Wednesday, July 23, 2008

St. Luke 2:35, Mary the Doubter?

Moving on in my reading of Luke's Gospel Simeon moved by the Holy Spirit (v. 27) noted about St. Mary in his blessing the following,

"Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed." (Luke 2: 34-35, RSVCE).

What draws our attention tonight is the meaning of "and a sword will pierce your (Mary's) own soul also." For at least since the time of Origen1 some commentators have argued that ψυχὴν διελεύσεται ῥομφαία is speaking of St. Mary's "doubting" at the crucifixion of her Son. Some employing this interpretation have argued against the "Sinlessness" of Mary (or that she remained free from actual sin by a special act of God) by stating that in the act of doubting a certain sinful presupposition must exist. However we ask, is this (doubt) interpretation of the text a mandatory reading?

Far from it. Much lies on the translation of the nominative noun ῥομφαία which can be a literal or figurative (depending on context) type of sharp blade, broadsword or spear. Hence the flow of the Greek is clear, "also (Mary's) soul will be pierced by a blade." The play on words is unmistakable, as Christ will be pierced by a blade so also in a manner Mary. Thus the view that takes ῥομφαία as a metaphor for doubting is rather stretched and it is far more natural to understand ῥομφαία as a metaphor for the shared anguish of both the Son and the Mother at the crucifixion.2 This is further highlighted by the juxtapositioning of the external trials (v. 34) with the internal trials (v. 35). The Mother will also partake internally the external sorrows. 3


[End Notes.]

1. (Hom. in Luc. 17, 6). This interpretation of the Lukan text is followed by St. Basil (Letter of Basil to Optimus. 260, 9) and St. Chrysostom (Hom. in Matt. 44, 2). Basil writes that this doubting is common to all sinful man that is in dire need of the Holy Propitiation of the world, "Since, therefore, every soul was, at the time of the Passion, subjected, as it were, to a kind of doubt, in accord with the Lord's word when He said, "You will all be scandalized in Me," (Matt 26:31) Simeon prophecies also of Mary herself that, standing beneath the cross and seeing what was happening and hearing His words, even after the testimony of Gabriel (Luke 1:32-33), even after her secret knowledge of the divine conception (Luke 1:35), and after the great showing of miracles, - she too, he says, will experience a certain unsteadiness in her soul. For the Lord must taste of death for the sake of all; and to become a propitiation for the world, He must justify all men in His blood. "Some doubt, therefore will touch even you yourself, who have been taught from above about the Lord." That is the sword. (Luke 2:35)." Jurgens notes on Basil here, "This is Basil's highly questionable interpretation, in which he but follows Origen...Another of Origen's wretched opinions accepted by Basil." (The Faith of the Early Fathers. Vol. 2, 11).

2. As A. Plummer (St. Luke: ICC. 71) correctly notes. The preferred understanding is "extreme anguish" rather than "doubt" Plummer argues.

3. Many a Catholic exegete has seen Ezekiel (14:17) as the background motif for our Lukan text and have argued based on this that Mary is to be seen as the embodiment of the daughter of Zion, or in other words the nation of Israel. Mary is thus understood ῥομφαία as a divine instrument for the testing of people. However, this entire thesis is rather stretched and runs counter to the idea of the Lukan pericope which rather has the child Jesus and the reactions of people to Him in view.

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