MARY HAS CHOSEN THE BEST PART AND IT WILL NOT BE TAKEN AWAY FROM HER. In a number of places and at various times, our Lord spoke of the need for true worshipers of God to devote themselves to the service of others. To assist the needy, to visit and help the sick, to feed the hungry, defend the rights of the weak, and similar acts of charity are essential expressions of devotion to God. So truly do these actions honor God that those who practice them, Jesus declared, will be found acceptable for the kingdom of God. Come, blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food to eat . . . I was a guest and you took me in (Mt 25:34, 35).'
In today's Gospel, Jesus emphasized another aspect of serving God: atention to his own person. At Bethany friends welcomed and cared for him, for in him they saw a special presence of God. He was a guest they took in, and the lady of the house, Martha, gave herself generously to the tasks that would assure his comfort. She welcomed him not only as friend, but as a prophet and in the name of a prophet. But her concern for his physical well-being proved distracting. As is regularly the case, involvement in material undertakings quickly becomes more complicated and demanding than we expect when we set out upon them. Martha', the Evangelist tells us, was pulled about ( )with all her service.' As she viewed it, Mary was getting all the attention; she herself has all the trouble. But, the Lord reminds her that, though it is well and good to provide for human needs, yet to remain in his presence, listening to his words, is something still better. Mary understood that and acted accordingly. It might even seem she selfishly neglected her share of the work. Certainly that is how Martha felt. But, no; the Lord defends her choice and chides Martha for being over-solicitous. Martha, Martha! You are anxious and upset about many things; only one is necessary. MARY HAS CHOSEN THE BEST PART AND IT WILL NOT BE TAKEN AWAY FROM HER.
We know how Christ's followers were to interpret his words as giving primacy to the word of God in their mission. Already in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke tells how, rather than take on the service of needy widows, the apostles appointed a group of deacons for this charge so that they might remain free to be occupied with the word of the Gospel. Later generations of believers would go still further and understand our Lord's teaching as a justification of a life totally dedicated to seeking God through the study and meditation of his inspired word, as far as human weakness permits. The one thing necessary that our Lord spoke of, they maintained, is contemplation, that is to say, loving desire that directs attention to the persons of the Trinity and the Incarnate Son of God, eventually to the point of union. After all, loving, worshipful attention, to God is to be our manner of existing for all eternity, as the book of Revelation makes clear to us in the form of divinely inspired visions. The greatest of the doctors of the Church, among them the holiest of saints, have described for us something of their experience by way of encouraging and directing us to pursue contemplative union with the Divine Trinity even now.
Today, in the Roman rite, is commemorated the Feast of St. Denis whose memory was confused with that of the great mystical theologian known as Denis the Areopagite. This latter introduces his book, Mystical Theology, with a concise description of his manner of striving for truly contemplative prayer.[M]y friend, my advice to you as you look for a sight of the mysterious things is to leave behind you everything perceived and understood, everything perceptible and understandable, all that is not and all that is, and, with your understanding laid aside, to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge [Mystical Theology'. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Colm Luibheid, tr.,(New York: Paulist, 1987) 135.]
As Mary of Bethany sat at the feet of Jesus taking in his words certainly her experience was, in some ways, far different from this intensely interior prayer. But the words Jesus spoke lodged in her heart. There they created a new life, more full than her own life knew from any other source: from human words, from imagination, from thought, from emotion. When the Lord returned to the Father and was no longer present to her senses, her prayer continued, moved by that same life that had entered her soul when she listened so single-mindedly to the words spoken by the Son of God in her home. We too, here at this mass, receive the living Word of God into our heart through the the Gospel we have just heard and through the Eucharist we are to receive. Like Mary, may we keep that Word always alive within us by lives of loving fidelity and persistent desire for union with our Lord.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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