Etheria talks of the procession that took place on the Saturday before Palm Sunday at the tomb where Lazarus had been raised from the dead. In the West, Passion Sunday was called Dominica de Lazaro, and Augustine tells us that in Africa the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus was read at the office of Palm Sunday.

In its 2021 decree on combining veneration of Mary and Lazarus with Martha, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments said, “In the household of Bethany, the Lord Jesus experienced the family spirit and friendship of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and for this reason the Gospel of John states that he loved them. Martha generously offered him hospitality, Mary listened attentively to his words and Lazarus promptly emerged from the tomb at the command of the one who humiliated death.

”The three siblings gave an “important evangelical witness” by "welcoming the Lord Jesus into their home, in listening to him attentively, in believing that he is the resurrection and the life.” Martha is associated with the active works of hospitality and charity — no mean feat when Jesus arrives with 12 apostles, hungry and sweaty from the trip, in need of food and washing. Mary we associate with the contemplative life, attentive and receptive to the Lord’s words, for which Jesus said that she had chosen the “better part.”

May the holy reception of the Body and Blood of your Only Begotten Son, O Lord, turn us away from the cares of this fallen world, so that, following the example of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus, we may grow in sincere love for you on earth and rejoice to behold you for eternity in heaven. Through Christ our Lord.


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