Did I just turn Luke chapter 2 into clickbait? Maybe. But this chapter, and one verse in particular, gained new meaning for me this year.
Luke 2 may be my most read chapter of New Testament scripture. It was part of every Christmas lesson in church. Portions were read in every Christmas sacrament meeting. It was covered in Sunday School at least once every four years, plus seminary and institute. And my family reads it every year on Christmas Eve (my paternal grandfather would even recite it from memory).
I’ve read this chapter hundreds of times. Though perhaps over the years it became like a hymn to me—the words and the rhythm deeply familiar, though not necessarily deeply analyzed. It covers a lot of ground, from Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem to be taxed, to Mary delivering the baby and laying him in a manger, to the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, and more. I had read the prophecy of Simeon many times, but until a Roman Catholic friend introduced me to Mary Our Lady of Sorrows earlier this year, I had never paid attention to the final two of Simeon’s eleven verses, wherein he prophesies about Mary.
Luke 2:34 “And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; 35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Mary, having already conceived, delivered, and named the baby Jesus, is told that a sword shall pierce her soul that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
Why had I never noticed this prophecy before? I have to take some personal responsibility. I had read these verses many times. I had never given them special attention in a chapter filled with so many important events and declarations and prophecies. Part of it may have been my eagerness to get to the next verse where Anna is called a “prophetess,” a title denied to women in my tradition outside of rare examples, like Eliza R. Snow. However, I feel now that I have been missing something by skipping over a prophecy directly about Mary.
I remember many talks and lessons that discussed Mary’s role in delivering the baby, in taking him to the temple, and in seeking her missing son whom she found teaching and expounding scripture in the temple in Jerusalem. Certainly, attention was given to Mary’s response in verse 19 after shepherds recount their angelic visitation. “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” It seems that this quiet pondering was a good, womanly activity to highlight and encourage.
But I can’t recall a single discussion of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary in my entire Mormon upbringing. Of course, my memory is imperfect. I may have zoned out in such a lesson, deciding the chapter content was too familiar to give my full attention. But maybe, like so many other stories of women in the scriptures, Mary’s importance was fulfilled in giving birth and not much after that merited discussion.
I searched the LDS Scripture Citation Index, and in the 79 years of general conference talks included, Luke 2:35 is only mentioned a single time. In the April 1958 General Conference, Harold B. Lee mentioned Simeon’s prophecy to Mary and took a moment to reflect on what it must have been like for Mary to sit at the foot of the cross and watch her son die. Interestingly, he did not include the part of the verse that says “that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” However, this talk appears to be the only and most extensive treatment from general conference of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary since at least 1942 when the index begins.
I checked the Come Follow Me New Testament manual, and while there is guidance to read and discuss the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, there is no specific focus on these verses. Same with the 2014 New Testament Institute Manual. My search was not exhaustive—perhaps other manuals or books or First Presidency Christmas firesides or resources do discuss the prophecy. But my experience leads me to suspect that it is rare for institutional resources and talks to lend focus to Mary, especially in any way that encourages members to think she can be meaningful to them today. I was pleased to see that a number of women at The Exponent had highlighted the prophecy about Mary before, including this beautiful poem by Alisa and this Young Women’s lesson by Em.
Why does it matter if Mary is told that a sword will pierce her own soul that the thoughts of many will be revealed? Perhaps because it suggests that Mary’s place in the story of Jesus is not confined to her role as a vessel or womb. That her own life and experience, as well as her experience of her son’s death, is meaningful. That something about me and my thoughts and focus and intentions is revealed in how I perceive this Holy Mother. That there is something for me to learn and feel and know in seeing Mary and her sorrows.
I have much to learn about Mary. But this evening, as my family gathers to read Luke 2 and think of the birth of Jesus, I will also remember his mother and think a bit more about what I can learn from her.
Say whaaaat? I’ve never noticed this verse either. Thank you for pointing it out.
Also, Em’s lesson is a wonderful example of what church looks like when a woman is brave enough to use her own voice. She simply focused on the women in some of the most familiar scriptures we have, and the contrast to a typical lesson shows just how heavily our curriculum is steeped in patriarchy and stories of men.
Yes, we fail to focus on women. I grew up hearing about the prophet Simon in the temple, as part of the Christmas story, and it wasn’t until I took the Seminary course on the New Testament that I ever heard of Anna, yeah, my name sake and I never learned about her until I was a Junior in High School, and that was not even in a lesson. One morning I was a bit early for class and my instructor said, “Good Morning, Anna. Do you know you are named after a prophetess?” My answer was no, so he told me about her. So, I of course I spent that day in class reading about And meditating on Anna instead of listening to the lesson.
It’s not quite the same emphasis that you’ve made here but Elder Holland has spoken in this passage before. I think it may be in other places as well (maybe a BYU devotional) but here’s one time he referenced it. https://www.thechurchnews.com/leaders-and-ministry/2018-11-25/speaking-in-an-anglican-christmas-service-elder-holland-tells-of-his-fathers-death-christs-birth-6685
Thank you. I haven’t ever noticed this prophecy either. It’s given me something to think about.
