ST. MARY AND ST. MARTHA OF BETHANY & THE BLACK AND WHITE COOKIE
Johannes Vermeer, 1655
St. Mary and St. Martha of Bethany were born around the same time as Jesus. They were the sisters of St. Lazarus and Jesus’s devoted, authentic friends upon whom he relied and visited often. After Pentecost, it’s believed the three siblings traveled to Cyprus where Lazarus became the First Bishop of Kittim. All three are said to have died peacefully there.
They are honored together in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican (including Episcopal) Churches on July 29 and in the Eastern Orthodox Church on June 4. Eastern Orthodoxy also celebrate Mary and Martha as Myrrh-Bearing Women on the second Sunday after Easter, and Lazarus on Lazarus Saturday on the day before Palm Sunday.
We need a combination of Gospel accounts to get the full story on Mary and Martha. Let’s start with the Gospel of Luke:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10:38-42
Arguments about who had the correct character, Mary or Martha, have been going on for ages. Jesus seemed pretty clear that contemplative beats active in his response to Martha. But, even those words can take on multiple meanings. Some scholars suggest that Martha’s spirituality was more advanced than her sister’s so she didn’t have to spend a lot of time learning and practicing. Instead, she could be active in her spiritual service to Jesus and the community.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that Jesus has called her out on her fretfulness. We don’t know how Martha reacted to his words. How would we react to this? Would we feel scolded or relieved that our special guest isn’t concerned about the food on the table or the other details of his stay with us. Take a load off, Martha, it’ll all work out.
Next, we have Lazarus starring as the silent man raised from the dead in this account from the Gospel of John:
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So, the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So, then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So, they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” John 11:1-44
This is a long passage and much goodness to digest. My favorite part of this whole story is the way in which Martha and Mary treat Jesus. They sent for him to heal their brother. When he didn’t arrive on time, they let him know how that made them feel. Then when he promised Martha he’d take care of Lazarus and when he wept with Mary, they were comforted.
Can you imagine how it would then feel to witness Jesus calling your brother back to full life and then hugging Lazarus, laughing and rejoicing with him? I mean, how long did Jesus have to wait for Martha to serve dinner that night, I wonder.
Dieric Bouts, 1440
Now we get to the woman with the alabaster jar. I have to show three versions: Mark and Matthew write almost identical versions. Here it is in Matthew:
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” — Matthew 26:6-13
Luke writes a longer version referring to the woman as a sinner and includes a parable about not judging people for their past sins but to focus on their current acts:
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:36-50
As much as I love the Gospel of Luke with it’s readability, angels, and life lessons galore, I’m gonna have to go with John’s version here because he puts the story in time and place, and he names the key characters. The fact that Mary of Bethany is a character and not a caricature of a sinning woman is my main point:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” – John 12:1-8
Back when I first studied St. Mary Magdalene, I hadn’t read the Gospel of John yet so I went along with some scholars who wrote that Mary Magdalene was the woman with the alabaster jar in the three Gospels where the woman is not identified. I have since edited that post.
For the record, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are not the same person and neither one was a prostitute. Stinking Pope Gregory the “Great” and his ridiculous homily. I mean, come on dudes, it wasn’t even a full sermon. Check your patriarchy at the door, if you please.
Mary and Martha of Bethany loved Jesus as their Lord and Savior, their rabbi, and their friend. They showed their love for Him each in their own way, because they were individuals and Jesus not only allowed this, he encouraged it. Take note, fellow individuals.
Eastern Orthodoxy has Mary and Martha among the group of women who stood below the Crucifix at Golgotha and celebrates them as Myrrh-Bearing Women along with Mary Magdalene and other female followers of Jesus.
The Orthodox Church also teaches that Lazarus and his sisters escaped Jerusalem after the stoning of St. Stephen. They traveled and preached together until Lazarus became the first Bishop of Kittim, modern-day Larnaca in Cyprus, where they later died peaceful deaths.
O God, heavenly Father, your Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Mary and Martha 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 for ever. Amen – Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2018
Okay, who’d you pick? Which one do you align with more? It’s Mary for me. But, also Martha. That’s the glorious thing about Mary and Martha of Bethany — we don’t have to choose. We get to combine their recipes for saintly living by emulating both of them.
Every day is 24 hours long. We are allowed to take breaks. Every week has a day dedicated to rest, prayer, and contemplation. No matter how heavy our workload of responsibilities, we can make time to “sit at the feet of Jesus” and listen to Him in contemplative prayer.
