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Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)

19 January 2024

28 January, Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 24; Hebrews 2.14-end; Luke 2.22-40

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LUKE has a way with words. In the Candlemas Gospel, v.35 stands out: “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” We recognise that poignancy in our own close relationships, in which every beginning of joy — such as a “child born into the world” (John 16.21-22) — brings with it, one day, a final parting, and the grief that comes with loss.

But wait. Whose poignancy is this — Luke’s, or the translators’? Both the AV and the RSV keep the order of Luke’s original Greek. If the NRSV (and the NIV) did the same, it would read like this: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed — and a sword will pierce [“go through” in Greek] your own soul, too — so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”

When Mary’s pierced soul is made the final phrase of Simeon’s speech, pain (the price of human love) becomes the culmination of his prophecy. That is misleading. But the pierced soul could also be misleading, if we leave it in the middle, as in the Greek. I had to punctuate carefully to show that it is a parenthesis (a remark logically separate from the rest of the sentence). Luke means the phrase “so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” to follow on from opposition to Christ. The revelation of inner thoughts is effected not by the soul-piercing sword, but by the child.

This is the third time that Luke has associated Mary with prophecy. There was the angel, Gabriel (1.30-32); then, a heavenly host (2.16-17); and, now, a Spirit-filled human being. It has cost Simeon something to be a prophet. Costly obedience seems to be God’s preferred way with those who speak his words (Jeremiah 20.2, 40.1; 1 Kings 22.24, etc.).

Simeon had waited into old age, but God had no need to make him wait at all. He could have given Simeon his revelation on the day of purification itself. Yet there is “a stature in waiting”, as W. H. Vanstone once put it: Simeon’s recognition of Jesus is a blessing to himself, as well as to Christian posterity.

What about the sword? Luke uses the term rhomphaia. It is a bladed weapon with a single edge, not a double-edged sword (xiphos), or a machaira, which could have a single edge (for cutting) or a double edge (for thrusting and piercing).

It seems odd that Luke writes of a single-edged sword. A two-edged blade would be more effective for piercing. I wondered about the ragged wounds left by such weapons as pointing to human pain as being more haphazard than surgical. But that is imagination, not exegesis. In any case, he could simply be using romphaia as a general term, like “firearm”.

There is still that “too” in v.35 to be tackled. We might detect a parallel between the suffering of the Son on the Cross, and his mother at its foot: then “too” would mean “Your soul will be pierced as Jesus’s side was pierced.” But the piercing of Jesus’s side, and Mary’s presence where it takes place, are found only in John (19.26, 34). Luke does not include either fact in his account of the Passion; so it is unlikely that he is alluding to them here.

Help comes if we turn once more to that single-edged blade, the romphaia. It is not a stabbing weapon, like the lance in John’s Gospel. A rhomphaia is for cutting things in two, for cleaving. It enacts a division, as in Solomon’s famous judgment about the baby (1 Kings 3.16). Luke’s word for “piercing” does mean “going through”, but the movement is vertical, not horizontal. We should picture the blade as coming down from above, not thrusting forward, when it “goes through” Mary’s soul.

A sword will cleave her soul, and ours. Inside and outside will change places, as the shell that we hide behind vanishes, while our secret interior is shockingly exposed. The “two-edged sword” of Hebrews 4.12 can both cleave and pierce: it represents the Word of God, which divides “soul and spirit, joints and marrow”. So, Hebrews 4.13 completes Simeon’s lesson: “Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

In the end, the child, and the sword, and the Word are one.

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