And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed (Luke 2:35).
The four Gospels are not without passages that need explanation. That is why we have an ecclesia docens (a Church teaching). And that is why the Church has given us in the earliest Christian centuries holy doctors to enlighten theirs and all generations to come. Of course the Church has many saints that have been given the title doctor over the centuries (thirty six as of today) but the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries have been blessed with the most illustrious. Four in the West and four in the East stand out. They are Saints Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Pope Gregory in the West and Saints Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, and Basil in the East.
If I find a verse, primarily in the Gospels, to be troublesome or too enigmatic for my literal reading, I know where to go to get an answer. First, I go to Cornelius a Lapide, who has the best of all commentaries on the Gospels, and, if I am not satisfied there I go to another scholar’s commentary, Reverend George Leo Haydock’s, whose Douay English translation of the Vulgate is the best in our language.
A Lapide has a good collection of patristic exegesis for the enigmatic verse I introduced above. The actual name of our trusty Jesuit from Flanders was Cornelis van den Steen. (In his time, saddling the sixteenth and seventeenth century, it was not uncommon for scholars to Latinize their names.) As is always the case with a Lapide he begins with commentators whose opinions, although pious, are somewhat stretched and ends with the more acceptable and easily understood interpretations.
And thy own soul a sword shall pierce . . .
Right away we learn that “sword,” in the Arabic text and the Greek can mean lance as well as sword. Hence, when Our Savior was already dead on the Cross, the centurion came and pierced His side with a lance. Who felt the pain of this lance thrust into the Heart of the Son of God but His holy mother Mary? Her soul, which was continually being pierced on Calvary by the mocking blasphemies of the Jews and the pagan executioners, was now, after Jesus had expired, pierced unto death. Only by the Will of God did she not expire then and there. “The sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword” (Psalm 56:5).
What is this sword?
A Lapide tells us that Saint Eucherius of Lyons (Hom. in Dominicam), understands the sword of the Spirit to be the word of God, i.e., the spirit of prophecy, To Mary, he says, was revealed the secrets of Holy Scripture and the hidden thoughts of men. Even the hidden thoughts of her divine Son as we see at the wedding of Cana when the Mother with authority told the waiters: “Whatsoever He telleth you, do it.” Perhaps, too, we can apply this to the message of Saint Paul to the Hebrews: “The word of the Lord is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (4:12).
A more literal interpretation of “sword” here is with reference to the sufferings inflicted on Christ, that is the sign of contradiction spoken of above; for the contradiction of the tongue is a kind of sword, as in Psalm 56:5, “The sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword”; and Psalm 63:4, “Who whetted their tongues like a sword.” This sword, a Lapide notes, is twofold. (1) The sword of the tongue. For the Blessed Virgin, hearing the insults, calumnies, and blasphemies with which Christ was assailed by the Jews, even when He was crucified, suffered intense tortures, just as though a sword had been struck through her soul. (2) The sword of iron – the nails and other torments which not only pierced the body and soul of Christ, but also pierced the soul of the Virgin. ”They humbled his feet in fetters: the iron pierced his soul” (Psalm 104:18). Such is the interpretation of Saint Augustine (Ep. 59, ad Paulinum).
How great was the torture inflicted by this sword we may gather, with Franciscus Toletus, S.J., from the fact that it was her Son who suffered, whom the Mother of God loved more than herself, so that she would far rather have suffered and been crucified herself. For, though the Blessed Virgin stood by Him and suffered with Him, yet did the Mother’s anguish but add a new pang to the Son’s torments, and this grief again had its echo in the Mother’s soul. Knowing His Heart perfectly this too was a sword piercing her Immaculate Heart.
In this vein, a Lapide cites Saint John of Damascus, “The pains she had escaped in childbirth she bore at the time of His Passion, so that she felt her bosom torn asunder by reason of the depth of her maternal love” (de Fide, lib. iv. cap. xv).
