“A Sword Will Pierce Your Soul”

The Mother of God, while bringing the Christ child to the temple, was greeted by an elderly man, the “just and devout man,” Simeon. Taking the child into his arms he spoke the well-known prophetic words of the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace….” He spoke as well of the child’s future, with dark tones that hinted at the suffering he would endure. He turned as well to the young Mary and said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul also.” This inner suffering of the Mother of God, a mystical communion in the suffering of her Son, is, I believe, an unavoidable communion for all who would enter the Kingdom of God.

Human beings dislike suffering and in our modern age have directed much time and money to reduce and eliminate it. It is well and good to care for one another and to use God’s world and the gifts of healing that it affords. But there is no elimination of suffering – it remains an integral part of life.

The crucifixion of Christ and His death on the Cross are not removed from His proclamation of the Kingdom of God – the Cross is an inherent and integral part of the encounter of the Kingdom with the broken and fallen world in which we live. St. John’s gospel speaks of Christ’s crucifixion as His “glorification.” In the same manner, Christians are commanded by Christ to “take up your cross and follow me.” There is no description of the Christian life consistent with the gospels that does not contain a cross.

In many ways, Christ’s ministry can be described as a continual confrontation with the suffering world. In sending out the Twelve, he charged them:

…as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give (Matt. 10:7-8).

The preaching of the Kingdom is here described as synonymous with these encounters with brokenness, disease and bondage. In answer to inquiries from John the Baptist, Christ describes His ministry in terms that are unmistakeable in their proclamation of His messiahship:

Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matt. 11:4-5).

Our daily lives are not commonly marked by our victorious prayer in the face of suffering. Often, the sick remain sick, the blind remain blind, lepers remain lepers, the deaf remain deaf and the dead remain dead. Needless to say that the poor remain with us always. But such encounters and spiritual weakness in our lives are not to be excused by consigning the blind, the lepers, the deaf and the dead to the “stuff of life” – as inevitable and unavoidable parts of the natural order. In much of modernity such a consignment is not only seen as “natural” – the Kingdom itself is consigned to the “supernatural” and postponed to some later date at the end of history. Those who accuse Christians of believing in “pie in the sky, by and by,” are speaking of this displaced and postponed Kingdom – which is decidedly not the gospel of Christ.

The inauguration of the Kingdom of God – announced in the preaching of Christ – is the confrontation between heaven and earth. It is not a preaching of a Second Storey to which we may all someday go when we die – it is a frontal assault on a world which sought to declare itself as secular territory – uninhabited by God. This proclamation does not cease with the Cross and Ressurection – it is Christ’s commission to His disciples – the very life of the Church.

But the character of this proclamation continues to hold the promise that “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” St. Paul describes his hope in the faith, praying that he might have:

the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:9-11).

Nor does the great apostle see this as his own peculiar desire. At the conclusion of his expression of hope he encourages his readers to take on the same goal:

Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. (Philippians 3:15).

The Mother of God knew the communion of Christ’s sufferings at the Cross – a sword pierced her own soul. Her communion in the sufferings of Christ certainly included her grief as His mother, but far more as well. How does the grief of every mother not have some participation in the sword which pierced Mary’s soul? The grief of Mary, sanctified by its communion with the suffering of Christ, sanctifies the grief of all mothers in the same manner. It does not take away the grief, but it makes possible a transformation in which our grief is no longer the “stuff of this world,” but a communion in the Kingdom of God.

The commandment to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” remains. St. Paul certainly fulfilled this commandment according to the measure of his faith. In our own life of faith such dramatic encounters may be present as well (according to the measure of faith), but even without such encounters we must refuse to cede territory to the adversary (including the disguise of neutrality in the secular account of life). The inauguration of the Kingdom of God includes Christ’s descent into Hades. There nowhere that is off-limits to Christ’s Kingdom.

Our encounter with suffering, whether in ourselves or in others, is also a place of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not its cause, but its hope and redemption. Thus we can obey the commandment:

Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…(Ephesians 5:17-20).

It is doubtless the case that in our thanksgiving a sword may often pierce our own soul – but that, too, is a communion with Christ. In Christ it is also a communion with Mary and with all the saints who have taken up their crosses in obedience to Christ. Our souls, pierced by such a sword, groans together with all creation, awaiting the final triumph of the Kingdom. Our thanksgiving is an act of Eucharist (eucharistia=thanksgiving), a transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. It is the fulfillment of the priesthood of all believers.

Such a life is not a freedom from suffering, but a communion in the sufferings of Christ that we might know the power of His resurrection.

Glory to God for all things!

Comments

  1. Margaret says

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen – a very good article. I’ve been wondering about suffering lately and about how God sometimes heals and sometimes allows us to suffer to help us grow.

    Why did Christ heal only one of the suffering at the pool of Bethesda, for instance?

    I guess this is just one of those things we’ll understand when we are in the Kingdom, but when one is praying for healing it can be hard to wait that long.

  2. Yannis says

    And yet, the created order of things exhibits tremendous spiritual beauty despite, or even due to its very fragility and impermanence.

    i don’t mean to be argumentative, its just that the whole world often seems to incorporate the brokeness and transfigure it into beauty – of course from an observer’s point of view.

    Even things inherently frictitious and annoying like downtown traffic can create rythms and patterns of infinite depth, astonishing beauty and vigorous dynamism, which were clearly not intended and fully unexpected by traffic regulators, planners and policy makers. Let alone things like the sea, trees, clouds, the wind, the landscape, the face of a person.

    At the other hand i can really see the truth of your words: cruelty, waste, violence are clearly part of the world. But are they really foreign to God? I don’t mean to suggest that God is cruel, arbitrary and violent. It seems to me though that good seems to be meaningful because the potential for evil is everpresent and real in this world. The ultimate good that transcends all relativity and notion of “goodness” and thus nullifies evil too is Christ’s admonition to “love your enemies”.

    Is it not a bit like how this world is? hence “He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”?

    Just some thoughts and a genuine question.

    Such a mystery!

  3. says

    Recently, I too, have been pondering more intensely the place of suffering in the Christian life. One of many insights I’ve had is that our Lord allows us to be His companions in His Passion. He asked His apostles to be alert and pray when He agonized about His impending Passion at Gethsemane. They just fell asleep. But, He was human, as well as divine, and like most of us, He could have used some support. In our sufferings we can exercise compassion for Him, as did His mother.

  4. says

    Yannis I don’t think love (or goodness) requires a contrast for it to be, or to be known, or to acquire meaning; furthermore, God is without necessity. It would seem to me it is evil that requires contrast for it to approach any sort of meaning that is redemptive. Evil is parasitic and without true existence, love is life eternally present in the Trinity.

  5. says

    Thank you…I have faced it myself and I don´t like it, now my wife is facing cancer surgery and I still don´t like it to that of hating it. Hating the stress, the emotions and the whole process of suffering. It isn´t so much against the doctors and health care givers, but that of the idea of going through it again even now as her partner.
    I am listening to AFR and the music they are playing is the Great Litany…I just have to close my eyes and listen to it as the Kingdom is opening up to me. Lord have mercy!

  6. Yannis says

    Thank you for your reply Robert,
    i disagree with you. In a world that evil is not a real possibility being good would be meaningless, as then everyone would have no choice but be “good”. Only because the world is as is and man can be either good or bad, can good have meaning.

    I agree with you of course that being good makes for a much more balanced, fulfilling and satisfying living. However goodness in my perspective does not derive its principal value and meaning from its benefits. If it did it would be a self help technique: “learn to be good in 10 simple steps so you can live a more healthy, less stressful and happier life” etc. It would be a goodness and love with very self conscious reasons – very much ego based.

    I do not understand what you mean by “God is without necessity”. If you mean that God is good and so God does not need evil because he is stronger than it and He will defeat it and all will be well in the end, then i very much disagree with you.

    For me, the possibility of evil is actually the mark of God’s love. Had evil not been allowed as a possibility , this world would be one of puppets, not of free beings. The father of the prodigal son is clearly known to be a loving father in the selfless way he accepts his son back. The actual mark of his selfless love though is that he – without a word – allows him to leave in the first place. A selfish father would have dissalowed to his son to leave. As a consequence of been allowed to explore his selfishness, the prodigal son becomes eventually more humble than his obedient brother. He has learned the value of his father’s house not despite, but because he was allowed to wonder away from it.

  7. says

    Yannis and Robert,
    Robert is right “there is no necessity in God,” and it is also true that the goodness of God cannot be judged by some other standard of good (it would not make sense). Freedom is clearly a good and is given us by God. But evil has no existence (the fathers are clear on this). It is simply a deviation from the good. Freedom is a constituent part of love – love must be free to be love.

    But Yannis, you assume that what it is to be human is much as we are now. The “choosing” we experience is itself the result of an inner fragmentation rather than a sign of freedom.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa allowed for freedom without evil – it is the freedom to choose between several “goods.” I thought your statement of the “possibility” of evil was accurate (rather than saying the ‘necessity’ of evil). We will not eternally live on a razor’s edge, however, despite our freedom and the good.

  8. Greg says

    Ah, I was just about to mention the idea that there may exist a multiplicity of goods – Father you beat me to the punch. I think St. Maximus discussion of the two wills of Christ and the garden of Gethsemane makes a similar point.

    It may also be worth noting that freedom in classical usage carried a sense of the ability to pursue once proper ends (telos) – not the ability to do whatever you want.

