Greetings. I am Dr. Shanon Sterringer, a certified pastoral minister in the Diocese of Cleveland. I have been a parish minister for 20 years. I am also the executive director of The HILDEGARDEN, a sacred space of prayer, peace, and light. Our non-profit center aims to develop the mind, body, and spirit in the manner and inspiration of St. Hildegard of Bingen who, among her other talents, was a powerful preacher and whose spirit is certainly present with us here today.
The stories of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are among the most loved, and retold of the stories of the New Testament. In a few words, the parts of the story we often remember are that Martha was a doer, Mary was a learner, and poor Lazarus was an example. These characters appear in two of the four Gospels :– Luke and John. We just heard the powerful theological discourse in John’s Gospel between Martha and Jesus in which Martha boldly confesses Jesus as the Messiah. Yet, one can hardly listen to this story without the words from Luke’s Gospel ringing, “Martha, Martha you are busy about many things….” Martha’s extraordinary witness in today’s text has become clouded in our memory because it has been overshadowed by Luke’s story in which Jesus affirms Mary’s actions as the “better portion,” leaving the reader to assume that Martha did not quite understand who Jesus was or what discipleship involved. John’s Gospel, however, presents a very different image of Martha. She emerges in this text as one of the few figures in the Scriptures who actually gets it.
This story from John’s Gospel is etched in our memories as “The Raising of Lazarus” because it prepares us in the text for Christ’s own death and resurrection and the promise of what lies ahead for all of us. We remember Lazarus as the key figure, but a closer reading of the text reveals Lazarus is not an active character; he is passive. He is used as a witness to God’s glory, but he did not engage in any active role. The active characters in this text are Martha, Mary, and Jesus.
Martha, though busy about many things, is fundamentally a theologian. She engages Jesus in theological discourse and she proclaims his divinity. She understands who Jesus is as well as the work that needs to be done. Jesus addresses her with dignity, as he would address any of his disciples. He does not relegate her to a subservient role, but elevates her as a profound witness. She truly knows and trusts in Jesus, yet she needs the example of her sister Mary to keep her balanced and focused. Jesus secretly asks for Mary in this text because the presence of both sisters was necessary before he performs the miracle of resurrecting Lazarus.
The characters of Mary and Martha are often set up in opposition to one another – the contemplative versus the active. I suggest that rather than separating and labeling the two as distinct we should embrace them as two aspects of one – the soul and the ego.
Martha represents our ego which is always struggling not only to survive in this difficult world, but to make sense of who we are and what we are called to be. The ego, at its best, helps us to find a way to carve out the time to sit and meditate at the Lord’s feet while still maintaining our responsibilities to others. It is what motivates and guides us to become who we are. We need our ego to stay alive – to maneuver through a world that inundates us with tasks and responsibilities. The ego motivates us to become the people we are created to be. When left unchecked, however, the ego can begin to take on a life of its own. It can cause us to be so focused on our own will – advancing our careers, gaining power and recognition, earning lots of money – it can easily cause us to become distracted from God.
If Martha is the ego, then Mary represents our soul which Christ seeks out in secret. Our soul longs to rest in the presence of Christ. St. Augustine beautifully stated: “Our souls are restless until they rest in God.” It is the secret call of the Lord, which comes in the busy-ness of our everyday lives that awakens us to understand who we are and who God is. It is the voice that calls us back to a sacred place we tend to so easily forget.
I believe the examples of Martha and Mary are not presented to us in these texts to be compared as though one is superior to the other, as they are often interpreted. But rather, they need to be read through a holistic lens. Each one of us is created with an ego and a soul. Both are necessary for us to survive and thrive. The ego can certainly become destructive if it loses its appreciation for and connection to the soul; if it fails to trust in divine providence and instead looks to itself for salvation. A simple definition of Original Sin is the separation of the soul from God by an ego that has forgotten who God is and therefore who we were created to be. Our entire journey from that fallen place– the whole of Salvation History – has been the movement of God on our behalf to restore the wholeness that was fractured when the ego split from the soul.
Lazarus, though not an active character in this story, represents the profound gift of grace: the miracle we experience when our trust in God is strong enough to integrate our ego and soul.
We pray on this Fifth Sunday of Lent that we might find the courage and wisdom to honestly discern what aspects of our life are broken, so that we might respond to the call of the Lord to grow in wholeness and holiness. We celebrate the witness of both Martha and Mary as we continue on our journey towards Holy Week. And we pray that we too might confidently proclaim in word and deed as Martha did: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God."
Dr. Shanon Sterringer is the Founder and Executive Director of The HILDEGARDEN, a non-profit holistic spiritual center in Northeast Ohio.
She holds a Ph.D. (2016) from Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her dissertation was entitled Empowered by the Living Light: Who Was the 12th Century Nun, Hildegard of Bingen and What Does She Have to Say to Ecclesial Leadership Today? and received the 2017 Marvin B. Sussman Dissertation Award. She holds a Doctor of Ministry (2012) and Master of Arts in theology (2017), both from St. Mary's Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland, OH. She also holds a Master of Arts in Ministry from Ursuline College in Pepperpike, OH (2011).
In addition to her role at The HILDEGARDEN, Sterringer is a Cleveland Diocesan certified Roman Catholic Lay Ecclesial Minister and has served as in parish ministry for 20 years. She is married with 3 daughters (ages 15, 19, 24).
In 2016 Sterringer self-published An Enchanted Journey, describing the call (vocation) to walk in the footsteps of St. Hildegard and Hildegard at the Hive.
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