This little family of Bethany were Jesus’ friends who opened their home to him, and it was at their house that he found refreshment during his earthly ministry. The depth of affection and love that they had for Jesus, and he for them, is evident in the Gospel narratives about them, most particularly in the story of Lazarus death in the Gospel according to John. The names of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, on various dates, appear in lists of martyrs from the seventh and eighth centuries.
Mary, a form of Miriam, is portrayed in the tenth chapter of Luke and the eleventh chapter of John as a contemplative person with a single-minded absorption in the kingdom of God. In John’s account, at dinner six days before the Passion, Mary anointed Jesus, perhaps as a sign of his royal dignity, which he took to be a consecration of himself for his approaching sacrifice.
Martha, whose name means “lady” or “mistress”, has come rather unfairly to represent the unrecollected activist. She was of a practical turn to be sure, but she enjoyed the friendship and esteem of Jesus nonetheless, and it was she who made the confession of faith when Jesus came after the death of Lazarus, “I believe that your are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
In the tenth chapter of Luke the house where the three siblings lives is called Martha’s. In the twelfth chapter of John the supper at Bethany at which Lazarus was present and at which Martha again served, is held at the house of Simon the leper. This has led some to suggest that Mary may have been the widow of Simon.
Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus, is in the Fourth Gospel a sign of the eternal life possessed by those who believe. Lazarus’ character is evidenced by the love that Mary, Martha, and Jesus all had for him.
Devotion to Lazarus was apparently widespread in the early Church. He is commemorated in the Eastern Church on the Saturday before the Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday), called “Lazarus Saturday”, which anticipates the resurrection of Jesus on the following Saturday night. According to a curious legend, Lazarus, his sisters, and some friends were put in a leaky boat by their enemies and miraculously made their way to Cyprus where Lazarus was made a bishop. In 890 what were thought to be his relics were taken to Constantinople and a church was built there in his honor. In an eleventh century legend, Lazarus had been bishop of Marseilles and was martyred under Domitian. (The legend perhaps confuses Lazarus of Bethany with the fifth century Bishop Lazarus of Aix.)
from The New Book of Festivals and Commemorations
(Phillip Pfatteicher, Fortress Press © 2008), with amendments
O God, heavenly Father, your Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany: Give us the will to love you, open our hearts to hear you, and strengthen our hands to serve you in others for his sake; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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Lo! I come with joy to do the Master’s blessed will,
him in outward works pursue, and serve his pleasure still;
faithful to my Lord’s commands, I still would choose the better part,
serve with careful Martha’s hands, and loving Mary’s heart.
from the text, “For a Believer, in Worldly Business”, Charles Wesley (1747)
The icon of Saint Mary, Saint Martha, and Saint Lazarus is taken from the website of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery.