Merry and Martha

There is one story from the scriptural account of Jesus’ life that haunts and troubles me, like a Zen koan–the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus. It is a good story and a useful corrective to (Mormon) women’s tendency to privilege the meeting of others’ physical needs (real or imagined) over the sating of their own spiritual hunger. And yet I find myself wanting to defend Martha from the Savior’s gentle rebuke. Particularly at Christmas, I’m inclined to assert the value of hustling and bustling and busy-ness.

If our church services hadn’t been snowed out Sunday, it’s likely there would have been talks decrying the commercialization of Christmas, urging more thought about the reason for the season, pleading for a return to the simplicity and wonder of Christmases past. “Keep Christ in Christmas,” pundits urge, fearing, perhaps, that God might be outmuscled by Santa Claus. To all of this well-intentioned sermonizing, I say bah! humbug.

At Christmastime, we long for the kind of simplicity Thoreau achieved at Walden Pond with his mother dropping in daily to bring him food and clean laundry (!) (!!) Those Norman Rockwell scenes of contented, well-scrubbed families at church or around the table–the pictures we invoke to remind us of the “real” meaning of Christmas–they require a great deal of behind-the-scenes work by someone! (Even the paintings of the stable where Jesus was born suggest that a great deal of cleaning had occurred before the poses were struck). My least favorite part of the season is the well-intentioned (often male) voices urging us to keep our celebration simple, to not “overdo”, to slow down. This message creates yet another impossible double bind for women, who now feel pressure to make a magic, wonder-filled holiday for their families AND make it look easy. It is not easy, and there’s no sense pretending that it could be. Ordinary housekeeping and cooking and childcare are plenty of work; the imperative of extra-special homey-ness and glitter for the holidays inevitably makes more work. But, as Kahlil Gibran says so perfectly, “work is love made visible.”

The spirit of Martha broods over the holidays, a troubled ghost yearning for Jesus as much as her contemplative sister, pouring her love into cookies and trinkets and overwrought centerpieces. Her work is unnecessary only when it is unappreciated, redeemed when it is received with the gratitude due all lovingly intended gifts. Work joyfully undertaken and happily received is among the deepest satisfactions of human existence. Loving those around us will, of necessity, entail being “careful and troubled” about some things, at least. Perhaps Jesus’ words to Martha were less rebuke than acknowledgment. Perhaps we would have seen, if we had been there when he spoke those words, his great love and tender gratitude for her fussy gifts, and his yearning to give her that which he had to give which could only be received after the hustle and bustle were through.

I would like to think it was so. Part of the wonder of the scene at the creche is the image of the baby patiently receiving the wise men’s ridiculous gifts. Surely they were no good to him, but they were good for the givers. There’s a beautiful Welsh carol called “Poverty,” that runs through my head most Christmastimes:

All poor men and humble,
All lame men who stumble,
Come haste ye, nor feel ye afraid.
For Jesus, our treasure,
With love past all measure,
in lowly poor manger was laid.

Though wise men who found him
Laid rich gifts around him,
Yet oxen they gave him their hay,
And Jesus in beauty
Accepted their duty.
Contented in manger he lay.

Then haste we to show him
The praises we owe him:
Our service he ne’er can despise,
Whose love still is able
To show us that stable,
Where lowly in manger he lies.

All of our gifts, even the ones that are well-intentioned but too costly in money or time, the gaudy ones, the ugly leftovers from the last-minute dash to the mall–all are redeemed in the warm gaze of the baby Christ who patiently receives them. After all, most of our human service is pretty feeble, and yet, even that, “he ne’er can despise.” The very promise of Christmas is “Emmanuel, God with us.” He came to earth to demonstrate that he is with us, in and through and below all human need and frailty, greed and sin, shallow busy-ness and noisy ignorance. In a stable, in the kitchen frosting the 156th gingerbread cookie, perhaps even at the mall.


  1. Kristine,

    I love(!)(!!) this post.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Wow, Kristine, that was just great. I have never been the Martha type, and have felt inclined to look down on the overbusy figure with ornate sweater and reindeer gluhwein mugs. But I think you are right — Christ welcomes all gifts. Thanks.

