The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish people were awaiting the coming of the Messiah about whom the Scriptures had prophesied. But the prophecies seem to present two different descriptions of who this Messiah would be. Some passages, such as Isaiah 53, describe him as a suffering servant, rejected by the people and led as a lamb to the slaughter, while other verses, such as Isaiah 11, describe a Messiah who will come to rule the earth and bring with him world peace.
“To reconcile these two very different portrayals of the Messiah, there grew a belief among the rabbis that they were waiting for two Messiahs. One they called Mashiach ben David, and He would be the Son of King David who would rule and reign. The other they called Mashiach ben Joseph, the Son of Joseph. This Messiah ben Joseph would suffer and be rejected by his own like Joseph was rejected by his brothers. At the time of Yeshua’s coming, Israel longed for the conquering Messiah. Because of Rome’s oppression and their expectation that God would send the Deliverer, they were looking for Messiah ben David,” explains messianic Rabbi Jonathan Bernis of Jewish Voice.
What they could not have known, of course, is that this same Messiah would be coming twice – first to suffer and then to reign!
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary at the time of the Annunciation, he said to her, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
We meditate on the joy that Mary experienced at the Annunciation in the joyful mysteries of the rosary. Surely, she imagined that she was carrying the much hoped-for Messiah who would rule his people and bring with him promised peace.
Mary carried that joy with her when she visited her cousin, Elizabeth. She proclaims in her Magnificat, “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:51-55)
Her joy continued when the time came to present Jesus in the temple, as was customary to do with a firstborn son. She was amazed when Simeon recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah he had been waiting to see, took him into his arms, and said of him, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
But the Blessed Mother revealed to Saint Matilda that when Simeon went on to tell her that Jesus was destined to be a sign that will be contradicted and that a sword would pierce her soul, “all her joy was changed into sorrow.” It was then that she realized that Jesus would be the suffering Messiah and understood all that this implied: the rejection, opposition, and painful death that awaited him. This first sword of sorrow pierced her heart at that moment as she became aware that her whole life with him would be spent in preparation for this bitter end.
Can you imagine the heaviness of this realization? Perhaps you have experienced a time when you thought that everything was going well and suddenly something devastating and unexpected happened. It hits you like a crushing blow – a diagnosis, an assault, a betrayal, an accident, a job loss. Everything changes. Can you remember the way you felt when it happened, almost like you were right back in that moment?
These types of jarring experiences weigh heavy on our minds and consume our thoughts. They threaten our sense of security and can cause us emotional trauma. The Bible doesn’t talk about what happened to Mary and Joseph after they left the temple that day. But we can certainly imagine their worry; they were human. We may feel anxiety that comes from not knowing how our situation will play out, but it is fathomable that knowing may be even worse. We can imagine the pain Mary felt knowing for certain what lay ahead, that the little child she lovingly cared for would die in the most cruel way. The only thing she did not know was when.
“Ah, my son, I clasp you in my arms, because you are so dear to me. But the more I love you, the more you become a source of sorrow to me when I think of all that you will have to suffer,” Saint Alphonsus Liguori writes in The Glories of Mary, in contemplating this sword of sorrow. Our Lady told Saint Bridget of Sweden, “My eyes filled with tears, and my heart was tortured with grief.” Surely, this was just the first step on the road of suffering that lay ahead for Mary; the closer they drew to the time of Jesus’ Passion, the more pain filled her heart.
But in spite of this sorrow and sadness, in spite of the weight of the news that she carried home from the temple with her that day and bore in her heart and mind every day as she raised her Son, Mary loved and devoted herself to Jesus and her faith in God sustained her through her pain.
Following Mary’s Example
What can we do when life takes a sudden unexpected turn and, like Mary, all our joy turns to sorrow?
Let’s look at what Mary did:
She maintained her humility in relation to God. After Simeon’s prophecy Mary and Joseph fulfilled the prescriptions of the law of the Lord. (Luke 2:39) Mary did not abandon her faith because something unexpected happened. Instead, she continued to follow God’s precepts in her Jewish faith to complete the dedication of Jesus. Mary had already said she was the handmaid of the Lord. She did not change her offering of herself in that way because it meant that she would endure suffering. In a similar way, sudden and unexpected suffering should not cause us to abandon our faith. Rather, we should remain humble by offering ourselves as living sacrifices for God to use in the way that he sees fit as our own personal fiat. Entrusting Him with these things is a spiritual act of worship: we are saying of Him that he is worthy of our trust.
She trusted God’s word. It is in Mary’s character to retain what she sees and hears and to ponder these things in her heart. Simeon’s words were not the only thing that Mary had been told about the infant Jesus. God had already sent an angel to Mary to tell her that Jesus would “be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Shepherds, prompted by a host of angels, came to visit him upon his birth. A star shone in the sky guiding magi from afar to come and pay him homage as he lay in the manger. Although Simeon’s prophecy brought her pain, she had had several other extraordinary experiences and had heard from God’s very own messenger that the story would be triumphant. These served to strengthen her faith and to sustain her when she felt afraid.
Likewise, our trials should be weighed in light of what God has already revealed to us about Himself in His Word:
- that He is good (Psalm 34:8)
- that His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8)
- that all things work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28)
- that He is trustworthy (Proverbs 3:5)
- that we are known by Him (Jeremiah 1:5)
- that we are seen by Him (Psalm 139:7-12)
- that we are loved by Him (Luke 12:7)
- Can you recall a time when you experienced suffering that came suddenly and unexpectedly? Perhaps you are experiencing this right now.
- What fears did/do you have in relation to this situation?
- What has God revealed about himself in His Word to sustain your faith in this time of uncertainty?
God, when the unexpected happens and I feel afraid, please remind me that nothing is a surprise to You; You are always in control. Help me to remember that You know even the number of hairs on my head. Help me to cling to You with childlike faith.
Our Lady of Sorrows, you maintained your submission to the will of God as His handmaid, even when it meant that your heart would be pierced with sorrow. Help us to follow your example and to submit ourselves in humility, even in the midst of our own suffering, trusting in God’s goodness and love for us and in the promises that He has already given us.
2 thoughts on “The First Sword of Sorrow – The Prophecy of Simeon”
This is beautiful. This is the only way to bring fruit out of suffering – stay close to God, be humble, trust. That line you quote from Saint Alphonsus Liguori is heavy. I have felt this before with my children, especially my son. They bring me such joy and I love them incredibly, but I also at times feel sorrow knowing that they will face suffering in their lives. Some of it I won’t be able to help them with. Some of it as a result of my poor parenting. Not quite what Our Lady experiences, but the feeling of wanting to protect our children is the same. Thanks for your post!
Oh yes – I completely understand this, Theoni, especially as I look around at our world today. It is difficult to imagine what it will be like for our children and their children. I wish I could shelter them from all persecution and struggle (and my own bad parenting choices). But of course, the whole point is that they must go through their own sufferings to receive grace and perseverance to endure to the end that God has appointed for them. It’s good to remember that God has his hand in their lives, too, and loves them even more than we do. We can entrust them to Him.