The “House of Friendship” of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus

Bethany, July 29th, 2011

In Jesus’ time, Bethany – for the Arabs el ‘Azariya (Lazarus’ village) – would have been, as it still is today, a small village near Jerusalem on the side of the Mount of Olives, on the road leading to Jericho. It is a village where everything stands still, almost suspended in time as it sits on the fringe of the desert, like many others in this part of Palestine.

And yet, this place, lacking any apparent appeal, held a great treasure that Jesus himself was able to appreciate and the memory of which has come down to us. The house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus stands here, “the house of friendship” as Father Marcelo Cichinelli called it this morning in his homily at the solemn Holy Mass. The Mass was celebrated in the Franciscan Church built by the architect Antonio Barluzzi. Cardinal Giovanni Coppa, Emeritus Apostolic Nuncio in the Czech Republic was the con celebrant, honouring us with his participation.

Another more intimate Holy Mass was celebrated by Father Silvio De La Fuente early this morning, at 6.30 a.m., on the site of Lazarus’ tomb, about fifty metres from the Church.

At the end of the celebrations was the traditional procession, beginning at the tomb of Lazarus and moving toward the Mount of Olives, pausing at the Edicule of the Ascension of the Lord and at the Church of the Pater Noster. The procession was marked by passages from the Gospel, songs and prayers.

Today’s occasion is particularly dear to the Franciscan community as it was the Franciscans who, in 1262, were the first to introduce the Feast of Saint Martha, exactly eight days after the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, who for many years was erroneously identified with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. It is a feast close to the hearts of all, an event that commemorates an experience to which every man aspires and of which even God did not want to be deprived in his earthly story, namely friendship.

In the humble house in Bethany, far from the clamour of events, the “pilgrim Jesus”, who possessed nothing and did not even have anywhere “to rest his head” (Matthew 8,20), was welcomed as a friend. There he found Mary who, with her great attentiveness, gave everything and Mary who, listening silently and enraptured, sought the Truth with her whole being and felt that she brushed upon, sitting near to Jesus, the “ultimate things”, the intimate threshold of that monologue that each person has with the Absolute.

In this context, Martha’s inclination for the active life and Mary’s inclination for the contemplative life are seemingly in contrast with one another. In fact, these two attitudes intersect and harmonize in a single model, as Jacques Maritain observes, on the path towards the perfection of love – “action is overabundance of contemplation”. Saint Francis himself wanted the friars to learn how to combine the active and contemplative life, bringing together this polarity, as in the house in Bethany, through being educated for the sobriety of life. The friendship of Martha, Mary and Lazarus with Jesus is essential not only because it evokes the supernatural dimension that gives it substance, but also because it draws on the essence of the subjects that take part in it, making unhoped-for spiritual and affective resources available. Those who seek the essential can only vow themselves to sobriety because the essential is by its very nature bare of superfluous frills, rigorous, orderly and challenging; it is the gesture of the human, the seal of the pact of intimacy and mutual responsibility made with God.

“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11,5). It is the “mad love” of God for his creatures, a love that is so perfect as to be “personal” and “universal” at one and the same time, a friendship that is so pure as to become absolute com-passion. In the family at Bethany Jesus experiences the “great love” that gives trust in the world and which shatters absurdity and solitude and, in turn, paradoxically gives definitive hope to the death of Lazarus, to console forever his weeping sisters before his tomb.

Such a great human event took place in a remote house in Bethany. How true are the words of Archibald J. Cronin, who in his novel The Keys of the Kingdom writes, “Do not think that heaven is in the sky, it is in the palm of your hand, it is everywhere and can be anywhere.”

Text by Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Giovanni Zennaro

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