Martha, Martha


St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to Bethany, the gospel read for the Feast of St. Martha, is part of the evangelist’s description of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. (Luke 10,38-42) It’s not a journey by Google Maps; Luke is describing how different people meet Jesus on his way.

Some reject him outright, like the scribe who in the previous story to this one is out “to test him.” When Jesus visits Martha and Mary, he’s a prophet speaking his word. Martha, busy about many things fails to hear him, and Jesus rebukes her. Mary listens to his word and is praised. The “cares of this life,” which Jesus warns about, make Martha deaf to the prophet’s word.

That’s what Luke wants us to learn from this gospel, but we all know there more to Martha than what Luke tells us here.

Other New Testament sources speak about these good women.  John’s gospel, for example, along with a rich Christian tradition says that, besides knowing him as a prophet, these women and Lazarus their brother were long time friends.

When I read the story of Martha and Mary in Luke, I keep two other sources in mind. One of them is a painting (above) by the 13th century Tuscan artist, Giovanni di Milano, illustrating the gospel story of Jesus with Martha and Mary at Bethany. You might call the artist a voice of tradition.

The artist imagines a supper at Bethany. The table’s set for four people– that would be Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha. But look at the others coming in the door. Obviously, they’re Jesus’ disciples, led by Peter. One them is gesturing towards Peter, as if saying, “He told us to come.”

Poor Martha in her apron holds up her hands in frustration, “What are we going to do?”
There will be no miracle, except the miracle of Martha’s hospitality. Surely, more than four are going to be fed.

We need artists like di Milano to flesh out what the gospel of Luke provides.

The other source I like is St. Augustine who obviously has a soft spot for Martha and the work she does. Both Martha and Mary had the same holy desire, Augustine says: “ They stayed close to our Lord and both served him harmoniously when he was among them.”

Martha served him as the “Word made flesh,” who was hungry and thirsty, tired and in need of human care and support. She longs to share what Mary enjoys, his presence, his wisdom and his gifts. And she will find her desires fulfilled.

“You, Martha, if I may say so, will find your service blessed and your work rewarded with peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland you will find no traveller to welcome, no one hungry to feed or thirsty to give drink, no one to visit or quarreling to reconcile, no one dead to bury.”

“No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. What Mary chose in this life will be realized there in full. She was gathering only fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.”


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Parables of the Kingdom

Net cast into the Sea

The 11th and 12th chapters of Matthew’s gospel, which we’re reading these days at Mass, describe the growing opposition to Jesus as he preaches and performs miracles in Galilee.

Not only do the Pharisees begin to oppose him and plot to put him to death, but the towns where he’s been–Capernaum, Corazin–seem to forget him. Those chapters end with another source of opposition that may surpise us. His own family from Nazareth seems to misunderstand him. It’s a dark part of Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus answers this opposition in chapter 13 in a series of parables. He begins with the parable of the sower sowing his seed. The seed doesn’t always fall on good ground, he reminds his disciples. Sometimes it falls on the path where it quickly dries up– like the  towns that welcome him enthusiastically and soon forget him.

The parable of the weeds and the wheat points to enemies who want to poison the power and beauty of his words and deeds because of their  own claims.  The Pharisees did that.

The kingdom of God comes in smallness. It’s like the mustard seed, not a full grown tree. You can miss it if  you’re looking for something fully grown and done. The treasure is hidden in a field; you may discover  almost accidentally. Maybe Jesus’ own extended family in Nazareth still saw him as just the little boy they knew before and could not appreciate him now. We underestimate small things and  what they can grow to be.

But the kingdom of heaven is also like a merchant in search of fine pearls. You have to keep searching for it all your life. You can’t give up that search. Keep looking, hoping searching.

Jesus concludes his teaching with the parable of the net cast into the sea that catches fish of every kind, good and bad. At the end of time, the net will be dragged to shore and the good will be separated from the bad.

His parables are about the real world, the world Jesus experienced. They also give us a good  template to look at the world we live in, which is not far from his.


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17th Sunday of the Year: B – The Bread of Life


Audio homily below:

The next five Sundays at Mass we’ll read from the 6th chapter of St. John’s gospel, which centers around the miracle of the loaves and the fish. All four gospels recall this miracle of Jesus; Mark and Matthew recall it twice. It’s one of Jesus’ most important miracles. It’s a miracle that will define him more than others miracles do.

