When I reached the grand age of twenty-six, I felt like my life was over. Why? Because I hadn’t gotten married yet. All my life, I had sat in churches filled with married people. We all knew that after you “graduated” from the high school youth group’s “college and career” Sunday school class, you were supposed to jump right into adult classes, where everybody was married. The message was painfully clear: once you left school, you had a few years to establish yourself, and then you settled down and got married.
It was always very clear that I couldn’t truly be myself—the tomboy—if I wanted the “Great Matchmaker” to deliver my prince charming. My idol was Princess Leia—a strong leader blasting the Storm Troopers. I never related to the Disney princesses who waited passively for their heroes to do the rescuing. The church told me that this would not lead to a joyful marriage for me—that my lack of “feminine” traits would ultimately compromise any hope for future happiness. I can recall my mother once cautioning me, “If you don’t start acting like a girl, you’ll never catch a husband.”
Outwardly, I shrugged her off, but inwardly, I worried. What if “happily ever after” never came? What if my only shot at personal happiness could be lost, simply because I didn’t emulate “biblical womanhood”? I certainly didn’t get any help from the pulpit on this issue. Even the Bible seemed to conspire against me—at the time. In my church, we only studied Bible women who were linked to a husband, or performed some domestic activity.
When I was younger, a female singer gave a performance at my church. She sang a song about Martha. The lyrics depicted Martha negatively—I can still hear the chorus, where the narrator pleads with Martha to slow down, to not stress over housework and hospitality. This portrayal of Martha bore no relation to my life as a single woman, nor could I relate to her apparent passion for serving God through domesticity and hospitality. I dismissed Martha very quickly.
If only I had heard about other portrayals of Martha throughout history and in legend. I did not meet this Martha until many years later when I discovered Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s fantastic book, The Women Around Jesus. Moltmann-Wendel explains that Martha hadn’t always been so vilified. During the medieval and Renaissance eras, there were many Christians who venerated her.
In the south of France, legends developed claiming that Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus had traveled there after Christ’s resurrection. The town of Tarascon believed that Martha had come there and founded a convent.
In this legendary depiction of Martha, she was not content to remain behind cloistered walls. Instead, this Martha preached publicly, healed the sick, and even raised the dead. In her most famous exploit, she defeated a dragon that terrorized the town with a jar of holy water and a cross. The legend became so popular in Tarascon that the townspeople dedicated a church to Martha in the eleventh century (43-4).
This image of Martha defeating the dragon also became popular in medieval art. As Moltmann-Wendel puts it, “the observant onlooker will continually come across paintings, statues, or church windows which depict Martha with a dragon at her feet; south of the Main, in southern Switzerland, in France, and in Italy” (39). The images in these legends were not the only positive images of Martha. Other artists painted her as an active disciple of Christ.
For instance, the monastery in Lugano, which dedicated itself to caring for victims of the plague, had a fresco of Martha blessing the monks on one of its walls. On the altar in a church in Tiefenbronn, a series of panels illustrates the legendary journey of Martha and her siblings to France (35-6).
Perhaps the most remarkable images came from the painter, Fra Angelico. In the monastery of San Marco in Florence, he depicts the Garden of Gethsemane. In the background, Christ is ministered to by the angels. Mary and Martha are seated in the foreground, Mary reading a book and Martha praying with folded hands. Moltmann-Wendel points out that her posture imitates that of Christ’s (37-8).
In another painting, Fra Angelico places Martha at the foot of the cross, again praying. And in yet another, she holds the hands of the crucified Christ. Now, obviously, these are artistic and legendary portrayals of the women around Jesus. Yet, it is essential to note that Martha is not only celebrated in history, but she was believed by many to have had an active, ministerial role in Jesus’ work.
We see this clearly in John 11 after the death of Lazarus. Mary observed the traditional mourning rituals. Martha, however, did not. She was present, but not really there. When Jesus arrived, she went charging out to confront him. Like Job, she would not accept pat answers from friends, not even Jesus. She had the courage to question her situation and insisted upon a true explanation for Jesus’ delay in arrival.
When Jesus announced that Lazarus would rise again one day, Martha did not remain focused on her external circumstances. Instead, she attempted to see the reality beyond her situation. When she perceived the truth, she broke into a glorious affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah. Moltmann-Wendel describes it: “Thus John placed the confession of Christ on the lips of a woman… This is a confession of Christ which takes similar form only once more in the other Gospels, where it is uttered by Peter. For the early church, to confess Christ in this way was the mark of an apostle.”
If I could go back now and impart one piece of wisdom to my single self, I would tell her this: look to Martha as your example. She did not waste her time feeling “incomplete,” nor did she accept unsatisfactory answers, even from a male leader. Martha did not behave how she was supposed to behave. Martha was an amazing example of a biblical woman who stepped outside of cultural expectations to seek God:
“Martha is not a woman who keeps silence in the community. She does not leave theology to the theologians. She does not cry… she does not give in… we should see her as the woman who is self-aware, active, matter-of-fact; who does not give in, who does not recognize any limitations, who transcends herself and her traditional feminine role and in so doing experiences resurrection” (24,27).