At other times, we can, as Jesus advised Martha, release our feelings and expressions of martyrdom and instead devote ourselves to our duties as a form of dedicated, active prayer.
For example, praying the Rosary is a devotion that helps us reach a deep level of contemplative prayer. The same can be said for cooking, baking, gardening, cleaning, caretaking – whatever your work is, whether you are being paid to do it or not.
It can all be a noble endeavor and a devotion to God, IF you intend it to be so and act accordingly.
Be careful here, though. Remember to engage in self care, say no to requests that don’t appeal, and delegate. Otherwise, what I’m suggesting above is a form of spiritual abuse that has been used throughout the ages to keep people in subjugation. Remember, you are an adult — you get to decide the heft of your own workload. If you’re not the one making that decision, something is very wrong. This is modern times, after all. Work and rest accordingly.
I love the comfortable, easy friendship Mary and Martha share with Jesus. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all have that with Him ourselves?
We can. As St. Ignatius of Loyola taught us, we can reach this level of friendship with Jesus via imaginative prayer as we zoom our attention into biblical scenes.
Imagine that Jesus visits your home regularly for a respite from his weary travels. How or what would you serve Him? What would you ask him? How deeply would you listen to Him?
I imagine myself inviting the lot of them to my home – Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Or better yet, I imagine I’m their neighbor in Bethany, stopping by to visit with them and their friend, the rabbi. Of course, I would never show up empty handed. I’d bring cookies.
Cookies that show us that some things in life are as simple as black and white. But if we take a chance and combine ideals, we can create a valuable nuanced mashup and a yummy mess of soulful goodness.
In honor of St. Mary and St. Martha of Bethany, let’s bake:
The Black and White Cookie
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
1 – 1/2 cup sugar
1 hefty teaspoon FRESH lemon zest
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk
3 /12 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking POWDER
1 teaspoon baking SODA
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 tablespoon buttermilk
1 tablespoon FRESH-SQUEEZED lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 or 2 Tablespoons hot water
3 tablespoons unsweetened FAIR TRADE cocoa powder
In a mixing bowl, blend butter and sugar with an electric mixer until smooth. Add lemon zest, vanilla extract, buttermilk, and eggs. Beat together until thoroughly combined.
In another bowl, stir together flour, salt, and baking powder and baking soda. Slowly add dry mix to liquid mixture to form sticky dough. Place in refrigerator to rest for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Drop 1/4 cup size amounts of dough onto parchment paper-covered cookie sheets. No more than six per sheet. Bake 15-17 minutes or until edges start to turn golden brown. Cool cookies on baking sheets for 10 minutes then transfer to wire rack to cool completely before icing.
In a mixing bowl, beat powered sugar, buttermilk, lemon juice, vanilla and about 1 tablespoon hot water until smooth and spreadable. Divide into two bowls. Leave one bowl as is.
In the other bowl, add cocoa powder and about tablespoon of hot water. Beat quickly with fork.
Turn all the cookies upside down. Spread the vanilla icing onto half of the flat size of each cookie. Spread chocolate icing onto the other side and allow the icing to set completely before serving or wrapping for storage and delivery to the neighbors and such.
(Pretend there’s a fresh lemon in this group photo instead of the bottled lemon juice and lemon extract.)
Bonus Material: A word on Lemons
If you don’t have a fresh lemon or a lemon zester in the house, you can use substitutes, but they will taste artificial. High quality lemon essential oil will not taste artificial, but it seems a waste of such a high quality product. That was what I learned when I was practicing this bake.
Then, I bakered up and decided that if I wanted to be a real baker like those on The Great British Baking Show who zest a lemon as their first task for many of their bakes, I had to buy a lemon zester and not be afraid that I would zest the bitter white part, or that I wouldn’t wash the lemon well enough beforehand. AND THEN, I realized I had a box lemon zester in my kitchen all along. It’s really easy peasy and it tastes so much better. Also, fresh lemon juice is far superior to bottled lemon juice.
Second Bonus Material: A word on Fair Trade Cocoa
I love that Saco Conscious Kitchen has teamed up with Kiva a charitable organization that enables people to loan money to people establishing micro or small businesses all over the world. I’ve loaned folks money in this way for years. Every time someone pays me back a full $25 loan, I lend it to someone else. It’s fun! Highly recommend. And also, buy fair trade chocolate. Always.
Bonus Material: “When life hands you a bowl full of lemons from Mom’s Meyers Lemon tree harvest, photobomb.”