The Shrine of the Holy House


S.E. Mons. Giovanni Tonucci

Bethany is a village not far from Jerusalem, just behind the Mount of Olives. Jesus used to go there each time he went to the Holy City and was the guest of a family of friends: two sisters, Martha  and  Mary  and  their  brother,  Lazarus,  that  we know  well  because  precisely  for  him  Jesus  accomplished  an  extraordinary  miracle,  calling  him  back to life, four days after his death. Bethany, therefore, was for him the place of hospitality and friendship: a house in which he found himself at ease, welcomed by  people  dear  to  him,  and  far  away  from  the  bitter  polemics  with  which  the  scribes  and  Pharisees continuously attacked him. On one of the occasions when Jesus was a guest in the house of his friends in Bethany, an episode took place that Saint Luke faithfully reported in his Gospel (10, 38-42). To say the truth, it does not seem that the evangelist is completely informed of the tight bond that linked the  Lord  to  the  members  of  this family. Infact he speaks in a generic way of “a woman named Martha” who “had a sister named Mary”.
The  scene  is  easy  to  imagine: the time for supper is coming up, Jesus is talking and Martha is busy in  preparing  everything  for  the supper. While she moves back and forth,  between  the  fireplace  and the table, her sister Mary remains seated, at the feet of Jesus, listening to  his  word.  This  situation  must have  gone  on  for  a  while,  up  to when Martha, having lost her patience  for  the  passive  attitude  of her sister, comes forth, seeking the support of the Lord for her protest: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”. Seeing the situation, we might be ready to say Martha is right: if there  is  work  to  do,  as  the  hour of supper is coming up and there is  an  important  guest  to  treat with  regard,  it  would  be  good that  also  she  gives  a  hand  so  as all  be  ready  in  the  right  way. Instead,  Jesus  does  not  intervene  to  convince  Mary  to  stop listening  to  him,  but  rather  rebukes  Martha:  “Martha,  Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is  need  of  only  one  thing.  Mary  has  chosen  the  better part, which will not be taken away from her.” The gospel does not explain to us what was the reaction of the two sisters to this statement. But what the Lord has  said  becomes  an  important  lesson,  confided  to the  entire  Church,  and  therefore  to  each  one  of  us. It is worthy to note that in the episode of the gospel, the attitude of the two sisters was in any case oriented towards Jesus: the activity of Martha wanted to give a generous answer to all the needs and desires that Jesus, directed towards Jerusalem, could have had; Mary was not absorbed in a reflection on self, but was listening to the teaching of the Master. In  the  Christian  life,  active  and  contemplative life  are  always  oriented  to  Christ  and  to  his  message. A missionary can never be identified, nor can he  identify  himself,  with  a  social assistant, because the brother that he is facing is not a case among many others, but  is  always a presence of Jesus: who is  within  the  suffering  and needy brother,  in  the  brother who  is  seeking  answers,  with the  wounds  of  an  offended heart.  Equally,  a  contemplative  will  never  be  confused with a follower of the methods of transcendent meditation or oriental  prayer,  because  these are  based  on  an  exercise  of abstraction  from  reality,  of forgetting  the  problems  and needs of life, and not on a personal  dialogue  with  God  and with his creation.
Christian  contemplation has  not  as  its  goal  to  make us  forget  the  existence  of  the world  and  the  dramas  one lives  in  it.  Rather,  it  wants  to give  us  the  more  powerful instruments  to  give  to  these dramas  concrete  and  efficacious answers. The two sisters that we find here for the first time  but  of  whom  we  will have  occasion  to  speak  of again,  present  us  with  their example  the  different  dimensions of christian life, both indispensable and such that one can  not  do  without  the  other. In  this  episode,  Martha and Mary seem to place themselves  in  contrast,  with  their different attitudes.
The synthesis of these must be the purpose of our walk of faith, and for this we have the clearest  and  most  convincing example. In  Mary,  the  Mother  of  Jesus, mission and contemplation find  their  perfect  synthesis,  in her  constant  attention  to  the reading of the events of life with a look of faith animated by the listening  to  the  Word  of  God; and in her readiness to answer to the needs that, with her sensitivity  of  woman  and  mother, she knew how to recognize.