Martha loved Jesus no less than her sister did and sought to express that love for him by her diligent work in the kitchen and in serving.
At his Sept. 24 installation Mass, Bishop Edgar da Cunha initiated his service as shepherd of the Diocese of Fall River by making a spirited appeal for faithful, priests and religious to form a diocesan-wide Church of Saints Martha and Mary.
The Gospel he chose for the Mass was Jesus' being welcomed to the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus in Bethany (Lk 10:38-42). It was an opportunity for him to emphasize in his enthusiastic inaugural homily that "just as Martha with her sister Mary welcomed Jesus into their home, we also must be welcoming Church."
That begins first by faithfully welcoming Jesus "into our hearts, our lives and our homes," Bishop da Cunha said. Jesus in the Gospel scene praises Mary for having recognized that "there is need of only one thing" and having "chosen the better part," by sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him speak. Mary grasped that Jesus had come to their home not to be served but to serve, not principally to be fed but to feed, and she was the one who hungered for every word that came from his mouth.
"Do we have time to sit and listen to Jesus?," Bishop da Cunha asked.
The first way we become a modern Bethany is by opening ourselves up in prayerful receptivity to all Jesus wants to say to us and to embrace him as a beloved guest in personal sacramental encounters.
But that's not the only way we welcome him.
Martha loved Jesus no less than her sister did and sought to express that love for him by her diligent work in the kitchen and in serving. Like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and the "many other women" whom St. Luke describes who traveled with Jesus and the apostles and provided for them (Lk 8:1-4), Martha exercised a similar spiritual maternity in making sure Jesus would be nourished to continue his saving work.
A welcoming Church features that maternal loving service.
Jesus once told us that he wants us to welcome others the way we would welcome him (Mt 25:35). Bishop da Cunha said that his "dream" for "all God's people in the Diocese of Fall River" is that we become as hospitable to our brothers and sisters as Martha and Mary were to Jesus.
He called us warmly to embrace those who are "looking for Jesus and for meaning and purpose in their lives," who "feel alienated from the Church," who are "hurting and are looking for healing" regardless of nationality, language, culture, skin-color or accent. He said that we continue Martha's serving of Jesus as we "serve our brothers and sisters in need," just as our ancestors in the faith have served generations of immigrants from so many ethnic groups.
For us to remain and become more fully a welcoming Diocese, Bishop da Cunha said, we need to learn from Martha's and Mary's respective strengths.
"I am convinced that there is a Martha and a Mary in each one of us," he stated. "Like Martha, we have the need to keep active; but like Mary, we also have the need to be contemplative, to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him."
The two activities are not opposed. "Marys," he said, "need to remember that service is worship. Marthas need to remember that worship is service. If God has called you to be a Martha, then serve! Remind the rest of us that there is evangelism in feeding the poor and there is worship in nursing the sick. If God has called you to be a Mary, then worship! Remind the rest of us that we don't have to be busy to be holy. Urge us with your example to put down our clipboards and megaphones and be quiet in worship."
There are a few other lessons we learn in Bethany that Bishop da Cunha has also highlighted.
The first is about faith. Jesus once asked Martha, "Do you believe this?," referring to faith in him as the Resurrection and the Life (Jn 11:26).
Bishop da Cunha began his installation homily pondering the obedient faith of Abraham who left his native place and went to a place the Lord would indicate, a call similar to the one Bishop da Cunha said he felt as a young man to leave his native Brazil to come as the missionary to the United States, and experienced anew leaving New Jersey after 30 years to follow the Lord's summons to Fall River. These journeys are a concrete expression of Martha's welcoming response to Jesus, "Yes, Lord, I do believe!"
The second is about welcoming the vocations God never ceases to provide. In a recent Anchor interview, Bishop da Cunha said, "Encouraging vocations has to be a priority not just for me but for our priests and our lay people," something at the "forefront of our work." Like Martha went to Mary, we, too, need to go to family members and fellow parishioners and say, "The Teacher is here and he is calling you" (Jn 11:28), and help them to respond.
Finally, we learn from Martha and Mary how to welcome Jesus and others not out of dry duty but lavish love. In one of Jesus' visits, Mary spent a whole year's salary to anoint Jesus' feet with aromatic nard and dry them with her hair (Jn 12:1-8), showing us that Jesus is worth our best and our all.
Bishop da Cunha said he is going to try to fulfill his new duties with similar generosity. "I pledge to you today to use all the gifts God gave me, to use all the graces he will continue giving me, to serve you and to do it faithfully and joyfully." And he prayed that we would match him in those efforts, saying in Portuguese, "I hope that I can count on the support, faith and prayers of all of you."
As we welcome our new bishop, let's pledge ourselves wholeheartedly to collaborate with him -- praying like Mary and working like Martha -- to help his dream to make our Diocese a true Bethany become reality.
- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.