Today the church remembers a little unconventional family of saints: Saint Mary, Saint Martha, and Saint Lazarus of Bethany, Siblings, Hosts, and Friends of Jesus.
Now, new scholarship is suggesting that perhaps Mary and Martha are actually the same person, which is intriguing and amazing and a huge possible find (the ancient texts we have were altered by a redactor, possibly to make John and Luke better match), but because this is all so new, and Martha does appear in Luke, we continue on until we know more…
Appearing in the Gospels of Luke and (maybe?) John in various places, this little family from a little-known town in the ancient world finds themselves on the scene with Jesus in important moments.
St. Mary of Bethany (not to be confused with any of the other Mary’s in the scriptures) is often thought of us a quiet, contemplative soul. It is she who kneels at the foot of Jesus to listen to him when he entered their home. Some say it is she who anoints his feet in the Gospel of John, consecrating him as the paschal lamb. In some places in scriptures the house that this little family lived in was the home of “Simon the Leper,” perhaps indicating that Mary is Simon’s widow. Regardless, Saint Mary of Bethany is remembered as a contemplative, perhaps even a mystic.
St. Martha of Bethany is often unfairly categorized as a busy-body, which is certainly not the truth. In fact, you could argue that out of this little family it is Martha, not Mary, who knows Jesus is Divine. “If you would have been here,” she says in John’s 11th Chapter, “my brother Lazarus would not have died!” While this is not a profession of faith, it is certainly a profession of power. Martha is eminently practical, however, and in some places in scripture it is noted that the house they gather in is hers. Perhaps she was an early donor of the cause, providing money and shelter for this wandering Rabbi?
St. Lazarus of Bethany appears in a few different roles in the scriptures. His name means “God has helped,” and perhaps there are a few characters in the canon who assume that title as kind of a moniker for how Jesus will heal them. When he appears with his sisters in Bethany, however, it is as a dead man brought back to life. Jesus weeps over his dead body, a sign that he was beloved by the Christ. His resurrection story is a prelude to the Easter morning, a little foreshadowing in the Gospel of John.
Devotion for this little family of siblings sprang up in the church, and lore about their life after the Jesus event is legion. Some say they were wanted disciples after the resurrection, and stuck in a leaky boat and set out to sea. From that little dingy the legend says they landed in Cyprus, where Lazarus was made a Bishop of the early church. Some stories say that Lazarus was made Bishop of Marseilles, and martyred under Emperor Domitian (though this might be a situation of mistaken identity as the name Lazarus became popular, and a fifth-century Bishop Lazarus is known to have been head over the church in Aix).
In the Western and Eastern Churches the saint days of this little family have been set in various places. Lazarus is sometimes remembered close to Christmas as one of the “Companions of Christ” on December 17th. Martha was sometimes commemorated alone on this day, keeping Mary to be honored with Mary the wife of Cleopas and Mary the Mother of James on May 25th.
But, in my mind (and Pfatteicher’s who is proposing this new calendar of commemorations) it makes the most sense to keep this little unconventional family together. They are an example of the reality that families come in all shapes and configurations. They are a nod to the idea that women funded and housed the early church. They are testaments of faithfulness in the midst of tragedy and heartache.
It should also not be lost on us that this little family from a no-name town is not dissimilar from most all of our little families who exist with little fanfare. And yet, Jesus loved them dearly…perhaps that might be true of all our families, large or small, yes?
Saint Mary, Saint Martha, and Saint Lazarus of Bethany are a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that families of all shapes, sizes, and configurations made up the early church, and that whether we’re mystics like Mary, practical like Martha, or just someone lots of people love like Lazarus, there is a place for us.
-historical notes gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-although I’ve searched high and low for the writer of the icon, I cannot find the artist (though I can see it was written in 1985). Should you find it, let me know! Despite not knowing who wrote it, I decided to keep it because I love the depiction and the simple style that depicts this simple family from Bethany