Every Thursday I attend a women's group at Bethel church, and this year we're studying a book called Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. (based on the Biblical story of Mary and Martha). Our group is having a Christmas brunch this week and for our reflective time I decided to write a little story about Mary and Martha at Christmastime. I'll share it with you here if you are interested.
A MARY AND MARTHA CHRISTMAS
Once upon a time there were two sisters named Martha and Mary. They lived in a little house at the edge of a village, and they were very happy. They loved to visit with their friends along the main street, and have company in for tea.
But this particular season they were especially happy, because it was almost Christmas. Martha and Mary both loved Christmas. Martha would say (a little sarcastically) that Mary loved Christmas because there was someone named Mary in the Christmas story. Martha thought privately that if she were to be one of the Christmas story characters, it would probably be the innkeeper’s wife: the kind of person who did all kinds of work behind the scenes and received absolutely no credit.
But, if she were honest, Martha would have to confess that she loved the "work" of Christmas: the decorating and baking, wrapping and shopping. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the little house was a whirlwind. Martha would climb the ladder to the attic, carefully take down all of her decorations and knickknacks, and spend hours getting everything just right. Martha was all about themes. One year she had an all-white theme, so that all the napkins, tablecloths, and tree decorations had to be white. Another year she focused on stars, so that all the napkins, tablecloths, and tree decorations had to involve stars. Another year ... well, you get the idea.
Martha was a whiz in the kitchen, too. Her cooking was legendary. It wasn’t enough just to make one kind of Christmas cookie; she had to make seven. It wasn’t enough to have a ten-pound turkey; she had to have a twenty-pounder (after all, you never know how many unexpected guests might show up for Christmas dinner). And heaven forbid that she buy a can of cranberry sauce, slide it into a bowl and chunk it up with a fork; she had to make the real thing from cranberries she’d picked herself on a farm within a 100-mile radius of her home.
Mary loved Christmas too, but she wasn’t quite as practical or organized as Martha. Sometimes she would find herself standing in the living room, forgetting what she’d come in for, because she was mesmerized by the Christmas music playing in the background. She loved all of the Christmas carols and spent a lot of time each year trying to figure out which one was her favourite. Just when she was absolutely sure it was O Holy Night, she’d hear O Little Town of Bethlehem and then had to go back and re-evaluate. Martha thought that was kind of a waste of time – why not just make a decision and that’s that? – but she never said that to Mary.
Martha used to try to involve Mary in the Christmas preparations, but Mary would suggest changes ("Let’s have chocolate-chip shortbread instead of plain") and Martha didn’t like changes. Or Mary would ruin the blue-only theme by going out and buying green napkins instead of the blue ones Martha had specifically requested. So now Martha just got Mary doing little jobs that didn’t disrupt Martha’s plans, like stringing popcorn (for the all-natural theme) or putting stamps on Christmas card envelopes.
After the tree had been decorated, the baking done, the properly-coloured guest towels folded in thirds in the bathroom, and all of the other details taken care of, it was time for Martha to set up her favourite thing of all: the nativity scene. It was a very special nativity scene that Martha and Mary’s parents had made for them many years ago. Their father had made a lovely little wooden stable and carved tiny figures, for which their mother had sewn beautiful little costumes. (Clearly, the apple did not fall far from the tree as far as Martha was concerned.)
Martha got out the box with the nativity scene in it, and started unwrapping each separately-wrapped piece. There was the stable, with a miniature dove glued to the rafter ... the little x-shaped manger with crinkly straw in it ... the small blue Mary figure, kneeling ... tiny Joseph, with a painted-on beard ... a shepherd, with a rough burlap cloak ... three wise men, wearing crowns with tiny jewels glued on them. She looked each piece over carefully, making sure no parts needed repair, and set them up exactly where they belonged. Mary stood watching, absentmindedly popping the bubble-wrap that Martha used to protect each precious item.
But instead of the "Ahh" of satisfaction when the nativity scene was perfectly set up, Martha began to get agitated and started looking through the box, shaking all the pieces of plastic wrapping. Something was missing.
"Where’s baby Jesus?" she cried anxiously. "Everything else is exactly where it should be – but the baby Jesus is missing." The tiny, inch-long figure of a sleeping baby, wrapped in the littlest scrap of white cloth you could imagine, was nowhere to be seen.