  9. Yannis says

    F.Stephen,
    i agree with the Fathers that evil has no substance initself. Its because of this that all ego driven passions are bottomless – there is no solidity in evil, exactly because it has no inherent existence but it is a distortion.

    You are right that i used on purpose “the possibility” instead of “the necessity” of evil, the one agrees with reality, the other not (as man and God would be then bound by evil and the necessity of evil). Of course i know that there is no necessity in God – yet i do believe that there is no duality in God either – hence my reply to Robert about the point. God fulfils and transcends all opposites in my view, and this is exhibited time and again both in Scripture and in the writings of the Fathers.

    I assume that what is to be human is all we know now, because this is all i can know right now. Perhaps some Saints amidst the Fathers do “know” what we will be, and i believe them However, “quantus scimus sumus” – to the extent we are we know. I can only know what my current spiritual level and existence allows me. I take the Father’s word for what they tell us, but at the same time, i have to strive to advance and i can only do this based on my current understanding.

    Thank you for your answer.

  10. Jim Stanley says

    Father Stephan,

    God bless you for this insight. After watching some of the most beloved people in my life suffer what seemed impossible agony, I spent months furious with God. I repeatedly asked God, “why?” And I began to wonder, with C.S. Lewis, if perhap God was just a bit of a sadist. My Evangelical Protestant friends all offered explanations that ranged from the cruel to the absurd to the well-intended platitude. My anger came to a head one summer afternoon while mowing the grass (where I do my best thinking). I turned off the mower, picked it up over my head and threw it as far as I could. Not quite a feat of herculean strength, but almost. Those things are heavy. But the adrenaline rush of rage is quite real. And I let loose on my Abba a torrent of profanity, hate and anger. What He permitted to be done to my father, my best friend and my wife was unconscionable. Why, oh why, did He allow it?

    I lived in that ambiguity a short while, still grudgingly attending my Evangelical church – more out of loyalty to one dear friend and simple muscle memory than anything else.

    In my job as News Director at a local radio station, I normally assigned reporters to attend this or that press conference or spot news event. On this particular, probably owing to vacations or sickness — I can’t remember, I was a one-man operation. I went out myself. The news conference was at a Roman Catholic church downtown. The Bishop was announcing some major improvements to the Cathedral.

    Raised in Baptist and Christian & Missionary Alliance churches as a child…and currently attending a Church of God…I had little or no experience with Catholocism, Orthodoxy or Anglicanism. (Besides listening to John Michael Talbot, attending Greek fest downtown and reading C.S. Lewis.) So, as I entered the Cathedral, I’d no idea what to expect. I didn’t possess the stupid anti-Catholic bigotry preached from some of the pulpits of my youth. But I was ignorant. As I walked down the center aisle, a gigantic crucifix came into view. I’d seen the odd picture. I’d seen a crucifix or two in movies. But this was almost life-size. And it was a grisly, bloody affair…not prettied up with gold and scrolling.

    I was transfixed. I don’t know how I made it through the press conference, because I trembled every time I looked at it. When the event was over, I stayed and stared. There was my answer. I had been asking all along, “Why” and my Abba had chosen not to answer that particular question. Instead, he answered the question, “Who”? Here was the answer to my brilliant father’s aphasia…to my best friend’s brutal murder…to the infertility that created so much grief in our marriage. Here also was God’s answer to the Trail of Tears, slave ships, Auschwitz and the murder of Matthew Shepherd.

    The Lord Jesus…and now, with your help I see the Theotokos also…as God’s answer. “Why” is not to be explained in this life. It will be one day. For now, for us, “Who” is quite sufficient. He did not spare His own Son. She said, “Yes” to God, even though a sword would pierce her soul.

    My father was not alone in his addled bewilderment. Jesus was there. As my friend died, undoubtedly afraid, I know she was in the company of Mary and all the saints who have suffered. And in the case of my wife and me, well…the infertility question was never resolved with medicines, potions or the machinations of modernity. Instead, the God who inserts Himself in our pain brought the two of us into the pain of a child without a mother. We adopted and we are simply over the moon about it.

    And that, too, is what I read in your message today. Perhaps it’s not just that God and the saints share in our pain. It’s that we are commissioned to take our pain and marry it to the pain of a broken world, thereby building the Kingdom Jesus will one day perfect.

    Thank you, Father. You have reminded me afresh of the wonder that is following Jesus.

  11. Greg says

    Your weaving in the suffering of the Theotokos brings to mind the wonderdul essay by Mother Maria Skobtsova “On the Imitation of the Mother of God.” I think it can be found online via google.

  12. Marie says

    Father Bless,

    Thank you for this encouraging post. It really helps me to make sense of otherwise nonsensical events in this life.

    As we are entering the season of Nativity, something I’ve never seen before, I am noticing in the icon of the Nativity this “sword” coming down from on high. Is it just me?

    Thank you all for your insights.