  3. I’m married to a wonderful, caring schoolteacher, who is caught between her Mary-like yearnings, and the Martha-like measures that we all feel too keenly. You are right, Kristine, that this time of year sharpens the paradox. Thanks, especially, for reminding us of the love that goes into the preparations and presentations of the holidays. Let’s all be more appreciative, less judgmental. And I’ll take special care to remember my wife, and help her in both roles.

  4. This might be my favorite essay I have read about Christmas. Such a great prespective!

  5. Thank you, Kristine for saying beautifully what many women have thought (much less beautifully) from the kitchens of home and church while others enjoyed the parts better for the Martha labor. This is a wonderful post.

  6. Julie M. Smith says:

    Thank you, Kristine.

    (I think one could fairly read Martha as only being rebuked for her criticism of Mary and not at all rebuked for her own choices. That’s how I like to read it, anyway.)

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    A very nice post, Kristine. Thanks.

  8. I think Julie just hit what I was thinking about in this post.

    Of course, I’m a lazy man, so I’ve never empathized with Martha too much.

  9. Kristine, I just pulled the 4th dozen set of cookies from the oven and enjoying my inner Martha. Thanks for this thoughtful essay.

  10. This essay and the Baby Jesus/Ricky Bobby essay were a wonderful Christmas twofer.

    Kevinf (#3) I hear you about being married to a wonderful woman who makes herself very busy. Time to offer more of a helping hand.

  11. Johnna Cornett says:

    Kristine, I think you just saved my holiday. Most the year I’m a happy, even neglectful, Mary, but I’m definitely careful and troubled this time of year.

    I do wish Christ had rebuked the Middle School teachers who assign us to send 30 servings of a particular food dish representative of our ethnic, historical, religious, or family culture and traditions, with a three-page write-up.

    p.s. Thoreau’s mother was bringing him food and clean laundry!??

  12. Johnna, feel free to tell Glenn to stop talking and help you, too :)

    Jesus couldn’t even bring himself to speak of Middle School!

  13. Kristine, you might enjoy Camille Fronk Olsen’s book, Mary, Martha and Me. Some snippets from the book can be found here.

  14. Simply beautiful, and beautifully wise. Thanks so much.

  15. Just so long as Martha doesn’t mean Martha Stewart (I object on both aesthetic and anti-capitalist-exploitation-of-the-masses grounds), I’m completely on board with this post. Great stuff, Kristine.

  16. Just exactly, perfectly, wonderfully what I needed to read today. Thank you, K.

  17. m&m–thanks, I have. She’s a terrific writer. Follow the link, everyone!

  18. Thanks, Kristine. This post is beautiful.

    I, too, am married to a Martha who struggles with wanting to be a Mary – but who is a **wonderful** Martha. I am more of a “Mary” – and two Marys in the same house would be a disaster. We both recognize that we are happy together as both.

  19. Kristine, I love this post, and we all have Marthas in our lives that deserve much more appreciation. But I agree with Julie, rather than making Martha feel unappreciated, I think Christ was trying to keep Martha from forcing Mary to give the same gift. He was asking that we all allow each other to choose our own gift to give.

  20. Thank you Kristine–I will try to appreciate my mothers’ Marthaness more this year.

  21. Wonderful post. I’d felt the paradox before, but never was able to put in words why it seemed like so much pressure to simplify.

  22. After reading the post and comments I was reminded of Elder Oak’s talk from conference titled Good, Better, Best where he cites the Mary and Martha account from Luke.

    I suspect that Mary also had times when she may have been “careful and troubled about many things,” but given the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet, she chose the better part.

    We all have our own holiday traditions, and a certain amount of busyness is to be expected. Hopefully the busyness contributes to and doesn’t eclipse the “better part” that is available for us.

  23. I am having a tough time,and appreciate this post more than you can know! I often spend the last week before Christmas running aorund crazily, immersed in traditions and self-imposed requirements. Not his season. A young mother with 4 tiny kids died on Sunday night, a member of our ward. A dear friend had major surgery. Another close friend’s 95 year old mother is dying, will Go in a matter of hours. My husband’s favorite aunt died last night. After spending hours yesterday at the hospital, and tending my small grandchild, I went to meet a friend for a walk. I came around the fence…and was attacked by a waist-tall dog. Never mind I have a fear of dogs, generally–this one was attacking me! I ended up with a bite on my part-I-sit-on, ripped jeans, slobber all over my jacket, and a sore throat from screaming. Today my friend insisted I get a tetanus shot, although I had one 5 years ago. The dr checked my behind, and informed me I have an infection, along with a bruise the size of Rhode Island and a gash. I left with a tetanus shot, a whooping cough shot (the dr rarely sees me, so took the opportunity) and 2 prescriptions. I am worn out, in every area. Christmas frenzy? My missionary got his box; if I have to do the rest on Christmas Eve, so be it.