Mary helped her look. They examined every corner of the nativity scene and the box it had been stored in. They looked under the table, under the Christmas tree, and in among the pine boughs on the mantel. They retraced Martha’s steps back to the attic in case somehow it had fallen out of the box ... but they could not find it.
Martha was devastated. She felt that her Christmas was ruined. How could their beautiful nativity scene, the valued gift from their parents, be missing something so important? Jesus was the centre of the whole thing, after all; if he wasn’t there, then what was the point? Martha prided herself on having everything just right – how could she have lost something so precious?
Mary tried to be comforting, saying gently, "Martha, maybe you could make another one. You’re creative, just like Mama and Papa were. You could make a little Jesus out of wood and wrap it in white cloth, and it would be just fine."
But Martha shook her head. It just wouldn’t be the same, she thought. She stared at the empty manger, and tears filled her eyes. She wanted her Christmas to be perfect, but now, it seemed, it was completely spoiled.
That evening after supper their house was very quiet. Unlike most evenings, Martha didn’t suggest a game of Scrabble (Mary’s favourite) or read out grammatically incorrect sentences from the newspaper to make her sister laugh. Martha didn’t even want to turn the tree lights on and admire her handiwork. The two of them just sat quietly in the darkened living room while Christmas music played softly.
Suddenly, as Martha half-dozed in her comfortable chair, she saw a faint light shining in the corner, near where the nativity scene was set up. Ever-mindful of the dangers of fire during the holiday season (after all, she was the type to have a smoke detector in every room and check the batteries in each one on the first day of every month), she jumped up quickly and moved toward the corner table. Mary hadn’t been silly enough to leave a lighted candle too near a curtain, had she? No, it wasn’t that; the soft glow seemed to be coming from the nativity scene itself. She came closer and – no, she wasn’t imagining it – there was a tiny, shimmering light in the empty manger.
"Mary!" she cried excitedly. Her sister came and stood beside her, and they looked at each other in amazement.
"What in the world is it?" Martha exclaimed. "What could it be? What could it mean?"
"Maybe we should just be quiet and see what happens," Mary whispered.
So they waited, gazing at the tiny light. It flickered slightly, yet it seemed very strong and sure. Then a voice spoke quietly from within the gentle glow – so quietly that they had to lean forward to hear.
"The manger is empty."
"Yes, I know," Martha replied. Her eyes filled with tears. "I’m sorry. I lost the baby Jesus. I don’t know where he is. I looked everywhere; I don’t know what happened to him."
"Martha," the voice said, "Don’t worry about it. Your nativity scene is perfect, actually. The manger is supposed to be empty."
"What do you mean?" Martha asked. "It’s missing the most important thing."
"Martha, listen very carefully," said the gentle voice. It almost sounded as if whoever spoke from within the glow was smiling. "It’s me, Jesus. And I’m not in the manger any more. Some people try to keep me there – maybe they think it’s safer that way, I don’t know – but I left there a long time ago. You know where I am, don’t you? I’m sure you do know, because I know you love me."
Martha felt the tears starting to run down her cheeks. "Of course I do," she whispered. "You’re right here in my heart."
"Exactly," said the soft voice. "So it doesn’t matter if the nativity scene is missing some parts, or if the blue theme gets spoiled with some green, or if you have only six kinds of cookies instead of seven. As long as you know I’m in your heart, none of that matters."
Then, as they watched, the shimmering glow faded and disappeared.
Martha looked at her sister. "I’m sorry he didn’t have a message for you, Mary."
"That’s all right," Mary smiled, putting her arm around Martha’s shoulders. "It was your turn this time." Then she stepped back. "Martha, can I turn on the tree lights?"
"Sure," said Martha, wiping her eyes. Mary went over and plugged in the Christmas tree, and the living room burst into beautiful, colourful light.
"That looks wonderful," Mary said, surveying their cosy, festive room. "You sure do have a knack for making things look special, Martha."
The missing baby Jesus figure never did turn up. At first that still bothered Martha a little bit, but as time passed she no longer went searching for it. After Christmas was over she put the nativity scene away without regret, and the next year when she pulled the box out of the attic and set up the little stable and tiny figures, she reminded herself that Jesus was in her heart where he belonged.
They say that Martha changed a little over the years – that one year she actually let Mary choose their Christmas decorating theme. Mary selected "an unmatched Christmas," which Martha thought was a ridiculous theme; but she kept that opinion to herself. And one year, it’s said, Martha even made chocolate-chip shortbread instead of plain. It was, she had to admit, absolutely delicious.
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