by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov
The Saviour of the world, during His pilgrimage on earth in this vale of our exile and sufferings, visited two pious women, natural sisters, Martha and Mary, living close to Jerusalem in the village of Bethany where they had their own house. The sisters had a brother, Lazarus, who was granted to be called the friend of the God-Man and of His Apostles (John 11:11). From the Gospel it appears that the Lord often visited the house of this pious family...
St. Luke relates that during one of these visits Martha was busy with the entertainment of the longed-for Guest, while Mary sat at His feet and attended to His word. Anxious only that the hospitality should be perfectly satisfactory, Martha asked the Lord to order her sister to help her. But the Lord replied: Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her.
According to the explanation of the Holy Fathers, Martha mystically represents pious bodily labor, and Mary--spiritual. The story of this visitor the Lord to the two sisters is read, according to the Church typicon, on all the feasts of the Mother of God. For these two reasons, a study of the account and the lesson it contains is particularly meaningful and edifying.
Martha was the eldest sister and is represented by the Evangelist as the mistress of the house. It is she who receives the Saviour into the house, provides the hospitality, prepares the food, clears the table, brings the dishes. And bodily labor, in point of time, occupies the first place in the ascetic life of every disciple of Christ. "Bodily labor," says St. Isaac the Syrian, "precedes spiritual labor, just as the creation of Adam's body preceded the creation of his soul. He who does not perform bodily labor cannot perform spiritual labor; the latter is born of the former, as an ear [of wheat] is born of a mere grain. Bodily labor consists in the fulfillment of the Evangelical commandments with the body. it includes the giving of material alms, the reception of pilgrims, participation in the various needs and sufferings of humanity. It includes chastity of body, refraining from anger, luxury, amusements and distraction, from mockery and gossip, from all words which express malice and impurity of heart. It includes fasting, vigil, psalm-singing, prostrations, standing at prayer in church and in the cell. It includes monastic obedience and other outward labors. Bodily labor requires continuous activity: it passes from one bodily good work to another and is sometimes made up of several good works perform ed at the same time.
Bodily labor gradually cleanses the soul from the passions and acquaints it with the spirit of the Gospel. The Evangelical commandments, when put into practice, gradually transmit to the doer Truth, Spirit and Life. Bodily labor, however, has its limit and end. This is the final passage from action to contemplation. The gradual change is crowned by this decisive change, Martha's labor ended when her service to the Lord was completed.
The position assumed by Mary serves to represent the state of that soul which has been deemed worth y to enter the spiritual contest. This is a state both of calm and humility, as St. Barsanouphius the Great said: "True silence of heart is produced by interior activity united to pain of heart (with weeping of heart). Such a silence generates humility; and humility makes man a dwelling place of God,"
He who has reached the state of spiritual service to God abandons outward works, abandons the care of pleasing God by other means, or uses them moderately and infrequently, in cases of particular need. With his spirit he lies prostrate at the feet of the Saviour, attends exclusively to His word, acknowledges himself as a creature of God and not a self-made being; he acknowledges himself to be cultivated by God, Who is the husbandman; he entirely surrenders himself to the will and guidance of the Saviour. It is evident that such a state is granted to the soul through more or less extensive bodily labor. Mary, too, could not have sat at the feet of the Lord and concentrated all her attention upon His teaching if Martha had not taken upon herself the cares of hospitality. The service and worship of God in Spirit and truth is that good part, that blessed state which, though beginning during our earthly life, does not cease--as do bodily labors--with the end of earthly life. The good part remains the inseparable property of the soul in eternity; in eternity it receives its full realization. The good pant is not taken away from the soul which has acquired it, but remains for ever its own.
Bodily labor is often deprived of its fruit by a grave defect. This defect occurs when the ascetic practices the labor unreasonably, when he ascribes to the labor an undue value, when he accomplishes bodily labors for their own sake, erroneously including in them and limiting to them his very way of life and his entire service to God. Disparagement of spiritual labor and the endeavor to draw away from it those who practice it, are always combined with such wrong evaluation. Such was the case with Martha. She considered Mary's behavior incorrect and insufficient, and her own more valuable, more worthy of esteem. While not rejecting Martha's service, the merciful Lord gently pointed out that in her service there was much of what is needless and vain, and that Mary's was the essential activity. By this remark the Lord cleansed Martha's labor from high-mindedness and taught her to perform bodily service with humility...
