And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Much traditional devotion sees this piercing sword as the maternal grief Mary would experience at the death of her son, Jesus.
But I think there is much more going on. The image of the piercing sword shows up in Hebrews 4:12-13.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And 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.
Luke 2 and Hebrews are rich with images from the Jerusalem Temple and Old Covenant practices, and the piercing sword expresses violent change as the New Covenant is recognized in Jesus. Perhaps the sword is a prophetic reference to the destruction of the Temple by Roman soldiers - an event which wiped out the Old Covenant sacrificial system.
- In Luke 2, Simeon shows up to offer the sacrifices sought by Joseph and Mary, but is instead "dismissed" by God, having seen the Messiah as the promised salvation. Compare this with Hebrews 4:14, which introduces Jesus as the new "High Priest" who replaces the earthly Temple Priesthood. The blade is turned away from the necks of sacrificial animals, and aimed at the thoughts within us.
- Simeon is relieved of a decades-long wait, and given peace in the presence of the Savior. Hebrews 4 explains that Joshua's conquest of the promised land was not an abiding rest, but part of a greater plan that would lead to eternal rest in the Messiah. The sword is taken from our striving, struggling hands and we are directed to come empty-handed to the "throne of grace," where Christ is ready to help. The sword cleaves apart self-justifying works and the gift of faith.
- Simeon's inner faithfulness is exposed and blessed by Jesus-in-the-flesh; the incarnate Lord is the sword. Hebrews, expressing life after Jesus' ascencion and the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit, says that the word of God (Holy Scripture) is the sword (confirmed by Ephesians 6:17) by which our thoughts are exposed for rebuke or for praise from God. The sword cuts down any external religiosity which is inconsistent with the "Word of God, containing all things necessary to salvation" (Book of Common Prayer).
None of this should erase the popular devotion to Mary - we do well to note that her "Yes" to God led to the greatest agony a mother can experience. She models the way of the cross for all of us.
But the piercing sword must not be enshrined as a sympathetic tribute to someone else. The sword is always unsheathed and in use, hacking and probing to see if our external "religion" has any organic connection to a living, inner faith in Jesus Christ, as revealed in Holy Scripture.
Mary proved true - and the sword that pierced her points at us.