Reading Luke 2:22-38
And a sword will pierce your own soul too…
One of Australia’s great contributions to Christmas is the Paul Kelly song, How to Make Gravy. The song, for those unfamiliar, is sung in the voice of Joe who is in prison and calling a man named Dan. Joe is apologising for missing the family’s Christmas celebrations and asks Dan to pass messages on to his kids and partner. It is a heart-breaking song with a good beat and touching specificity. It captures the pain caused when folks are removed from their families and communities by isolation and imprisonment.
Simeon rejoices in the sight of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. Having taken Jesus in his arms and praised God for the gift of getting to see, so late in life, the salvation of his people, he turns to the child’s parents and offers them a blessing. He then directs his attention to Mary, offering a sobering word: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
So far in Luke, Mary has been filled with great hope for the future her son will bring and the work her God will accomplish. Consider the opening to the Magnificat: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’ Simeon, though, alerts Mary to the fact (one she is likely aware of but is possibly trying to avoid out of understandable fear) that Jesus’ mission to (in Mary’s own words) bring down the powerful, lift the lowly, send the rich away empty and fill the hungry with good things will not be unopposed: the powerful are generally uninclined to give over their thrones. Proclaiming release to the captives (Luke 4) is good news for many... just not the captors. Jesus’ ministry makes enemies and provokes the ire of the violent machinations of the State, and it ends with his death on a cross – where nails pierce hand and foot, spear pierces side, and Mary – in living to see such an end for her beloved son – a sword pierces her own soul too.
Mary then, in this moment as at the foot of the cross, stands as a figure for all mothers (and beyond that all who parent, nurture, and raise) who have had to witness violence wrought on their children by oppressive governments, repressive policing, and unjust imprisonment. All mothers who have seen their children die on the street, who have lost years waiting for their child to return from a prison too far away for them to visit, who have felt the pang of looking at an empty chair at the table on Christmas lunch. By the power of the Spirit, Mary is there, present and grieving in those moments, present and standing strong when mothers lament, protest, and rage against deaths in custody and other miscarriages of justice. Her soul is pierced with (and thus tied to) all mothers (and more) who have felt the stab of this unkind sword of woe. Just as Jesus was not spared the violence of inhumane systems of justice and power bent on suppressing the call of true justice (and thus can be said to stand in true solidarity with the world’s suffering) so too the mother of our Lord was not spared the hurt of seeing her loved one brutalised, removed, and extinguished. There’s comfort in this, maybe hope too, it might not be enough everyday, but perhaps, a little more in times like this.
Daring to extend this connection more broadly, (though without wanting to conflate the general with the specific) these past years swords of varying degrees have pierced the sides of many family members who are unable to be together due to COVID restrictions. Who have not seen or held beloved children, siblings, or parents in more than two years. We too may draw comfort from the understanding presence of Mary and her son. But more than this, perhaps the character of this season (once more meeting online, limiting our movements, staying away from family and friends) provides us an opportunity to develop further empathy for those who COVID or no would have been kept from loved ones. We know during COVID prisons have been quick to cancel visits (often even those online) keeping people further isolated within an already isolating environment. Perhaps these last two years, reflected on with humility, provide us an opportunity to practice a more pointed remembrance for those who are in prison as if we were there with them (as the writer of Hebrews asks of the assembly 13:3). Perhaps this year can further set us on the course of remembering and advocating for the many Joe’s of the world – held in prison, refugee detention, or other forms of structural and societal isolation – so that they can feel the warmth of family and friends as they make the Christmas gravy.
Christmas and the New Year has long been recognised as a mixed season – grief and joy intermingling in ways far too messy to predict – and these past years have and intensify the bluer feelings. Yet here too Scripture offers consolation – even the first Christmas season was marked with frustration amidst the joy of Emmanuel, fear amidst the hope of redemption, grief amidst the blossoming of a new future, but this did not stop the work that God was and is and will do in the life and love of Jesus - a boy nurtured by a mother whose soul was pierced by Rome’s sword but whose spirit rejoiced in Israel’s God.
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