Sunday, July 21, 2013
St. Luke 10:38-42
When we think of family traditions on holidays, we usually think of decorating Christmas trees, listening to music or playing certain games as a family. There are other holiday rituals that contrast with these yearly traditions. Every year Uncle gets drunk at the party, or the sisters get in a knock-out fight, or father picks on the black sheep yet again. I remember in my family of origin, my siblings and I had a yearly ritual on Thanksgiving. Whoever was doing the dishes would complain about how the others siblings were not helping enough. If two siblings were doing dishes together this complaining could be especially vicious. It gave us something to resent and be self-righteous about. Years later, I figured out our fallen nature feeds off of such contempt and resentment. Feeling smugly self-righteous is like the food we need to prop up our wounded and fallen humanity.
A somewhat similar situation unfolds in today's Gospel lesson. In the familiar story two sisters Mary and Martha have invite our Lord into their home. Martha is doing all the work to host Jesus, while Mary sits idly at his feet. Martha complains to our Lord about Mary's idleness, wanting him to change her behavior. Now I wouldn't go so far as to compare my siblings and my attitude at Thanksgiving to Martha. We're not told, but I think she does all of her activity with love for our Lord even if that love is imperfect. Nevertheless, Martha's attitude needed to be changed. You see, she believed that activity is a substitute for love. Activity, things we do for our children or others, can be an indication of love, but it cannot be a substitute. We have all known children who received all the material and physical comforts one could possibly imagine and yet felt unloved. Activity is no substitute for love. My activity at Thanksgiving had the appearance of loving service, but was merely a charade since it became the occasion to grumble about my siblings. Martha's activity was necessary and good, but it was no substitute for loving attention given to our Lord.
Very early in the interpretation of this passage, Martha's and Mary's dispositions were given names to characterize them: action and contemplation, Martha of course being action and Mary contemplation. The early Church fathers and later writers described the spiritual life as tending between these two poles of action and contemplation. Action is concerned with caring for others, helping the poor, building organizations and churches. Contemplation is that time and attention given to prayer and communion with God. I like the direct way St. Augustine describes the active and contemplative life. The active life, Martha, is that which seeks to feed ourselves and others. The contemplative life, Mary, is that which seeks to be fed by God. Of course, Martha and Mary are both necessary, action and contemplation are both necessary, but contemplation has to hold the preeminence. Why, you might ask? If activity is concerned with our physical and material needs in this world, we know that there is an end to that hunger: death. But the bread which God gives in contemplation is truth, peace, joy and gratitude. In other words, it is the food of eternal life.
I try to remind myself and young people that there is no end to wanting. After acquiring the object of his desire, no materialist ever says that I have enough. Once possessed there is always more and more to possess. I think we are built in this way, in order to lead us to God. If the material things of this world satisfied us—if there was an end of wanting--then we would never turn to God or the things of eternity. But as it is, there is a hunger swelling in us, that can only be fed by this bread from God, really by God himself. If there is no end of wanting when it comes to material things, there is no end of activity when it comes the time we have been given to live. From the standpoint of human reasoning, it wouldn't be hard to argue that there is absolute necessity that someone needs to work seven days a week. In ceaseless activity we build an empire of capital and power and reputation. We forget however that this empire is doomed to die either with us or with some careless progeny. With so much demanding our attention these days, it is easy to be swept away by a torrent of activity. There is work, a home to care for, perhaps children and their activities, friends and family. Amongst all this activity it is easy to forget God and the things of eternity. In fact, in our day and age, I think the greatest obstacle to an awakening to the things of eternity is distraction. Even our leisure is simply another form of taxing activity so that it is easy to come back from vacation more exhausted then when you left.
My friends, our problem is not that we don't have enough activity, although it might be argued that our activity, like Martha's, lacks joy and the fullness of love. Rather, our problem is a lack of contemplation. We often fail to make the space to pray, worship and be fed by God. We are all Martha's who need to discover the joy of a Mary. For this reason it is critical that we gather every Sunday to worship God, to pray for those things that we need, and to receive the Bread of Life. From the perspective of the world's activity, a couple of hours on a Sunday morning (or Saturday evening) accomplish nothing. But together we are building a temple in time in which we can bring our attention and longing to God. What I am saying is that I am glad you are here. This is an excellent beginning, but we also daily need to have time with the Lord, time for contemplation. It can be a quiet prayerful walk, time reading the Bible, or simply praying in a quiet corner of your home. The reality of heaven and eternal life is not something we have to wait for. If eternity were completely removed from our lives here and now, heaven might as well be a pretend island of paradise. In this case, Heaven would be no different than a prisoner fantasizing about life on the outside. But eternity and the contemplation of God are gifts to us here and now. We simply need eyes to see and hearts to receive these gifts. Do you remember those famous lines from William Blake: To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower,/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And eternity in an hour. Eternity begins now as we turn our attention and devotion to God. It is to this contemplation that we are called, offering our bodies and souls and all our lives to Christ our God.