It is very useful for those who practice bodily labor to know that there is another labor incomparably higher. This is spiritual labor which is overshadowed by Divine grace. "He who does not perform spiritual labor," Bodily and Spiritual Labor says St. Isaac the Syrian, "is devoid of spiritual gifts," whatever his bodily labors may be. This great guide of monks likens bodily labor in itself--without the cooperation of the activity of the mind in the heart--to a barren womb and dry breasts, because bodily activity [alone] cannot bring one any nearer to the knowledge of God. We see this in Martha. She was so engrossed in her work, so sure of its importance, that she did not ask the Lord for directions pleasing to Him, but offered her own understanding and direction and prayed that they might be fulfilled.
Why is the reading of this Gospel story appoint ed by the Holy Church for all the feasts of the Mother of God? Because the Mother of God offered the God-man the most sublime bodily service and the most sublime service of the spirit, and treasured all His sayings in her heart, kept everything that happened to Him from His infancy and everything concerning Him and pondered them in her heart.
This interpretation is made clear by the addition to the reading of a passage from the next chapter: the exclamation addressed to the Lord by a certain woman who had heard His teaching: "Blessed is the womb that bare Thee, and the paps which Thou hast sucked," and the Divine response: "Yea, rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it." This is God's reply to human judgment! Human judgment regarded the Mother of God as blessed solely for having given birth to the God-man. The God-man raises the dignity of the Mother of God by calling especially blessed those who "hear the word of God and keep it." The Mother of God had this happiness above all men by attending to the words of the God-man and keeping them with such love as no one had. Here again is shown the superiority of the, service of the spirit over bodily service, contrary to human judgment.
...Those who wish to enter the service of the Lord with the aim of receiving Him into the house of their soul and giving Him rest in the way He has commanded, must begin with bodily labor, with the performing of the Gospel commandments by means of bodily actions. Our soul was created in union with the body; it is dependent on it on account of the Fall. Bodily actions cause it to be infected with sinful diseases, passions. At the same time it is by means of bodily actions that passions are destroyed and good habits and virtues are implanted in it .... Prudent bodily labor, based on the word of God and enlightened by the word of God, greatly assists in liberating a man from sin and in making him a friend of virtue, a servant of Christ. Such bodily labor awakens in the shortest time spiritual labor--which is able to impart salvation.
Bodily labor, both cold and heated, is alien to spiritual things; it is alien to that spiritual knowledge which is required by the word of God and which should be the soul of bodily labor. Such labor is destructive. It leads to self-esteem, to contempt and condemnation of our neighbors; it leads to self delusion, builds up an inner Pharisee, estranges the soul from God and unites it to satan.
When the grace of God abundantly overshadows the spiritual athlete, there is manifest in him abundant bodily labor which leads to Christian perfection. Then there is revealed to the soul its sinfulness which previously had been hidden from it! Then a curtain is removed from its sight and the broad vista of eternity--which hitherto had been hidden from it-appears before the soul. Then the hour of death, which stood somewhere far away, draws near and stands before the soul, before its very eyes! Then earthly life, which hitherto had appeared endless, is reduced to the briefest dimensions; past life is like a dream of the past night! The remaining lap of life dwindles down to the hour of death. Then from the depth of the soul arise groans hitherto unknown to it, arises weeping which hitherto it had never experienced, arises prayer which hitherto it had not uttered. Prayer and weeping rise from the very depth of the soul, are uttered with mind and heart (the mouth being silent), ascend to heaven, cast the person at the feet of the Saviour, praying, and keep him there. The soul, through confession of its sinfulness and the infinite majesty of God, enters into perfection, is led to perfection by the right hand of the all-gracious God Who created man and creates him anew, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, Who forgives all thy sins, Who heals all thy diseases, Who redeems thy life from corruption, Who crowns thee with mercy and compassion." Thy eternal youth "is renewed as the eagle's" by the omnipotence of the Saviour Who renewed our nature in Himself and renews u s through Himself. Amen.
by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov (Reprinted from "Orthodox Life," March April, 1950)[OA/_private/oabot.htm]