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“Concerning What Simeon Said to Mary”
The First Sunday of Christmastide
(audio begins at about 22 seconds)
“And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” With those words from today’s gospel lesson, Simeon placed a small cloud over a big day. In keeping with the traditions of Judaism, Mary and Joseph had brought the baby Jesus to the temple for his dedication, at which the prophet Simeon had said some beautiful words over Mary’s infant son. But, then, the tone took a turn when Simeon said that this child would grow up to cause conflict, and that, because Mary was Jesus’ mother, a sword would pierce her own soul, too.
All of which came to pass, just as Simeon said. Jesus did grow up to cause much conflict, and a sword of sorrow did pierce Mary’s soul when she suffered the sadness of watching her son die on the cross.
But, while Jesus’ death may have been the worst of the sword Simeon saw in Mary’s future, it wasn’t the first of the sword Simeon saw. That may have come some years earlier, when, as an adolescent, Jesus left his parents when they took him to the temple, without telling them where he would be, about which Mary, once said she found him, said, “We have been looking everywhere for you! Why have you treated us this way?; a very human moment for the very holy family, and, perhaps, a first small wound from the sword Simeon said would pierce Mary’s soul.
Then, of course, there was that time when Jesus was teaching his followers and someone said to Jesus, “Rabbi, your mother and your brothers are outside. They need to speak to you,” in response to which we expect Jesus to say to his audience, “Excuse me. My family needs me. I’ll be right back.” But, as you will recall, rather than responding as we would expect, Jesus said, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters? My family members are those who do the will of my Father in heaven.” And, one imagines that the sword Simeon said would pierce Mary’s soul wounded her spirit a little more.
And, then, of course, came the cross. Jesus sat down with and stood up for the wrong people often enough that he made the right people nervous enough that they had him arrested, convicted and crucified, and the sword Simeon said would pierce Mary’s soul did, indeed; just as Simeon said it would.
Making Mary’s family, for her, a source, of both joy and pain; a quiet reminder, for all of us, of something many of us already know, which is that the family which loves us most dearly can also be the family which wounds us most deeply; what Simeon called “a sword in the soul”; what I, somewhere along the way, came to call “helpless love.”
We are helpless to manage the lives of those we love, which is as it should be. But, we are also helpless to distance ourselves from the pain which can sometimes come to, and from, those we love. And, no matter how hard we work at establishing healthy boundaries between our lives and the lives of those we love, boundaries in families are, as one wise soul once said, less like a never-changing brick wall than an ever-changing row of crepe myrtles.
None of which is news to any of us, and, all of which leaves many of us to do some of our most careful thinking, and most ardent praying, around the often complex questions of how best to love one another in families: When does supportive love become unhealthy enabling? On the other hand, when does tough love need to lighten up? When do difficult conversations need to be had, straight on? On the other hand, when is the difficult conversation which needs to be had not worth the risk of the rupture it might cause? And what about holding on and letting go? The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time for both, but it doesn’t offer any guidance concerning how, or when, to do one or the other.
Families take almost as many different shapes in our world as they took in the Bible. But, one thing almost all families, of every shape and size, hold in common, is a perpetually repeated, never ending, convergence of joy and pain, simplicity and complexity; not unlike Mary’s life with her unusual son, Jesus; a life of joy, no doubt, but, joy bruised by the sword Simeon saw, which makes the holy family just like every ordinary family, in that, for all of us, the family which loves us most dearly can also be the family which wounds us most deeply.
Which is why it is so important for all of us, no matter what shape or size our family, to practice, in our families, the daily virtues of kindness, patience, respect, courtesy, gentleness and truthfulness; accepting those we love for who they are without requiring them to become who we think they should be, which means relinquishing whatever leverage we like to hold over those we love.
To practice, in our families, the daily virtues of kindness, patience, respect, courtesy, gentleness and truthfulness might also mean to choose to refuse to talk about our family members in their absence in any way other than we talk about them in their presence, and, to decide to renounce the relentless teasing which, in so many families, causes so much needless pain, and, to practice paying mindful attention to one another by looking at one another more frequently, carefully and intentionally than we look at the screens on our phones.
None of which will make our families perfect and painless, but, all of which will make our families more safe and healing; a strong and true gift of grace in a world which sometimes seems to grow less that way with each passing day.