Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus

St Martha, Mary and Lazarus (Memorial)

Martha and Mary were sisters and lived with their brother Lazarus in Bethany, a town not far from Jerusalem.

Jesus seems to have been a regular visitor and, on one occasion, he gently reproved Martha for her complaint that her sister Mary was not helping her in the preparation of the meal. The words of Jesus were later represented as indicating the excellence of the contemplative life, represented by Mary, over the cares of the active life, represented by Martha.

In the Gospel of John, Martha also appears on the occasion of the raising of Lazarus, when the expression of her faith in Jesus and his divine power was the occasion for the great statement, “I am the resurrection and the life” and for the miracle of Lazarus’ return to life. John also records that Jesus was again in their house six days before his last Passover and that Martha was serving the meal. Basically, these three events are all that we really know about Martha.

But, as in the case of many Gospel personalities, legends grew up around Martha and her family. Mary, too, in some of these legends was identified with Mary Magdalen, an interpretation not normally supported by modern commentators. There was a medieval legend that Martha, Mary Magdalen and Lazarus were responsible for the evangelisation of the district of Provence in France. Martha’s remains were said to have been discovered and put in a shrine at Tarascon in 1187.

Pictures of Martha reflect both the Gospel stories and the legends. She is invoked as the patron of housewives and lay sisters in religious congregations. She is shown with a ladle, a broom, or a bunch of keys.

Martha is also represented with a dragon, which she was supposed to have tamed at Tarascon by sprinkling it with holy water. She then wrapped her sash around its neck before bringing it to Arles where it was killed. She is also represented in scenes of the raising of Lazarus, for example, in the Romanesque sculpture at Chichester cathedral in England.

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