by Fr. Colm Meaney, CSsR
What a shock!
The gospel in the mission area that particular evening was Mary and Martha (Luke 10). A few had shared, and I was holding forth on the richness of the text, especially those features of it which we wouldn’t advert to without a prior knowledge of the culture of Jesus’ time. Because, as I’ve discovered, this little vignette is not at all about the contemplative versus the active – or at least not as it’s regularly understood. Usually we think of Mary as the passive, listening, contemplative (harmless) woman, sitting listening to the Lord, and Martha as the pragmatic, practical, but ultimately distracted house-holder.
From my study, things read a little differently. The protocol at that time was that only men would sit at the Rabbi’s feet and to listen to his words (Paul cites this among his own credentials, “sitting at the feet of Gamaliel”, [Acts 22:3]). In a biblical society, this was presumably understood as having been decreed since time immemorial (e.g., since the time of Moses), and so was a ruling enjoying great antiquity. And now here we have this woman, presumably single, mingling with the male audience, listening to Jesus’ words. What a challenge to revered standards! What a shock!
It’s instructive to ask what might have been going through the minds of the various participants. For Martha, as it happens, we need no psychological guesswork: she wants things as they have always been, “a woman’s place is in the kitchen”. Lord, send her back! Martha cannot accept any deviation from centuries-old habit. Don’t rock the boat, keep things as is. While sometimes sensible, in this case this approach is disastrous (as Jesus’ words confirm).
What were the apostles thinking (if they were present)? I would guess similar to Martha, they were registering the brazenness of Mary, the blatant shame-faced-ness of this woman, who was presuming, not only to question, but also to reject, such a sacred custom. How dare she!
And what was Jesus thinking? Do we need to wonder or guess? Is not his answer clear enough? Mary has been vindicated, no apology necessary. In fact, I’d guess that he was thinking: “if only there were more of her type, ready and willing, not only to question age-old rules and practices, but to actually act on their convictions. How different things could be”.
Nowadays we have Marthas everywhere: keep things as they have always been, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be…” All very safe, secure and sedative, compared with the tradition-upsetting action by the gutsy dalaga!; the young woman who had chosen the right priority in life, even if it was interpreted opprobriously by those present.
Bending Priorities – Bible or Celphone!
At any rate, on that particular evening, I was holding forth, with fiery enthusiasm on this gospel passage, and my message was that Mary had decided to give “quality time” to the Lord’s word, (in her quiet revolutionary way), and that we should be equally determined to rightly structure our priorities in life; and that, in fact, our gathering for our prayer meeting was ample evidence of our putting our priorities into practice. Well, no sooner had I pronounced these words in a mighty evangelical voice, accompanied by many gestures and gesticulations of a supremely charismatic style, than a man, right in the front row, heard the ringing of his celphone, and without more ado, walked out of the house, phone to his ear. So much for my invocation on the importance of having right priorities in our lives! (I heard later that the call was of no importance whatsoever, entirely insignificant). That’s the world we’re living in.
As I say to the good folks who attend our nightly mission prayer meeting: what does a “Born Again” bring to worship? A bible. What does the Catholic bring to worship? A celphone.
Guards of Honor wooden and feathered
Hurling is one of Ireland’s national sports. It’s a magnificent game of great speed and skill, and of great antiquity. It goes back to pre-Christian times, even though current inter-club rivalry has yet to be enlightened by the gospel message of peace and forgiveness!
The legend is told of Cú Chulainn, one of ancient Ireland’s heroes, to explain his name. Formerly called Setanta, having been invited to a feast at the house of Culann, he was delayed due to playing hurling, and, on arrival at the castle, was attacked by his hosts’ ferocious hound. He defended himself, and killed the hound, by flinging, at great velocity, a hurling ball into the cur. Hence his name: “Cú” is Gaelic for “hound”, and “Culann” – a replacement “guard dog” for his host, (the spelling changing according to Gaelic syntax).
Nowadays, when a hurling hero in Ireland gets married, his team mates form a “guard of honor” using cámans (hurling sticks) for the newly-weds to walk under. I recently found myself under a “guard of honor”, although it wasn’t cámans. No, it was a guard of honor formed by that group of Filipino Catholics who, more than any other, so closely resembles the Pharisees of the New Testament: the Knights of Columbus, redoubtable champions of the contemporary Pharisee’s concern, not now with phylacteries and tassels, but feathered hats and ornamental poniards.
Before criticism of any kind, let me record my gratitude and appreciation for these stalwarts of Holy Mother Church. On this latest occasion, they provided much-needed relief from an otherwise insufferable fiesta Mass: you know the usual procedure: Any cleric of any rank is sure to display whatever meagre signs he has of his (often lowly) stature, a purple button here, an out-dated maniple there; the entire ceremony is sure to be guided by rubrics of a woodenness more suitable to a gibbet than a celebration, where the GIRM [General Instruction for the Roman Missal] has more authority than the Bible, for goodness’ sake; where the “singing ministry”, as is standard in all our churches every single Sunday, will be ensuring that the church-goers sit/stand as immobile spectators – the whole show is more reminiscent of a morgue than a sing-along.
So, needless to say, any diversion from such a disaster was more than welcome – hence my gratitude to the Knights, for putting me into a good mood and raising my spirits, just when I needed it most. If only they could come forward by about a millennium, and leave all their distracting and perspiration-inducing paraphernalia behind them. Feathered-caps? Variously-hued cloaks? Swords? Scabbards? If it was purely for entertainment purposes, the presence of the Knights might be excusable; but I get the feeling that they actually take the whole thing seriously.
Well, not really the whole thing, but they do seem to take the whole business of costumes seriously. A few days after the fiesta, where we had the Excalibur-wielding knights displaying their martial finery, I visited a man who lived very near the parish church and only 20 meters from where we had our nightly bible-meeting (where I had held forth on Mary and Martha). When I visited him he proudly announced that he was a knight; when I enquired if he had been at the town fiesta he said “No”; when I asked if he had been at our nightly meeting (we had met in that house four times) he again said “No”; but with a sense of honor and achievement he announced that he was a knight of middle-rank, God bless him!