Monday, November 28, 2011

Martha Syndrome

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. (Luke 10.41-42)


Sherry Peyton’s comment on the previous post (see below) opened a wealth of insight regarding a concern that troubles many of us at this time of year. Remarking how easily we’re sucked into the holiday frenzy, she cited the famous episode in Luke 10.38-42, where Jesus visits His disciple, Martha. Luke all but says He arrives without warning. Martha welcomes Him to her house. But once she’s got Him situated, she gets preoccupied with proving she’s a worthy host. (Her theme song could be “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake”.) While she’s making dinner, pulling out china, changing linens, and—if she’s like a lot of us—hiding clutter she’d rather Jesus not see, her sister, Mary, shows up.

Finding Martha’s left Jesus alone, Mary takes a seat beside Him on the floor, never offering to help her sister. The longer she and Jesus talk the more agitated Martha gets. It takes little imagination to read the thoughts stewing in Martha’s brain while she stirs her pots. Mary knows I’m devoted to Jesus and how humiliated I’ll be if everything’s not perfect… She wouldn’t even be here if He weren’t here—and He’s here because I’m here… If she were any kind of sister, she’d take over so I could visit with Him… Listen to her! Finally, she snaps. She storms out of the kitchen and does that nasty thing we’ve all done—or, at least, thought of doing—when family or friends get under our skin: she tries to shame Mary in front of her Guest. But Martha’s so addled she overshoots and embarrasses Jesus. “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me,” she wails. (v40)

Seeking Attention

Let’s leave Martha’s head and slip into Jesus’s shoes. What would we say to a host so wound up about impressing us that she completely loses it and blurts out, “Can’t you see the pressure I’m under because you dropped in out of the blue?” Surely Martha doesn’t mean that. Still, it’s what we’d hear. We’d reach for a tactful exit speech: “We’re so sorry. Why don’t we do this another time, when you’ve had a chance to prepare and we can all enjoy ourselves?” Jesus isn’t so quick to let Martha off the hook, however. He came to her house, she welcomed Him, and He wants to stay. He’s seeking attention, not looking to be impressed. We watch Jesus sympathetically shake His head as He says, “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.” (v41-42)

Before Sherry mentioned it, I never perceived this story as an incisive Advent allegory. Yet now that I think about it, I’m not sure the Gospels provide a better example of how readily we get caught up with the details of Christmas—spending all of our time in the kitchen, if you will, making sure everything’s perfect, and smoothing over our preoccupations by insisting the Christ Child deserves our very best. While we rush though more errands than one day can comfortably contain, juggle more to-do lists than we can manage, thumb through recipes, write menus, hang lights and tinsel, move furniture to make room for the tree and all that goes with it, our Guest sits in a corner, waiting for us to give Him what He values most and most deserves—our attention.

What must He think, as we subject ourselves to unbearable stress, ostensibly to prove our worthiness and devotion? What does He hear, when we say our excessive doing and giving and getting is “what Christmas is all about”? How does He respond, after feeling pushed beyond the breaking point turns our carols into complaints? We know what we’d do. We’d politely take our leave and postpone future visits to a vague “later,” which we may hope will never come. Not Jesus. He came to us, we invited Him in, and He wants to stay.

The Better Part

Listen to what He says: “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” The commercialization of Jesus’s birth—feeding off the unfortunate marriage of Christ’s Mass to winter solstice rituals and symbols—preys on our desire to exalt this holy day above all others. We talk endlessly about “the meaning of Christmas” and “Christmas memories.” We break our backs to serve the most fabulous feast ever. Then we clear it away, wash the dishes, and give thanks we’ve got a year before having to do it all over again. We photograph our festivities, hanging on to every moment. Then we store our videos and pictures with past Christmases and, but for rare occasions when we pull them out, forget they’re there. Meanwhile, the better part of Christmas—the truly meaningful, memorable part—is lost because we’ve not given it attention it deserves. Yet when we pry our focus from the feast and its trimmings and attend to our Guest, what we receive stays with us for life.

