An important issue for us to grapple with today, as we reflect on our readings for Mass, is the difference between visitation and habitation. We all know the people we are ready to have visit us, so long as they don’t stay too long and outlast their welcome. And we all know those people whom we are delighted to welcome into our homes and have stay as long as they like, because we are glad of their company, we feel comfortable and at ease in their presence, they are a delight to be around.
But how do we feel about spending time with the Lord? We know we should spend some time in prayer – but how much is enough? Do we find ourselves easily bored when we are in the Lord’s presence, and just want to get our prayers over and done with? Or do we relish going into our prayer room and being with the Lord, because we feel comfortable and at ease being with him, and the time we set apart for prayer seems to speed by? And what about going to church for Mass? Do we choose the Mass which is over the quickest? Do we fidget while we are in church and feel that every minute lasts an hour? Or do we look forward to going to Mass, we don’t simply endure it – no, weenjoy it!! For us, it seems again to zip by, and we are sorry to see it over.
It may surprise us to know that the Lord doesn’t want to simply have times of visitation with us – He desires to have times of habitation with us. He simply, purely, delights to be in our presence. Imagine that – the God of the entire universe looks forward to spending time with little old you and me – with all the negative and rough sides of our character. He longs so much to be with us, because he loves us, as we say, “warts and all”. Love wants to be with the one who is loved, all the time. The Bible shows us, over and over again, how much the Lord longs to be with us, in our company. Right from the start, in the Garden of Eden, we are told that God used to walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening. In the Book of Proverbs, we are shown God “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting to be among the human race “(Proverbs 8: 31). The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, describes that the final plan of God is to “make his home among human beings, to dwell with them, so that they will be his people, and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21: 3) Before we start to feel guilty about how little we spend time with him, or want to spend time with him, let us understand that God knows us through and through. He understands that we don’t love him as much as he loves us, he knows that we often tire of being in prayer or at church and need a break from him, and he will take all he can get from us. But this doesn’t stop him aching to have more time with us.
You see in our first reading today, that the Lord “drops in” at Abraham’s place. It is the Lord who initiates this contact. He chooses to come to Abraham. But it is Abraham who welcomes him in, and invites him to stay, not just for a brief visit, but for several hours, involving a full meal. The blessing which Abraham extends to the Lord is more than matched by the blessing that God extends to Abraham, that he will, within the year, have a child, despite his, and Sarah’s great age. We are being told in this episode that the Lord will never be outdone in generosity, that our welcome to him brings about a blessing to us, the answer to our heart’s desire.
In our gospel, we see Jesus being welcomed into the home of Martha and Mary. Many biblical scholars say that Martha and Mary are not real historical characters, merely personifications of two different types of individual – one who is always busy, “anxious and fretful” about many things , the other who is calm and placid, and always ready to be “at the feet “ of Jesus in prayer and contemplation. Most people assume that Martha is being ticked off by Jesus because she is too busy and not giving enough time to prayer. Those who are “Martha” types get upset, and argue that someone has to do the work, we can’t all sit around and do nothing all day and pray. In fact, this is not the lesson that Jesus is trying to convey. There is a time for prayer and there is a time for action, is what Jesus is really saying. The trick is knowing when to do what. By the way, we know by references to them in another gospel, John’s gospel, that Martha and Mary are real people, obviously well known in the early Christian circles
When Jesus comes to stay with us, we need to drop everything else and give ourselves to him. Mary’s posture of sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him as he speaks and teaches is the right thing to do at that time. Martha is being invited by Jesus to put aside all her other duties and spend time with him. That is her “duty of the moment”. I recall visiting a family who, when I arrived, were busy with different activities: preparing the meal, watching TV, talking on the phone. When I came into the living room, they all dropped what they were doing, and gathered around me to welcome me and to have conversation with me. I felt welcomed, appreciated, and attended to. But I have also gone to homes where everyone was doing something different, and continued doing it even when I was there, completely ignoring me ,and leaving it to the wife and mother to “entertain” me. I know which of the two homes I felt most appreciated and welcome.
Mary’s sitting at the feet of Jesus is the typical posture of a disciple, as we see elsewhere in the New Testament. A disciple is one who comes under the “discipline” of a teacher, and needs to spend time listening to their teaching. But a disciple is also one who acts on the teaching they receive from their teacher, who puts into practice what they have seen and heard from their master. Just before this passage in todays’ gospel, we have the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which two of the main characters rush past the injured man, because they have to get to the Temple to pray. But the third character, the Samaritan, stops to help the man who lies beaten up in the street, and looks after him. He is commended in Jesus’ parable, because he is putting into practice Jesus’ teaching about the need for his followers to show mercy and compassion to those who are suffering and in any type of need. If we put these two passages together, the story of the Good Samaritan, and the story of Martha and Mary, we see the two necessary postures of the true disciple of Jesus – action and prayer. Both need to be present in the life of a true disciple of Jesus. Action without prayer beforehand is blind. Prayer without action following is futile.
There are times when we are too busy to pray – which means we are simply too busy. No-one was busier during his three years of ministry on earth than Jesus. But even he, according to the gospels, made time to come aside from his activities of preaching and healing, to come into His Heavenly Father’s presence to pray, sometimes spending the whole night in prayer before making important decisions in his ministry, Luke 6: 12 –13. . Unless we commit time to come into the Lord’s presence for sustained prayer times, we will never be sure that what we are doing is the Lord’s will for us at that time. One of the most clear-cut verses of the Bible, Psalm 46: 10 says:” Be still, and know that I am God”. If we are restless , and trying to find peace and assurance in our lives, it is because we have not allowed ourselves to come into the presence of the Lord, to still our restless “monkey minds” and wait for the Lord to speak to us and to guide us . Psalm 32: 8 gives us this promise of the Lord:” I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you”. But it also goes on to say that we, for our part, must not be like an unruly horse or mule who will not obey its master and keeps wandering off to do their own thing (verse 9) . We must “stay near” the Lord, to have him counsel and guide us into the right way for our lives.
“Staying near” the Lord, involves remaining with him, “abiding with, and in, him”. John’s gospel continually has Jesus urging us to stay with him, remain with him, abide with him. For instance, in John 15: 5, Jesus tells his disciples:” I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me, and I in them, are those who bear much fruit, for apart from me, you can do NOTHING”. I think those words should be painted on the ceiling above our beds, so that they are the last words we see before we close our eyes at night, and the first ones we see when we open our eyes in the morning.
Visitation is different from habitation. People who have divorced often fight most fiercely over their children, whether they should have “visitation rights” or “custody rights”. God is our Heavenly Father, He wants not just visitation rights in our lives, but full custody rights, He wants us to belong totally to Him, to stay with Him forever. Not because He forces us to, or because we feel duty-bound to, but because we really, really want to. Because we are sure of his love for us, his desire to be everything for us, and us to be everything for him.
Action without prayer is blind. Prayer without action is futile. To be a true disciple of the Lord is to combine both into our lives, according as the Lord our God leads us. Let us finish with a prayer that asks that we may combine the “Martha” spirit with the “Mary” spirit.
“Lord Jesus, help me cultivate a Mary heart in a Martha world, a world of many distractions, never-ending demands, and over-stimulation. My problem isn’t the world I inhabit, but the heart that inhabits me. You are the “one thing worth being concerned about “; you are the “one thing” that I want never to be taken from me. Turn my “visitation” mindset, into a “habitation” mindset, where you are concerned. Amen