John’s gospel expands on the miracle more than the other gospels. John’s gospel likes to point out signs. This miracle as an important
sign of Jesus’ mission in this world. He’s “the Bread of Life,” who answers the hunger that’s in our world.

John’s gospel notes the time and place the miracle occurs. It’s the time of Passover, on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee. When we hear it’s the Feast of Passover, we know that was when God led the Israelites out of Egypt. It was a mighty action of God. Now God will do a further act of saving his people through Jesus, his Son.

Jesus goes up a mountain. That’s an important detail too: Moses spoke to the people from a mountain on the desert journey. Now we’ll hear a greater voice from the mountain by the Sea of Galilee.

Look at the picture we have in John’s gospel: Jesus on the mountain sees a multitude of people coming toward him. In the other gospel accounts of this miracle, the disciples notice the crowds coming and nervously tells Jesus to send them away. In John’s gospel, though, Jesus sees the crowds approaching and, as if to remind his disciples of the inability of human resources to deal with them, he asks his disciple Philip, “Where could we buy enough food for them to eat?” Of course, there are no places to buy food and even if there were they wouldn’t have enough money. There are only 5 loaves and two fish.

Then, look how the miracle takes place in John’s gospel. Jesus doesn’t have the people line up, as if in a breadline for a piece of bread to tide them over on their way home. No, he settles them all on the green grass as if he were seating them at a banquet table. Then, taking the loaves and giving thanks, “he distributed them to those who were reclining , and also as much of the fish as they wanted.”

And it’s not only enough for them to eat; there’s a lot left over, which they collect in baskets. “More than they could eat.”

What does the miracle say to us? Let’s go back to the beginning. Jesus seeing the crowd is God seeing us all, the whole human family in fact. He sees the hunger of the crowd that can’t be met by human resources alone. The miracle isn’t an answer to a temporary crisis; it’s a sign that points to something deeper, something lasting. God will be with us on our human journey. God will always be with us; God will give us what we need, and even more than we expect.

You see the promise we have in this miracle. It’s not something done long ago and then over. It’s a sign that goes on and on.

This miracle says there’s a hunger in human beings that only God can satisfy. We may hardly be aware of it; just as the crowds who came to Jesus that day may not have been aware of it. But he was.

It’s not just a hunger for food either; it’s a hunger for wisdom and knowledge that only God can give. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”( Augustine) There’s something unsatisfied, something restless in us that can only be met by God. Our human hunger wont be satisfied by money, by success, by popularity, by things, by a healthy, perfect body. We can have all of these, but the question rises, “What then?” “What then?”

The miracle of the loaves and fish also points to the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, that beautiful sign so small and insignificant. Yet we sat it’s a banquet, God’s banquet. It’s the place where Jesus looks at us and see our hunger and offers food. He is our Bread of Life.

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The Martyrs of Damiel

Wars, especially civil wars, can bring unspeakable violence. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s is a good example. There were atrocities on both sides. Innocent people were among its victims, and suffered for no reason at all.

The Martyrs of Damiel, Spanish Passionists, most of them young students for the priesthood preparing for missionary work in Cuba and Mexico, were killed in 1936. Theirs is a tragic story, but also a story of God’s grace shining through human evil. We read their story today at Mass.

Between July 22nd and October 24th, 1936, twenty-six religious from the Passionist house of studies, Christ of the Light, outside the city of Daimiel, about eighty miles south of Madrid, died at the hands of anti-religious militiamen at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. They were: Niceforo Diez Tejerina, 43, provincial superior, who previously served as a missionary in Mexico and Cuba after being ordained in Chicago, Illinois.; Ildefonso García Nozal, 38; Pedro Largo Redondo, 29; Justiniano Cuestra Redondo, 26; Eufrasio de Celis Santos, 21; Maurilio Macho Rodríguez, 21; Jose EstalayoGarcia, 21; Julio Mediavilla Concejero, 21; Fulgencio Calv Sánchez, 19; Honorino Carraced Ramos, 19; Laurino Proáno Cuestra, 20; Epifanio Sierra Conde, 20; Abilio Ramos Ramos, 19; Anacario Benito Nozal, 30; Felipe Ruiz Fraile, 21; Jose Osés Sainz, 21; Felix Ugalde Irurzun, 21; Jose Maria Ruiz Martinez, 20; Zacarias Fernández Crespo, 19; Pablo Maria Lopez Portillo, 54; Benito Solano Ruiz, 38; Tomas Cuartero Gascón, 21; Jose Maria Cuartero Gascón, 18; German Perez Jiménez, 38; Juan Pedro Bengoa Aranguren, 46; Felipe Valcobado Granado, 62.