If deciding how best to celebrate Christmas were as simple as either/or, we’d be immune to Martha Syndrome. We’d turn off the oven, put the credit cards away, and ignore the clock in order to spend more time with Jesus. Realistically, though, Christmas is a yes-and proposition. Yes, first and foremost, we must see that Jesus is given the attention He seeks. And we must take care to show Him the honor He rightfully deserves. We go wrong where Martha goes wrong. The unexpected privilege of welcoming Christ into our homes and lives throws us off kilter. The occasion stops being about Him to become all about us. Sure, we’re aware He’s there—and surely He’s aware that we’ll get to Him as soon as we’re finished with fine things we want to do because He’s there. Nonetheless, we should be clear-headed about our choices during this, the most sacred of all seasons. Displaying devotion to Christ is secondary to what Christ seeks. “I need only one thing,” He says, “and that’s the better part.” Not the whole part, the better part. Ever the gracious Guest, Jesus realizes how thrilled we are to have Him with us. He understands our compulsion to go beyond the ordinary because of how much He means to us. No matter how crazy we get, He wants to stay. But He also wants us to learn the “us” part isn’t the better part of Christmas. The “Him” part is.

Cherished Guest, forgive our vulnerability to frivolous worries and distractions. Cure us of Martha Syndrome. Help us to see the better part of Christmas is the only thing You need; the rest can wait while we honor You with our attention. We welcome You and pray You find us worthy of Your presence. Amen.

It’s the classic Christmas dilemma: we mean well, but the season’s high spirits carry us away. While we’re stressing over every little detail, our Guest is left waiting for us to provide the only thing He needs.

Postscript: The Antidote for Martha Syndrome

We don’t need to make everything pretty and perfect for Jesus. All we have to do is throw open the door and say, “What a marvelous surprise! The place is a mess, but let’s not worry about that. Make Yourself at home. Tell me what You need and I’ll be a most attentive host.” Few songs capture that Christmas spirit better than Bob Bennett’s “You’re Welcome Here”.


claire said...

How wise you and your friend Sherry are. Thank you so much for this, Tim. It is so hard not to want to have the Best Christmas Ever, not so much in the attention part but in the fussing about part...

Even though the Advent part of this season will go in quietness and silence, I know that comes Christmas eve and the arrival of our children and grandchildren, my Martha is going to be a royal pain...

You'll have me ponder all of this throughout the season.

Thank you.

Sherry Peyton said...

Oh so well said Tim. You simply pointed out the very essence of where Martha was wrong, but not for bad motives, simply because she thought it mattered so much that all was perfection for Jesus. Jesus never demands perfection does he? Only our honest best. And in the midst of turmoil, he urges us to stop, take a breath, center ourselves in Him, and then examine anew the situation. Once we do that, we can gain the perspective, to attend to what needs attending and laugh off all the rest of the "shoulds" that really aren't shoulds at all, but merely ornamentation that serves to hide our fears that we aren't good enough. Blessings, Sherry

Tim said...

Claire, Sherry's mention of Martha set off a wave of personal urgency for me. The clouds of "so-much-to-do" were gathering overhead even as the holy quiet of Advent was settling in below. I could feel the tension begin. And here was a perfect example of going the wrong way for all the right reasons. Balancing the advertising and store-bought hoopla--a high-pressure tactic here in the States--with the gift of contemplative expectancy is almost a fine art. One fights the weariness of warding off the commercial aspects while also trying to reserve the energy it takes to give Advent its due. Sherry's comment handed me a vital key to winning this battle and I felt compelled to pass it on ASAP. Along this journey I'm sure we'll all find ourselves saying, "Martha, Martha..." And I join in you in pondering this in our travels. May we all be blessed to choose the better part!

Sherry, first, thank you for the inspiration. But your comment here also touches a very real psychological nerve that I don't think we consider: the subconscious drive to overdo the holiday trimmings as compensation for our inadequacies. As I often do when recapping Bible narratives--being the movie buff that I am--I sort of cast the scene in my head. I saw Martha as a Meryl Streep type, a beautiful, highly intelligent woman who's so keenly attuned to her gifts and deficits that she becomes rigid in her pursuit of excellence. Nothing short of perfection will do. Meanwhile, Mary reminds me of a Barbara Hershey character, no less intelligent, yet remarkably at ease with herself and, hence, more perceptive about what matters most in each moment. I think both characters exhibit tremendous purity, albeit of very different kinds. And together they personify the polarity of the season--the desire to please versus the instinct to be pleasing. And therein lay the conflict we all wrestle with.

Thank you both for the light you've brought to this topic.

Many, many blessings,