1 John 2:3-11
I had the privilege for many years of being on staff at one of the country’s largest Cathedrals. And while there I had pleasure of working with many fine individuals, both lay and cleric. However, looking back now, one of the individuals who touched my life the most was a little woman that very few people hardly ever noticed. She was not considered an important person on staff, like the bishop, priests, deacons, musicians, catechists, and other so-called "church professionals." She was just the lady who cleaned the back of the church. And her name was Martha.
Martha stood a towering 5 ft tall. She was incredibly thin and kept a huge turban- like scarf wrapped around her hair at all times. Even in the hot summers she wore three sets of clothing. Her footwear were always boots, not the shiny fancy leather knee boots that some women wear today, but rather the old zipped up rubber galoshes that my mother used to make me wear as a youngster that I despised. She always carried shopping bags with her that were never far from her sight. I never found out exactly what was in those shopping bags, but my suspicious mind guessed they contained all her worldly possessions.
Martha was very proud of her place at the Cathedral and very solicitous of the building itself. Martha arrived at the church at 5:30 am sharp everyday when it opened. She left at 8:30pm every night when it closed. After every service Martha went through the aisles and picked up the remaining odd piece of paper or placed the hymnals back in their racks. After a wedding she would remove the runner from the main aisle, make sure the flowers on the altar were watered and lower level washrooms were cleaned and stocked. And when there was no activity in the Cathedral proper, she would just sit in the back of this massive edifice to God’s glory and pray. She simply prayed and prayed and prayed.
She treated everyone she met equally. She greeted the Cardinal Archbishops the same way she greeted the local panhandlers – with a gentle smile and a shy hello. She rarely talked about herself, even when asked. I heard that at night she slept in a shelter in a dicey part of town, and when not working at the church, served meals in the shelter soup kitchen.
I left the staff of the Cathedral after six years. I never heard what had happened to Martha. But for some reason, her faithfulness, her selflessness, and her gentle presence continue to haunt my memory.
Over the next two days we will hear in Luke’s gospel about Simeon and Anna. People who I imagine are very much like my Martha – faithful, selfless, observant and kind – people whom others may not notice or just dismiss as unimportant. But it was exactly to these folks that God revealed his Christ to.
So the next time you happen to be in a church, whether a grand Cathedral or a tiny chapel in the middle of nowhere, think of the Simeons, the Annas and the Marthas and say a prayer for them. Perhaps they will ask God to reveal his Christ to you anew!
Patrick Quinn ([email protected]) is the director of Planned Giving at the Passionist Development Office in Chicago.