Most of those killed were young religious studying for ordination and destined for missionary work in Mexico and Cuba. Others were priests who taught them and brothers who served in the community. Father Niceforo, the provincial, was visiting the community at the time. Militiamen entered the Passionist house on the night of July 21st and ordered the thirty-one religious to leave in one hour. Father Niceforo gathered them in the chapel, gave them absolution, opened the tabernacle and said: “We face our Gethsemane. . . all of us are weak and frightened,but Jesus is with us; he is the strength of the weak. In Gethsemane an angel comforted Jesus; now he himself comforts and strengthens us. . .Very soon we will be with him. . .To die for him is really to live. . . Have courage and help me by your example.”
He then distributed the sacramental hosts to them.

The militiamen ordered the group to the cemetery and told them to flee. At the same time, they alerted companions in the surrounding areas to shoot the religious on sight. The Passionists split into five groups. The first group of nine was captured and shot outside the train station of Carabanchel in Madrid on July 22, 1936 at 11pm. The second group of twelve, Father Niceforo among them, was taken at the station at Manzanares and shot by a firing squad. Father Niceforo and four others died immediately. Seven were taken to a hospital where one later died. Six of them recovered, only to be shot to death later on October 23, 1936.

Three other religious, traveling together, were executed at the train station of Urda (Toledo) on July 25th. Two gave their lives at Carrion de Calatrave on September 25th. Only five of the thirty-one religious were spared.

Numerous eye-witnesses testified afterwards to the brave faith and courage shown by the Daimiel Community in their final moments, especially the signs of forgiveness they gave their executioners. They were beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 1989, who said of them: “None of the religious of the community of Daimiel was involved in political matters. Nonetheless, within the climate of the historical period in which they lived, they were arrested because of the tempest of religious persecution, generously shedding their blood, faithful to their religious way of life, and emulating, in the twentieth century, the heroism of the Church’s first martyrs.” (Homily: October 1, 1989) Today their bodies are interred in the Passionist house at Daimiel.

Their feastday is July 24th.


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Praying with Mary and Ann

The Feast of Saints Ann and Joachim, the parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is celebrated on July 26.  Some churches are preparing for the feast with novena services in honor of St. Ann all this week.

A few years ago I visited Jerusalem and the ancient ruins of the temple that once stood in the time of Jesus. Jewish women were fervently praying with their daughters before the temple’s western wall. Thousands of years before, Ann and her daughter Mary must have prayed in this holy place too.

Ann and Joachim were closely connected to the temple of Jerusalem and may have lived near it or in a town close by, tradition says.  The picture above is a model of the temple from Jesus’ time at the Israel Museum. The Pool of Bethesda, where the paralyzed man was healed by Jesus, is to the right of the temple. A church honoring St. Ann stands there today. (below)

st.ann basilica

The women at the wall in Jerusalem were probably praying the psalms as generations before them have done. A statue of Ann and her daughter Mary can be found in the Jerusalem church. Statues like it are common in Catholic churches; Ann is teaching her daughter at her side.


Some statues I’ve seen show her teaching Mary her ABCs; others show her teaching Mary the scriptures. She’s teaching her daughter how to pray and how to live.

These days we’re trying to find ways to form our children in their faith. Here’s  a way that’s worked for centuries. Parents and grandparents are indispensable teachers of faith and the lessons of life. The next generation is at their side.

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Mary Magdalene


St. Gregory the Great  got it wrong when he identified Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman mentioned in the gospel stories and with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Yet,  his description of the spirituality of Mary Magdalene is right on.

Here’s an excerpt from Gregory’s beautiful sermon in today’s Liturgy of the Hours:

“We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.

At first she sought but did not find, but when she persevered it happened that she found what she was looking for. When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a great love. As David says: My soul has thirsted for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? And so also in the Song of Songs the Church says: I was wounded by love; and again: My soul is melted with love.

Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? She is asked why she is sorrowing so that her desire might be strengthened; for when she mentions whom she is seeking, her love is kindled all the more ardently.

Jesus says to her: Mary. Jesus is not recognized when he calls her “woman”; so he calls her by name, as though he were saying: Recognize me as I recognize you; for I do not know you as I know others; I know you as yourself. And so Mary, once addressed by name, recognizes who is speaking. She immediately calls him rabboni, that is to say, teacher, because the one whom she sought outwardly was the one who inwardly taught her to keep on searching.”

Some recently, using flimsy evidence from gnostic writings of the 3rd and 4th century, want to “de-mythologize” Jesus and romanticize his relationship with Mary. Some claim he was even married to her. Their claims have been sensationalized in the  media and unfortunately get a wide hearing.

Better to listen to the four gospels and the evidence of the New Testament. They recognize Mary as a disciple who loved Jesus and one of his many women followers. Their witness is older and more reliable. There’s also new archeological evidence about Magdala, Mary’s hometown, that helps us understand Mary Magdalene. Take a look.


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The Story of Ann and Joachim

Joachim among the Shepherds

Ann and Joachim were the parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and they lived in Jerusalem, tradition says, where Joachim, a descendant of David, had a role in the life of the temple. A wealthy man, he provided sheep and other offerings for the temple sacrifices.

Tradition says too that the couple had ties to Bethlehem and Nazareth.

They prospered in Jerusalem, but for twenty years one great trial clouded their marriage: they had no child. Even after they vowed to dedicate their child to God, no child came.

At a time when children were thought treasures, they were thought poor. As descendants of David, they were blamed for not continuing the line from which the Messiah would come.

Stung by the criticism, Joachim began to retreat to the mountains to brood among the shepherds and the sheep. As her husband distanced himself from her, Ann too felt the sadness of their childlessness.

God seemed far away.

In the garden one day, Ann noticed some sparrows building a nest in a laurel tree and she burst into tears: “Why was I born, Lord?” she said, “The birds build nests for their young and I have no child of my own. The creatures of the earth, the fish of the sea are fruitful, but I have nothing. The land produces fruit, but I have no child to hold in my arms.”

At that moment, an angel of the Lord came and said, “”Ann, the Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive a child the whole world will praise. Go to the Golden Gate in Jerusalem and meet your husband there.”

In the mountains, an angel in dazzling light also spoke to Joachim, “Don’t be afraid. I have come to tell you the Lord has heard your prayers. God knows your goodness and your sorrow and will give your wife a child as he did Sara, Abraham’s wife, and Anna, the mother of Samuel.

” Ann will bear you a daughter and you’ll call her Mary. Dedicate her to God, for she will be filled with the Holy Spirit from her mother’s womb. I give you a sign: Go back to Jerusalem. You’ll meet your wife at the Golden Gate, where your sorrow will be turned into joy.”

Joachim and Ann met at the Golden Gate to the temple, the place of God’s presence. They embraced as they spoke of the angel’s promise. Returning home, Ann conceived and bore a daughter, and they called her “Mary.”

From the time she was three years old, Ann brought Mary to the temple where she learned to read the scriptures, to pray and to take part in the Jewish feasts as they were celebrated through the year. She watched as her father brought lambs to be offered in sacrifice. She grew in wisdom and grace in the presence of God.

When Mary approached the customary marriage age–15 or so–her parent began to arrange for her marriage according to the custom of the time. They sought advice from the high priest in the temple, tradition says, and Joseph of Nazareth was chosen to be her husband. By then, Ann and Joachim made Nazareth their home.

It was during this time that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she was to be the Mother of Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit she conceived the Child.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth where Jesus would grow up. They raised him in a large extended family that included his grandparents, Ann and Joachim, who certainly cared for the Child.

No one knows just when Ann and Joachim died, – or where. But we must believe Jesus treasured them as they passed on to God.

This retelling of the story of Ann and Joachim is based on the 2nd century Protoevangelium of James–an apostle related to Jesus, incidentally. The illustrations of Giotto are found in the Arena in Florence, Italy. Giotto’s 14th century illustrations  helped popularize the story of Ann and Joachim in Italy and Europe.

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