My mother had a prayer in her kitchen that went: “Be with me Lord for though I have Martha’s hands I have Mary’s heart.” Before we had a real understanding of the divine value of the layperson’s daily work, many considered prayer the only human activity that mattered in the long run. People commonly thought of life’s ordinary demands as obstacles to contemplating God’s greatness and contemplation was the path to union with God. Mary, of the Martha and Mary story, became the patron saint of those who wanted to pray but were kept from it by demands such as raising a family or milling grain. They could only hope that God would understand and be generous with them despite of their messy, earth-centered lives.
In the decades after Vatican II a growing number of lay people and clergy came to appreciate daily work performed with love and justice as The Spirit’s action in people that was constructing God’s future. It was an eye-opening time for the bulk of the Church. Millions of us came to a new understanding of why we were here. We understood that we weren’t passive participants in life waiting to be sanctified by someone else.
Yet people also took a second look at the story of Martha and Mary. The task of creating a just and loving world is immense. It’s endlessly demanding and constantly frustrated by interests intent on protecting power by maintaining the status quo. The cross that confronted Jesus hasn’t miraculously vanished in the past 2000 years.
How does a person dedicated to the world God is creating keep hope in the face of the immensity of the task? How do we keep joy in the face of so many failures? How do we relax when the work is never done and so many people endure harsh suffering for lack of justice? How do we keep from getting so caught up in the task that we lose sight of the promise?
When the Messiah in sitting in the living room, it’s not time to cook and scrub. There are millions hungry mouths to be fed and millions of problems to be solved. There are cures to be found and tyrannies to be ended. There are homes to be built and fields to be tended. We can’t postpone the work of God’s creation. But we also must grasp our opportunities to re-experience God’s love for us and re-hear the promise of his future. It’s a matter of focus. It’s a matter of balance. It’s a matter of survival.