The holidays are coming: Thanksgiving, Christmas, visiting family, school functions, church functions, how do I keep from ripping my hair out this year?

Perennial question: Martha or Mary?

There are so many good things to enjoy during the holidays. Family visits, special church celebrations, special decorations, once-a-year meals, gifts and memories. Nevertheless, as you say, it can all be a bit overwhelming sometimes.

Questions for Reyes may be sent to him at: 
Catholic Herald Family
P.O. Box 070913
Milwaukee, WI 53207-0913
or by email to

I find that with five small children, household chores, business responsibilities, deacon formation classes and homeschool lessons I need to be a lot like Martha, yet the real secret of success is not to ignore Mary.

This is the temptation of all busy people; let’s take a look at Scripture:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her. Lk 10:38-42.

At first glance, it seems Martha is totally right. There were guests in the house and there was a lot of work to do. Mary certainly should have helped with the housework.

Don’t we feel the same way? Leaves need to be raked, decorations need to be brought out of storage, the house has to be ready for guests and, on top of that, kids might have Christmas pageants and/or concerts, or there might be even be a cookie sale or a toy drive at church.  

The words of our Lord are paramount in understanding Martha’s real problem. Her problem was not the workload; it was not the dishes piling up or the food cooking. Martha’s real issue was that she was “worried and distracted by many things.”

With this short phrase, the Lord identifies all the many external distractions that have beset humans since the beginning of time. The temptation is to be led by the things outside of ourselves, the temptation is to react to our environment, and the temptation is to become distracted by those things.

Thomas à Kempis said, “A man is hindered and distracted in proportion as he draws outward things to himself.” 

This is what Martha did and this is what we do when we allow the external things in our lives to seep into our inner sanctum, our inner core, our inner castle.  

This inner space is holy. This inner place is meant for God. St. Paul said it very well when he said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” 1 Cor 6:19.

This is why Jesus applauds Mary; she has chosen to seat Jesus on the throne of her inner castle. Mary chose the better part; Mary chose to give a place of primacy to her Lord and King, signified here by sitting at his feet and listening to him.

We must make this recognition as well; Jesus has come to visit our lives this holiday season and every day. We can sit at his feet, listening to him, or we can ignore him and carry on with our daily duties.

Listening to him means to pray, to take time to talk to him at Mass, to make space for him in our calendar, to converse with him about our struggles and our successes, to spend time in silence, like best friends who don’t have to say anything to be content in each other’s presence, to become close to him by remembering, as St. Teresa of Avila tells us, that “the Lord walks among the pots and pans.” Do we acknowledge this humble guest of our souls?  

Here is the real nugget and the opportunity for true transformation. From this place of contemplation and love and recognition of Jesus as Lord of her life Mary can arise, filled with the presence of God, as Jesus said, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” Jn 14:23.  Being so filled with the indwelling of God in her soul, Mary can go about the chores and labors with a very different disposition than Martha.

The work is the same but the two sisters are in different places. Martha has allowed many worries and distractions to have a place in her inner sanctuary. Thus she has not put things in their proper order.

Mary, by putting God on the throne of her heart, has a peace within her that will not be taken away from her. Although she faces the same external pressures from the world as Martha, she knows what is of lasting value, and she sees from the inside out what we ought to take away as we enter the holiday season. Jesus teaches us this valuable lesson in John 16:33:

I have said this to you, 
that in me you may have peace. 
In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, 
I have overcome the world! 

(Henry Reyes, his wife, Dr. Patricia Cabral, and their five children belong to St. Anthony Parish, Milwaukee. Reyes wears many hats as a business owner, doctoral student and candidate in the deacon formation program for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but he says his most important hat is building his domestic church as a stay-at-home dad and homeschooling his three oldest children.)