Being Martha/Being Peter: The Other Lessons of Maundy Thursday

Jan-Erasmus Quellinus/Adriaen van Utrecht, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” (17th c.)

In November of 1997, I attended North Carolina Episcopal Cursillo, a short course in Christian living modeled after a movement that began in Spain in 1944 to train lay leaders in the Roman Catholic Church. The three-day spiritual pilgrimage alters lives as it trains servant leaders in piety, study, and action through talks, group discussions, a healing service, Holy Eucharist, and lots and lots of eating and praying and singing. We learned that our highest calling is to live the prayer of Saint Teresa of Ávila:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

In short, we learned to be servants. We learned to be Martha–without the sniveling. Sadly, what most people know of Martha (if anything, in our secular age) is that Jesus chided her for being obsessed with the housework:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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 10:38-42).

I believe, however, that this narrow view of the whiny and anal-retentive Martha misses the point of her inclusion in the gospel accounts. Not only is she presented as a woman of extreme hospitality, opening her home and providing food and lodging to Jesus and his followers, as amply illustrated in the interpretation reproduced above. She is also the woman of profound faith who runs to meet Jesus on the road after the death of her brother, Lazarus, and appeals to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (John 11: 21b-22). And Martha is seen again, later in John’s gospel. The day before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus dines at the home of Lazarus and his sisters; Martha serves, while Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfumes.

As Paul reminds the Corinthians, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12: 4-6).  Clearly, Martha’s gift is her servant heart, and it is that humble heart we learned to emulate at Cursillo.

For some of us, though–especially women of a certain age–the servant rôle is the most natural one. We may not serve in a Christlike manner–i.e. out of unconditional love–but we are instinctive caregivers. We feed the babies, comfort the bereaved, care for the sick and the dying. On a more mundane level, we prepare the food and sweep the floors and clean the toilets. Some, indeed, are comfortable only when performing these behind-the-scenes tasks of servant ministry, shying away from the more visible tasks of teaching and witnessing and praying in public.

At Cursillo, we sang “The Servant Song” by Richard Gillard, in which the singer promises to be a servant, a companion, a comforter, a light-bearer, a peace-speaker. But the first verse ends with a desideratum that discomfits many:

Won’t you let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

Yes, I have found, being a servant–even a humble, loving servant–comes naturally. We shy away, however, from that special and profound level of humility that inheres in being served.

I understand that the strongest message of this day in Holy Week is the customary one; we call it Maundy Thursday, after all, from the Latin mandatum: “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). However, this day can also teach us another lesson–the one Peter learned.

Ford Madox Brown, “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” (1852-1856)

Having completed my Cursillo weekend, I was eligible for the inestimable privilege of serving in the Kairos Prison Ministry. As part of our rigorous training before entering the women’s prison, we held a foot-washing ceremony similar to the ones that take place across the globe on Maundy Thursday. With soft and contemplative music playing in the background, we lined up to wash and be washed. I found washing the feet of my Kairos sister an honor and a privilege. But then it was my turn. My racing thoughts were filled with foot odor and rough calluses and puffy ankles.

Imagine, then, the plight of Peter, so sensitively portrayed above:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:3-8). 

Of course, Peter could not say no to Jesus. Nor could I say no to my kind and loving Kairos sister, who was obeying his commandment anew. We enact the love in our hearts by serving others, but we must also learn to accept love from the ministering hearts and hands of others. Doing so is indeed a signature of grace.

Won’t you let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

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