It’s Sunday night. I race down the stairs to my dorm’s chapel, only to realize at the bottom of the staircase that I forgot to print the intercessions. Racing back up to the third floor, I nearly knock over someone carrying a basket of laundry. I print the intercessions, fly back down the stairs, and make it to the chapel faster than I thought I would. It is 9:32. Mass begins in 28 minutes.
I spend that time lighting candles, counting hosts, dispersing songbooks, and welcoming everyone I see come through the chapel door. I walk to the front of the chapel, announce that Mass is beginning, and invite everyone to silence themselves for a moment before the musicians start the opening song. As I sit down, I realize to my horror that I have committed my most common mistake—forgetting to ask two individuals to bring up the gifts. As I contemplate my options for rectifying this error, I suddenly see everyone, including myself, standing. Mass has begun.
As a sacristan at dorm Mass, I often face a strange sort of distraction—the sort that proves I am paying attention. In my service, I am focused on the next move, the next step, the next motion. The danger of liturgical service is that Mass becomes a performance. I risk becoming a stage manager, trying to place every person in his or her spot and every prop in its place, without really paying attention to the play itself.
In the gospel of Luke, we read about a woman named Martha and her sister Mary. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to Him while Martha runs around the house preparing dinner. Martha, discouraged by the work to be done, asks Jesus to instruct Mary to help ready the food.
Every homilist I have ever heard has shaken his head at Martha’s request. Didn’t she realize who was in her home? Why didn’t she stop to listen? Why didn’t she fully devote herself to the Teacher like Mary did?
Part of me always thought these preachers were not being very fair to Martha. After all, just a few verses before this point in the story, it is Martha who invites Jesus to the house. Mary would not have been able to sit at the Teacher’s feet if it had not been for Martha. Perhaps Martha felt left out, the Cinderella of the story, forced to do all the hard work while her sister did what she pleased. And after all, are we not called to serve those around us, making the first last and the last first?
Jesus’ response makes very clear what His priorities are: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
What is the purpose of service? It is not to worry, or to become upset. It is not to promote self-esteem or to upgrade a résumé. Rather, it is to recognize a need and fulfill that need. Martha recognized a basic human need in those around her—hunger—and worked to alleviate that discomfort. However, she did not recognize her own more crucial need—a call to sit at the feet of the Teacher. Martha failed to recognize when her role shifted from the server to the served.
Martha’s story is not one so much of distraction but of disorientation. Her priorities were not in line with those of the Teacher. I would like to think that at the end of this story, Martha recognized her own need and did herself a great service by joining her sister at the feet of Jesus. I would also like to think that I will continue to grow in my own understanding of how to serve both others and myself within Christ’s priorities.
But to actually grow in this way requires more than thinking. It requires work and focus. And I do not mean work in the sense of throwing out all of the chapel poinsettias after Christmas, or focus in the sense of quickly counting the number of mass attendees to ascertain the correct number of hosts to bring to the altar. I mean deliberate, conscious recognition of my need to sit listening at the Teacher’s feet.
Abigail Bartels is a junior in Badin Hall. She is finally starting to read The Brothers Karamazov, which has been on her bucket list and reading list for years. If you have any thoughts on the book, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.