  24. kristine N says:

    Thank you Kristine! I loved this essay, especially your comments about all gifts our gifts being redeemed in the eyes of Christ. Brings to mind my favorite Christmas story–“The Littlest Angel” (which has nothing to do with the rest of your wonderful essay, but I love anyway).

  25. Naomi Sloan says:

    Oh my goodness, deb! I hope you’re okay, and I hope all those people in your ward are okay too. Christmas can make everything much weightier, somehow.

    Thanks for this post, Kristine–the link to it got forwarded around all the women of my extended family, so you’ve struck a familiar chord here. As I read your essay, I remembered peeking into the cultural hall a couple of weeks ago and seeing this beautiful scene laid out for the other ward’s Christmas party–long tables all put together, decorated, plates laid out, games and crafts for the children in the scout room across the hall, a live nativity scene prepared on the stage, and even the xeroxed music for the musical number already on the music stand, which was set out just where it needed to be by the stage. I was truly awe-struck at the amount of work this represented–and it was accomplished by two women, primarily. I have to admit that it made me wonder if me and my generation will be up to those standards when it’s our turn… But if we’re not, like you said, Christ will accept all of the gifts we give him.

  26. It’s that time of year, again, isn’t it? Christmas carols and gingerbread, hot apple cider to warm the belly, posts from Kristine to warm the soul.

    It’s a pretty simple semantic rule, isn’t it? In the bloggernacle, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without Kris.

  27. Thank you for this. The problem I’m having today is that, having had to play Zeezrom until yesterday (last final ended at 4:30 pm), I haven’t yet done anything either Mary or Martha about the season at all. Here it is the 21st, and so much to do because it’s Christmas that I don’t even know where to begin. Not to mention trying to sort out emotions (a classmate died this week, and though I did not know her well, friends of mine did, and there was much comforting to do). So, like Deb, my missionary got his box, but I still have 0% of buying for other still-at-home children and baking, and I know that I’m not allowed to say Can I skip Christmas this year? and not be either Mary or Martha?

  28. Adam Greenwood says:

    Very good.

  29. Kristine, amen, and amen!

    Jim (#22), “better part” is a misquote.

    42 But one thing is needful: and Mary hath achosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

    Jesus never said sitting and listening was better than standing and serving. He did point out that sitting and listening was not a waste of time (since we get to keep what we gain, even though it’s intangible).

    My favorite discourse on Mary and Martha is Catherine Corman Parry’s BYU devotional address from 1991, found here:

  30. Kathryn,
    When I said “better part” I wasn’t quoting the scripture and perhaps should not have used quotes at all. To me, the fact that Elder Oaks references this story in the opening remarks of his talk titled Good, Better, Best suggests that Mary’s choice to listen to the Savior was better than Martha’s choice to be careful and troubled in what she was doing. At that time and place, Mary chose that which was more “needful.”

    Semantics aside, for me, the point is that whether it is the busyness that accompanies the Christmas season or any other aspect of our lives, we can easily get caught up in doing things and can miss opportunities to become saints. Obviously true saints do any things, but I think we also do many things, good things, with the wrong intent or maybe even with no thought at all, and in those cases, the doing probably does little to help us become what we can and need to be.

  31. Beautiful! Thanks, Kristine!

  32. How else do we become Saints, except by doing things?

  33. Ann,
    I notice a typo in my previous post- it should read, “…true saints do many things…” So I acknowledge that becoming Christlike requires that we do many things. But in my opinion, it is not just what we do that matters- it is our motive, desire, and intent.

    Perhaps this quote, from another of Elder Oak’s talks, will better convey this idea:

    From such teachings we conclude that the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.

  34. has only one principal purpose: That is to help students like you with all your writing problems. Essay

%d bloggers like this: