Pope Francis’ Church Calendar Catechesis: The Feast Day of Martha, Mary and Lazarus

COMMENTARY: This recent decision by the Pope illustrates how the liturgical calendar helps us to understand the sacred Scriptures.

The Raising of Lazarus-Caravaggio (c. 1609)
The Raising of Lazarus-Caravaggio (c. 1609) (photo: Public Domain)

Henceforth, July 29 will be celebrated as the feast day of Sts. Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the family at Bethany who were close friends of the Lord Jesus. It’s a subtle shift, as it was already their feast day, but not universally observed as such. Explanation to follow!

This recent decision by Pope Francis illustrates how the liturgical calendar helps us to understand the sacred scriptures.

For example, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord this week is observed on Feb. 2, precisely 40 days after Christmas, when the firstborn was taken up to the Temple. That was the Jewish custom of the time, observed by the Holy Family. The liturgical calendar helps us to live biblical rhythms.

There are thousands upon thousands of canonized saints. The Roman Martyrology is the liturgical book that records these canonized saints according to their feast days. Certain days may well have a dozen or more saints, for every saint (and blessed) has a feast day. Only a miniscule fraction of priests — let alone the lay faithful — even have a copy of the Martyrology (it’s only in Latin), so while it is an book of great importance, it is generally unknown.

Only a relatively small number of these saints are on the “universal calendar,” meaning that the entire Church observes their feast days. Changes to the universal calendar are made from time to time by the Holy Father, updating the calendar as new saints are canonized. 

For example, when St. Faustina Kowalska was canonized in 2000, she had a feast day assigned (Oct. 5). But it was only last year that Pope Francis added that feast to the universal calendar. (He did it as a 100th birthday gift to St. John Paul II, who was born on May 18, 1920.)

There are also local calendars, for dioceses, nations or religious orders, which include saints important to those communities. For example, several American saints are celebrated in the United States, but are not on the universal calendar.


Mary and Mary or Just Mary?

The latest decision relates to Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany. Are they the same woman? 

Through Church history some very prominent voices have argued that Mary of Magdala was the same person as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Recent studies, referenced in the Holy Father’s decision, have now determined that the two Marys were different people.

How was this initial ambiguity reflected in the liturgical calendar? Mary Magdalene — the “Apostle to the Apostles” for her mission in announcing to them the news of the Risen Christ — has long had her own feast day, July 22. The octave day of her feast, July 29, was the feast of St. Martha. The setting of Mary Magdalene and Martha an octave apart would suggest a link between the two, namely that they were the sisters at Bethany.

However, biblical research has led to the conclusion that the two Marys were separate women. When the Roman Martyrology was last updated in 2001 and 2004, it listed July 29 as the feast of St. Martha as well as of her sister Mary and brother Lazarus. So it was already clear in the liturgy then that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany were separate women. However, there was an anomaly. Even though all three — Martha, Mary and Lazarus — shared a feast day in the Martyrology, only Martha’s feast was in the universal calendar. The Holy Father’s decision this week corrects that, and all three are now on the universal calendar.


Active, Receptive, Passive

The decree establishing the new joint feast day notes “in the household of Bethany the Lord Jesus experienced the family spirit and friendship of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and for this reason, the Gospel of John states that he loved them.”

The three siblings gave an “important evangelical witness” by “welcoming the Lord Jesus into their home, in listening to him attentively, in believing that he is the resurrection and the life.”

Martha is associated with the active works of hospitality and charity — no mean feat when Jesus arrives with 12 apostles, hungry and sweaty from the trip, in need of food and washing. Mary we associate with the contemplative life, attentive and receptive to the Lord’s words, for which Jesus said that she had chosen the “better part.”

Given that Mary had the “better part” it was strange that Martha got prime billing in the universal calendar and Mary did not, but that was due to the Magdalene ambiguity.

If Martha is active, and Mary receptive, the figure of Lazarus strikes us as passive. Totally passive, actually, given that he first appears as dead.

Lazarus does nothing in the Gospels that we might emulate, says nothing that might inspire us. He reminds us though, in his utter passivity, that God’s love and the gift of life are God’s initiative not ours, and that discipleship begins with God who loves us first, and who grants us the gift of life before we can even be passive or receptive, let alone active, but before we exist.


Family Time in the Liturgy

Summer time is often family time, and the new feast points us toward the family aspect of the life of Jesus. July 26 is the feast of his grandparents, Joachim and Anne. Pope Francis recently declared the Sunday closest to that feast to be the World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly. 

On Aug. 6 we celebrate the Transfiguration, which manifests the “divine family” so to speak of Jesus, the Blessed Trinity. Also with the Transfigured Jesus are his closest collaborators, Peter, James and John.

Now with the feast of Martha, Mary and Lazarus on July 29, we celebrate the family home where the celibate Jesus was loved and welcomed. Many priests know family homes like that, a kind of Bethany where they are included in family life. 

Perhaps that might become a new custom for the new feast, family hospitality for priests — without the necessity of a brother beginning to decompose in a nearby tomb!