16th Sunday of Ordinary time

This Sunday’s Gospel from St Luke (10: 38 – 42) recalls for us the story of Jesus visit to the house of Martha and Mary. Some no doubt will immediately take the line that Martha was the active type and Mary the passive or contemplative type, and that Jesus is simply affirming the importance of both and even the priority of devotion to him.

That devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story.

However, there is more in the story; a brave preacher may offer a reflection on rule-flouting!

Far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East and many other parts of the world to this day would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions. It is as though, in today’s world, you were to invite me to stay in your house and, when it came to go to bed, I was to put up a camp bed in your bedroom. We have our own clear but unstated rules about whose space is which; so, did they. And Mary has just flouted them. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so. She is ‘sitting at his feet’; a phrase which doesn’t mean what it would mean today, the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher. To sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that very practical world you wouldn’t do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself. A position entirely unthinkable for a woman in the social order of Jesus’ time.

Each of these preaching stances is valid.

I am going to suggest a third, and it is imaged for me in the painting I have chosen by the Dutch artist (1632 – 1675). Vermeer is best known, surely, for his painting titled “Girl with the Blue Earring”, and his works are among the greatest treasures in the world’s finest museums. Vermeer began his career in the early 1650s and one of his earliest works is a large-scale biblical scene with the title “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”.  The artwork dates from 1654 and hangs in the National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland.


Vermeer’s representation of the theme is focused totally on the three figures. Christ, because of his gesture and the soft glow that radiates from his head, is the dominant figure. Martha leans over to hear his words while Mary sits by his feet, her head resting on her hand.

There is an intimacy of persons in the scene; they obviously know each other well; the relaxed pose of Jesus and his comfort around women is evident. This may well be a lesson for us men, and especially clergy, today, namely to grow in our relationship with women from a position of equality. In Vermeer’s painting, the relaxed posture of Jesus only makes sense because of the presence of Martha and Mary. Jesus is bodily present to each of them. All three are in the same room, and in a sense occupy the same space in an acknowledging and relaxed way. There does not appear to be any competition for superiority in their stance.

Also, Vermeer has both women in a poise of listening – we sometimes have a busy Martha, running around in the kitchen with pots clanging and the fire-spitting in the range!

There is, too, a small detail, within the text, that, at times we can overlook, “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” (10:38). Did you spot it? ‘Welcomed him into her home’ – the home belonged to Martha! Our growing into a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus begins with our ‘welcoming [him] into our home’!

Birthday of Mary

This Wednesday we celebrate the feast of the Birth of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Have we missed the beat with Mary?

She appears, is named only a few times in the Gospel.

Many of the litanies and names of Mary were composed to hold a mirror up to Jesus and to name Mary.

For example Jesus is called the Redeemer, and so Mary is the co-Redemptrix.

By many, Jesus is called King, and so Mary is named as Queen (every King has to have a Queen, however the Son/Mother relationship does cause some questions?).

Mary appears by name in the Synoptic Gospels and in the book of Acts. Luke contains the most references to Mary and places the greatest emphasis on her role in God’s plan.

Mary is mentioned by name in the genealogy of Jesus, in the annunciation, in Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, in the birth of Jesus, in the visit of the wise men, in Jesus’ presentation in the temple, and in the Nazarene’s rejection of Jesus.

In Acts, she is referred to as “Mary, the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14), where she participates in the community of believers and prays with the apostles.

The Gospel of John never mentions Mary by name, but refers to the “mother of Jesus” in the account of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–11) and standing near the cross at the crucifixion (John 19:25–27).

(One author I once read suggested that Mary may well have appeared more often outside of the Gospels than within them!)

Mary is hardly present throughout the ministry of Jesus, or at least she is not named as being present.

Might I suggest that her not being present, or at least not being named is in fact her biggest being there!

What Jesus learned as a human person he learned from his human family, namely his mother, his human father, maybe his siblings, his grandparents, the village folk in Nazareth, and what he learned from living with a group of twelve sometimes, grumpy men.

Who knows the name of Pope Francis mother?

Who knows the name of the mother of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King jr, Mahatma Gandhi?

The “absent” mother is present in the son!

I, along with many others of my generation, grew up with a Mary imaged from art and sculpted statues; a virginal young girl, not a wrinkle to be seen, her hands clasped in front of her, her white garment without a stain or wrinkle, and a blue veil.

That all changed me on my journey through the Holy Land in 1984.

It was late August, brutally hot, sandy and arid.

I remember lying in bed one evening after a full days tour and suddenly realizing this was the environment in which Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all those I had become familiar with through the Gospel stories, had lived and grown up in.

However, they

      • did not have the air conditioner on high;
      • they had no cold shower to cool off in;
      • they had no refrigerator to keep the drinks cold;
      • they had no toilets.

How could Mary have had snow white, wrinkle free skin in such a climate?

How could her feet have remained like a porcelain doll walking dusty tracks, carrying heavy vases of water from the well; gathering wood for the fire would not do the fingernails any good!

And I might well imagine the harsh sun and wind chiselled a weather-beaten face to her complexion.

For the record, I didn’t see a blue veil my entire journey through the Holy Land, so where did we get blue from?

The answer is ridiculously simple.

The rarity and difficulty of accessing blue pigment encouraged civilisations to imbue the colour with mystical properties.

In Christian iconography, blue became one of the most sacred colours.

The religious connotations of the pigment were also because it was so expensive.

Artists preserved the most costly colours for important religious subject matters, like the Virgin Mary. A particular shade was even named after her, ‘Marian blue’.

So, once again, Mary has become “costly” and “expensive”.

Would she have wanted that?

When reading the lives of saints my attention is often caught by how many, especially women saints, have come from a poor, uneducated background.

So too Mary, a poor village, and given the culture, she grew up uneducated.

The question I hold is this, have we in our attempt to give due and proper reverence to Mary as the Mother of our Saviour we have unwittingly made of her a model inaccessible to the young women of today.

The image I offer is my personal favourite Of Mary.

The actual painting has nothing to do with Mary. Rather, it is a detail by the Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens.

The painting is titled “Old Woman With A Basket Of Coal”, painted between 1616 – 1618. In most of our artistic representations of Mary she is never allowed to grow old!

Well, here she is with lines of toil, of dirt, of searing heat, of relentless toil. H

owever, take a moment to stare into here eyes; you may well see grace, wisdom, understanding and compassion.

You may just well be looking into the eyes of her Son.

The Feast of the Assumption of Mary

In Aotearoa Maori culture, meeting houses (whare nui or whare puni) are symbols of tribal prestige and are often named after, and seen as the embodiment of, a tribal ancestor.

The structure itself is seen as an outstretched body, with the roof’s apex at the front of the house representing the ancestor’s head.

The main ridge beam represents the backbone, the diagonal bargeboards which lead out from the roof are the arms and the lower ends of the bargeboards divide to represent fingers.

Inside, the centre pole (poutokomanawa) is seen as the heart, the rafters reflect the ancestor’s ribs, and the interior is the ancestor’s chest and stomach.

Whare are richly carved, and these carvings will be particular to the local tribe (iwi), and will declare “this is our house”.

At Pukekaraka  in the township of Otaki, an hour north of Wellington city, there lies a meeting house which shares its whenua (land) with the Catholic Church.

Things are different at Pukekaraka.

There is a meeting house (wharepuni) which has been there since 1905, and there is not a carving in sight!

The meeting house follows the same design as wharepuni throughout the country, however the whare is bereft of carvings.

The name of the meeting house is “Hine nui o tea o katoa”, and in the name is the reason for no carvings.

Translated the name means ‘Mother of all the world’.

In other words, no one iwi (tribe) or whanau (family) can lay claim to Mary as “our” ancestor.

She (Mary) does not belong to us, we belong to her.

What I find of great interest here is that the Marist Maori Mission was established at Otaki in 1841.

In 1894 the Sisters of St Joseph had established a school there to teach (and board), local children. The whare was built in 1905. Within 60 years the local people had a sense of Mary belonging to everyone, “ o tea ao katoa”.

This Sunday, on the initiative of the New Zealand Bishops Conference, the country of Aotearoa/New Zealand is being rededicated to Our Lady Assumed into Heaven.

The country was originally dedicated by Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier when he celebrated the first Mass on the whenua known as Aotearoa on 13th January 1838.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was never a Roman Catholic, we have however laid claim to her and made her ours.

This rededication is not a rededication of Catholic New Zealand; that was not Bishop Pompallier’s intention, nor is it the intention of our present Bishops.

This is a rededicating of our land and its people to the care of Mary, the Mother of God.