Today is the feast day of Martha of Bethany, as well as of her brother Lazarus of Bethany. I am going to focus on Martha today. Next year on this date, Deus vult, I’ll give you the story of Lazarus. Martha appears in three well known stories, one in Luke’s gospel and two in John’s. She appears to have been one of many women (along with brother Lazarus and sister Mary) who housed and cared for Jesus and the apostles when they visited Jerusalem, perhaps, in particular, on his last visit at Passover when he was crucified. During the day Jesus preached to large crowds in Jerusalem, but at night he retired to the countryside for some quiet time away from the press of people. Bethany (modern al-Eizariya) is about 2.4 km from old Jerusalem on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Martha’s sister Mary has often been thought to be Mary Magdalene (see post July 22), but this association is spurious. Mary Magdalene was from Magdala in Galilee. Some commentators have given tortured justifications for the association, but they are far-fetched at best.
Here is Martha in Luke (10:38-42):
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘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.’”
I wonder how many tens of thousands of sermons have been preached on this passage. I never have because I am not quite sure what to make of it. Obviously the underlying message is that kitchen duties are necessary, but spiritual things should come first. There is also an implicit message that women need not be confined to “women’s work” but are equally important as spiritual disciples. This is not a minor point. But I’ve always felt badly for Martha who was trying to help in her own way. We all serve in our own ways — and besides, cooking can be spiritual too. Because of this tale Martha is the matron saint of butlers, cooks, dieticians, domestic servants, homemakers, hotel-keepers, housemaids, housewives, waiters, and waitresses, among others.
Martha appears in John’s gospel (John 11:1—47) in connexion with Jesus’ raising her brother Lazarus from the dead:
“Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’ When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’ Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go back to Judea.’” (John 11:1-7)
In John’s gospel there is an undertone of the theme in Luke of Martha as the practical one and Mary as the contemplative one:
“On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.” (John 11:17-20)
Martha is also represented, not just as practical, but as a female “doubting Thomas.”
“Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. ‘Take away the stone,’ he said. ‘But, Lord,’ said Martha, the sister of the dead man, ‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.”
Finally Martha is present at the anointing of Jesus, she still practical, Mary still spiritual:
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
Martha became the subject of Christian legends recorded in the 13th century work The Golden Legend. According to one legend, she left Palestine after Jesus’ death, around 48, and went to Provence with her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus. Martha first settled in Avignon, then went to Tarascon. At the time the tarasque inhabited the area of Tarascon (near Marseilles), and devastated the landscape far and wide. The tarasque was a sort of female dragon with six short legs like a bear’s, an ox-like body covered with a spiked turtle shell, and a scaly tail that ended in a scorpion sting. She had a lion’s head, horse’s ears, and the face of a bitter old man. Martha tamed the dragon by showering it with holy water and showing it the cross. She brought the tamed dragon into town on a leash made from her girdle, but the townspeople killed it. Martha wept for the dragon but forgave them because they had suffered so long. Martha is the matron saint of Tarascon which was named after the dragon, as was the herb tarragon.
In honor of Martha and the tarasque it seems fitting to give a recipe using tarragon, one of my favorite herbs. You can buy it dried, but it really is quite inferior to the fresh herb. In the past when I had a herb garden I always made sure to have tarragon in it. If you want to grow it make sure you get French tarragon. There is a version called Russian tarragon which will do in a pinch but does not have the rich complexity of French tarragon. Tarragon is one of the four fines herbes of the French culinary tradition. It goes especially well with chicken (and fish), so here is one of my favorite recipes.
Poulet à l’estragon (Tarragon chicken)
2 tspsns garlic oil
2 tspsns butter
2 green onions, thinly sliced
2 ½ tspns chopped fresh tarragon, plus a pinch more for garnish
4 chicken breast fillets, skinless and boneless
? cup dry vermouth or white wine
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup heavy cream
fresh white pepper
Heat the garlic oil and butter in a heavy skillet with a lid in which the chicken breasts will fit. Add the green onions and ½ tspn of tarragon and cook them in the oil and butter for a minute, stirring as they cook.
Put the chicken fillets into the pan, and brown quickly on both sides. Push the green onions to the side if they start to burn (or place them on the fillets).
Add the vermouth (or white wine). Let the vermouth bubble up, then add the salt. Put the lid on, turn the heat down low and leave it to simmer gently for 10 minutes. Check the chicken is cooked through by making a small cut into the thickest part and ensuring the juices run clear. If not, simmer for a few minutes longer and check again.
Remove the chicken breasts to warmed plates. Bring the remaining liquid to a boil, add the cream and stir well, then sprinkle in the remaining 2 tspns of tarragon. Stir again and give a good grind of white pepper.
Pour the sauce over the chicken breasts, and give a final scattering of tarragon to serve.