And, too, Saint Bernard: “The chosen arrow,” he says, “is the love of Christ, which not only pierced, but pierced through and through, the soul of Mary, so that it left in her virginal breast not the smallest part void of love, but with all her heart, and all her soul, and all her strength, she loved. And truly, again, it penetrated through her to come to us, that of that fullness we might all receive, and she might be the Mother of that Love whose father is the Love of God. . . . And in her whole self did she receive the vast sweet wound of love. Happy shall I think myself if sometimes I may feel pricked with but the very tip of that sword’s point, that my soul too may say, ‘I am wounded with love’.”
That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
This passage is surely difficult to interpret.
A Lapide prefers the explanation of the sixteenth century Jesuit, Toletus: “The sword that shall pierce thy soul, O Virgin, shall be the occasion of revealing the thoughts of many hearts that before lay hidden. For, long before Christ was slain, the leaders of the Jews had the intention of slaying Him, but dared make no attempt against Him, for fear of the people. But then the Jews had already before the Passion made manifest their thoughts about Christ, by caviling at His words and works, although they concealed their desire to slay Him.”
The “that” that begins the passage is expressive both of the purpose and its attainment. It refers back to the preceding verse, “This child is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel and for a sign that shall be contradicted.” Thus, we see it exhibited manifestly in the scribes and pharisees who, like heretics of all times, appeared to be the upholders of justice and truth. Their “thoughts would be revealed” in their murderous designs against the Messiah and His justice, and all the Jews were about to see this antagonism. For, before the advent of Christ, their leaders were in hopes that He would come with pomp, might, and splendor, even as Solomon, and certainly deliver them from the Romans. Too, they hoped to be exalted with Him as His champions. Therefore, when they saw Him in His humility and poverty opposing Himself to their ambition and avarice, and publicly rebuking them for it, they schemed how they might have Him put to death. Let us see with what detail their hateful scheme was prophesied:
He boasteth that he hath the knowledge of God, and calleth himself the son of God. He is become a censurer of our thoughts. He is grievous unto us, even to behold: for his life is not like other men’s, and his ways are very different.We are esteemed by him as triflers, and he abstaineth from our ways as from filthiness, and he preferreth the latter end of the just, and glorieth that he hath God for his father. Let us see then if his words be true, and let us prove what shall happen to him, and we shall know what his end shall be. For if he be the true son of God, he will defend him, and will deliver him from the hands of his enemies. Let us examine him by outrages and tortures, that we may know his meekness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a most shameful death: for there shall be respect had unto him by his words. These things they thought, and were deceived: for their own malice blinded them. And they knew not the secrets of God, nor hoped for the wages of justice (Wisdom 2: 13-22).
Thus, the thoughts of men were revealed in Israel manifesting who were the just who loved Christ and who were the unjust who hated Him.
But, you may still be wondering, why is the piercing of Our Lady’s soul with this sword or lance the cause of the revelation of the thoughts of men’s hearts?
Perhaps we may think here of Dismas. He was first moved by hearing the King of the Jews forgive His enemies. Prior to that it seems that he also was blaspheming along with his companion in crime: “Let Christ the king of Israel come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him reviled him” (Mark 15:32).
My own belief is that Dismas was moved also by seeing the grief of Jesus’ mother. There is a tradition that on their flight into Egypt the Holy Family was accosted by robbers and that one of the robbers, seeing Mary, took pity on them and caused the others to leave the Family alone. Tradition is that this was Dismas. (See Abbe Gaume’s book, The Life of the Good Thief, available from our bookstore.) If this be true, he merited the prayers of the Mother of God who remembered him as she stood beneath the Cross. The thoughts of Saint Dismas were then opened to grace and, after his conversion, they were revealed. So it is through the centuries. The thoughts of those who love Mary and those who scorn her or snub her will always be revealed.
What dark thoughts the heretics have in their disregard for the Mother of God! They see her soul pierced with that lance on Calvary and they are unmoved. They will not call her “Blessed.” They will not proclaim her perpetual virginity, her Immaculate Conception, and sinlessness. Their protests of “Lord, Lord” will be of no avail before the Judge. Love of Mary is the sign of contradiction for all who claim to be Christian. He who will not have Mary for his mother cannot have God for his Father.
What did Saint Elizabeth say when she saw Mary at her door for the Visitation? “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She first praises the mother and then her Son.
This is the way of God: To Jesus through Mary. It is the way God came to us.