[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 4 December 2008]
Martha, who was distracted with all the serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered, “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you worry and fret about so many things and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part and it is not to be taken from her.” Lk. 10: 40-42
In chess, the end game often means that play has been reduced to very few pieces. In my life, the end game is when the pieces multiply, often out of control. The end of the semester is coming, the end of the calendar year is coming, the end of the liturgical year is upon us, and I have loose ends everywhere.
This is also an extravagant time of year. My students are investing extravagantly in study time, as am I in grading and having office hours. Extravagance creeps into family life, too. There are decorations to be put up, marvelous holiday meals to be prepared, gifts to be found and family visits to be made. The richness of the coming liturgical season cries out for extravagant attention — to music, to texts, to preaching. As a result of all this extravagance, we are extravagantly tired and perhaps, like Martha in Luke’s Gospel, extravagantly stressed.
At this time of year, in particular, I am torn between Martha’s bustling practicality and Mary’s extravagantly impractical choice to sit down with Jesus. I am stretched between the swirling chaos of the season and the still simplicity of Advent that draws me deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation.
John Cassian, one of the Desert Fathers writing in the 4th century, has difficult words for Martha, “To cling always to God and to the things of God — this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary … and certainly dangerous.”
With all due respect to John Cassian, to ignore my Martha role seems to be the dangerous road, not the reverse. Choir rehearsal? Final grades? Christmas dinner! If I didn’t fret about these, it could be disastrous. And yet … sharing a meal with my family, sitting with my husband in front of the fire, taking a few moments before Mass to wait in silence in the presence of Christ — if I was too busy to stop for these things, what might happen? It could be dangerous.
This Gospel invites us to be with God, rather than do for God, as much as that flies in the face of the pressing, and even necessary, needs of the present moment. The needs are ephemeral; God is eternal. To know how to prepare, we must listen so that we can grasp what we are preparing for. To lose sight of that is indeed a perilous path.
Perhaps it’s time to consider the extravagance of being unbusy, to cease preparing long enough to know Who it is we are preparing for? Though we usually think of Lent or New Year’s as the times to give up bad habits or take up healthy ones, Advent, which was once known as St. Martin’s Lent and is the start of the Church’s new liturgical year, could also be a time to make new choices in our lives. We could follow Mary’s lavishly impractical example and firmly set aside a few minutes each day to be still and know God.
This Advent I am resolving to choose the better part.
Father, let the gift of Your life continue to grow in us, drawing us from death to faith, hope and love. Keep us alive in Christ Jesus. Keep us watchful in prayer and true to His teaching till your glory is revealed in us. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Opening prayer from the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time.