Thank you for sharing this scripture this Christmas. I wish I had paid better attention to it before.
i’ve always liked those lines!
a lot of catholic art shows the sword piercing her heart
“That something about me and my thoughts and focus and intentions is revealed in how I perceive this Holy Mother. That there is something for me to learn and feel and know in seeing Mary and her sorrows.” This really hits hard. And it does reveal much about our leaders and our faith that Mary is reduced to a vessel.
And thank you for the reminder of the lesson! It has been a minute since then. It was good to remember it.
I bought “Women of the Old Testament” and “Women of the New Testament” by Camille Fronk Olsen (illustrations by Elspeth, Ashton, and Al R. Young) as a supplemental resource for my scripture studies. There is a lengthy chapter on Mary (approx 30 pages, with 54 ancient and modern references plus a large multi-page index of general references). Luke 2:35 is only mentioned once and not to give Mary a blessing of discernment and knowledge, but emphasized the JST interpretation “Yea, a spear shall pierce through him to the wounding of thine own soul also; that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed”. (JST Like 2:35). Meaning- when Jesus was crucified and stabbed by the sword, her heart broke and the evil intentions of others were made apparent. Joseph revokes Mary’s blessing and gift, and there is a mention that this is a more accurate translation of the original Greek. It’s just interesting to me that whether erased by the early biblical translation or by the JST, it isn’t surprising that a woman’s spiritual power is minimized.
Olsen’s chapter on Mary was written with strangely patriarchal eyes and with little to no feminist interpretation. The fact that Mary pondered things in her heart was a major point throughout the chapter, and many assumptions were drawn about the female virtue of keeping quiet and simply praying during times of trial/confrontation.
For example, Mary is accused of being unfaithful. Correct response? None. Pray and ponder. Mary’s family may have shown concern about Jesus continuing w his dangerous (and ultimately lethal) ministry (Mark 3:32-35, Matt 12:47-50, Luke 8:20-21). Olsen makes the looooong (and I believe incorrect) stretch to conclude that Mary’s family faltered in faith and that Mary knew what it was like to have a part-member (unbelieving) family (p.38). Olsen goes on to conclude that the scriptures were silent on Mary’s response, so we can assume that she defaulted to her best attribute, female silence. Olsen assumes that again- Mary responded to her unbelieving/part-member family in an exemplary way for us today- by keeping quiet and pondering/praying in her heart instead of accusing them, correcting, or pushing them back to activity. (Olsen is making her own Midrash with this whole scenario- which has zero bases in scripture, history or even folklore.)
I could share a few more examples, but essentially the assumption is made that like Harry Potter whose signature move is “expelliamus!” Mary’s go-to-reaction in all circumstances was silence and internal reflection. According to Olsen, she never confronted, debated, discussed, illuminated, etc. but, as a favored woman above other women, Mary had perfected the feminine trait of silence. (Did I mention the books were written with a patriarchal slant and without the slightest inkling of feminist perspective?)
On p. 26 we even get a peek at the reason Olsen thinks Mary ponders things in her heart instead of speaking…”rather than speak of things she did not fully comprehend or was unable to interpret correctly, she pondered what was happening to her and spoke nothing publicly of the miracle.” There are several other inferences throughout the chapter to Mary’s ignorance about circumstances and prophesies/futures, and the wisdom of her feminine silence.
I wonder whether the Catholic Church agrees on these points- if they see Mary as a mostly uninformed ponderous vessel who had no other viable recourse than to retrench inward, or if the Queen of a Heaven is given more credit. (The lyricist of that stupid Christmas song “Mary did you know” assumed Mary was quite in the dark.)
I appreciate your interpretation of Luke 2:35 and whether or not it can be proved by a more in-depth linguistic analysis of the scripture or not, believe that Mary was a spiritually gifted person whose wisdom and prophecy was more robust than anyone gives her credit for. That a small blessing in Luke 2:35 would have been just the tip of the iceberg.
Thank you for pointing this verse out and for this illuminating interpretation. it’s a blind spot in not just Mormon cannon (conference talks, magazines, etc.), but Mormon scholarly work as well.
I should have mentioned- Camille Fronk Olsen was the chair of the Dept of Ancient Scripture at BYU in 2014 when the NT book was published. She is a former general YW Board member. Her books were sold at Deseret Book and other LDS bookstores. Despite my disagreement with her interpretation of Mary, the books contain an astounding amount of historical references- illuminated with photographs, maps, illustrations and other aids. It’s a marvelous study aid in that regard, and we know that there is a dearth of female scholarship at DB, so kudos to a Olsen and Elspeth Young for these two tomes. I’d still buy their books again, but just caution readers to put on their feminist thinking caps because the authors didn’t.
Thank you for sharing. I actually took New Testament from Camille Fronk Olsen when I was an undergrad at BYU. She was the first female professor I had at the university, and I was so impressed by her. Even if I have a different view of Mary and this scripture than what you included above, I should add this book to my list.