Thursday, February 06, 2014

The One Thing Needful

Paul-Alexandre-Alfred Leroy (1860 - 1942)
Jesus with Martha and Mary
Oil on canvas
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen

This was Leroy`s first public work exhibited at the Salon in 1882 to great acclaim

He was later to be famous for his Orientalist works and this early work exhibits features of that work for which he was to become celebrated in his time

There is a Venetian or Middle Eastern  feel to the work but he did not set out on his foreign travels until 1882 when he did the Grand Tour to Italy including Venice

He is of course drawing on that  "library" of motifs of largely imagined works which indulged Western preconceptions of exotic Eastern interiors.

The effect is all through props and subtle suggestion

But the figure of Christ is central and what we see is the human Christ with his good friends and not the divine Christ. 

It is the Christ who walked on the earth and attracted people as his followers, someone whom we could wish that we would get to know and talk to and be with and be like. Someone we feel comfortable with

It is an imaginative glimpse of that figure we can only barely see and envisage through the dark and fragmentary writings about him in Scripture which we have

Of course the divine Christ was and is the human Christ and what is depicted is a facet of a many faceted person

It is of course only one man`s conception and as Pope Benedict XVI said about the works of writers who attempt a portrait of "the historical Jesus", it is limited and  only a reflection of the personality of the artist himself.

It is a very important caveat

To meet Jesus we have to make the journey ourselves through the Word

As regards what the scene depicts there is probably no better summary of the episode than that given by Pope Benedict XVI in one of his Angelus talks in Summer 2010:
"Martha and Mary are two sisters; they also have a brother, Lazarus, but he does not appear on this occasion. Jesus is passing through their village and, the text says, Martha received him at her home (cf. 10: 38). This detail enables us to understand that Martha is the elder of the two, the one in charge of the house. Indeed, when Jesus has been made comfortable, Mary sits at his feet and listens to him while Martha is totally absorbed by her many tasks, certainly due to the special Guest.  
We seem to see the scene: one sister bustling about busily and the other, as it were, enraptured by the presence of the Teacher and by his words. 
A little later Martha, who is evidently resentful, can no longer resist and complains, even feeling that she has a right to criticize Jesus: "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me". Martha would even like to teach the Teacher! 
Jesus on the other hand answers her very calmly: "Martha, Martha", and the repetition of her name expresses his affection, "you are anxious and troubled about many things; only one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her" (10: 41-42). 
Christ's words are quite clear: there is no contempt for active life, nor even less for generous hospitality; rather, a distinct reminder of the fact that the only really necessary thing is something else: listening to the word of the Lord; and the Lord is there at that moment, present in the Person of Jesus! 
All the rest will pass away and will be taken from us but the word of God is eternal and gives meaning to our daily actions."

There have been tomes written about this episode in the life of Christ

But it is a straightforward story simply told. 

There is a straightforward message

"[T]he human person must indeed work and be involved in domestic and professional occupations, but first and foremost needs God, who is the inner light of Love and Truth. 
Without love, even the most important activities lose their value and give no joy. Without a profound meaning, all our activities are reduced to sterile and unorganised activism. 
And who, if not Jesus Christ, gives us Love and Truth? "

And with his strokes and through his great talent and labour, Leroy says the same thing to us with apparent but deceptive ease

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