Mary and the Sword
by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen


One of the penalties of Original Sin was that a woman should bring forth her children in sorrow:

Nothing begins and nothing ends
That is not paid with moan —
For we are born in others' pain
And perish in our own.

But the heart, too, has its agony, for although the new life is lived apart from the mother, the heart always keeps that new life as its own. What is disowned in the independence of a child is owned in the love of a mother-heart. Her body for a time follows her heart, as to each child at her breast she speaks the language of a natural eucharist: "Take ye and eat. This is my body; this is my blood." The time finally comes for the soul of the child to be nourished in the Divine Eucharist by the Lord, Who said: "Take ye and eat. This is My Body. This is My Blood." Even then the mother-heart pursues, never ceasing to love the life that changed her from a woman to a mother.

The other side of the picture is: as every woman begets a child, so every child begets a mother. The helplessness of the infant, in language stronger than words, solicits the mother, saying: "Be sweet, be self-sacrificing, be merciful." A thousand temptations of a mother are crushed in that one radiating thought: "What of my child?" The child summons to duty before he can speak duty. He bids the mother think twice before leaving a father to start a new pseudo-home. The child makes the fatigue and weariness of the mother, as he makes her joy in his success and her agonies in his falls from grace. The child brings the impact of another life, and no mother escapes his vital rays.
Applying this to Our Blessed Mother: not only did she beget a Son, but the Son also begot her. This is the connection between Bethlehem and Calvary. She gave Him Sonship, but He also gave her Motherhood. At the crib ... His Mother; at the Cross she was called the "Woman." No Son in the world but Christ could ever make His Mother the mother of all men, because the flesh is possessive and exclusive. Making her the Woman or the Universal Mother was like a new creative word. He made her twice: once for Himself, and once for us in His Mystical Body. She made Him as the new Adam; He now installs her as the new Eve, the Mother of mankind.

This transfer of His Mother to men was, appropriately, at the moment He redeemed them. That word "Woman" from the Cross was the second Annunciation, and John was the second Nativity. What joy went with her mothering Him! What anguish went with His Mothering her! Mary's mind was filled with the thought of Divinity in the stable; but at Golgotha it is sinners that are uppermost in her mind, and she now begins their mothering. The curse of Eve hangs heavily on Mary: "Thou shalt bring forth children in sorrow." When we contrast the great difference between her Divine Son and us, her sorrow, from our point of view, must have been not only "How can I live without Him?" but also "How can I live with them?" This was the miracle of substitution, for how can one be satisfied with straggling rays when one has been with the sun? The humility of which she sang at the Magnificat was not only a confession of unworthiness to be the Mother of God, but also the admission now of her readiness to be the Mother of man. It was a grief not to die with Him; it was a greater grief to live on with us.
Tradition indicates that Mary was pierced seven times with swords of sorrow and that these constitute her Seven Dolors. The position we will take is not that there were seven swords, but seven thrusts of the one sword, and the sword that pierced her soul was Christ Himself. This Sword has a double edge: one edge ran into His Own Sacred Heart, the other into her Immaculate Heart. How is Christ a sword? First of all, the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us the word of God is a two-edged sword: "God's word to us is something alive, full of energy; it can penetrate deeper than any two-edged sword, reaching the very division between soul and spirit, between joints and marrow, quick to distinguish every thought and design in our hearts. From Him, no creature can be hidden; everything lies bare, everything is brought face to face with Him, this God to Whom we must give our account" (Heb 4:12, 13). The "word" here is undoubtedly Scripture and the living voice of the Church. But the root, the source is the Divine Word, Who is Christ Himself. St. Thomas in his Commentary on this passage makes that identification. Furthermore, St. Thomas quotes St. Ambrose as giving the same interpretation: "For the Word of God is living and effectual and more piercing than any two-edged sword."

One edge of this sword — to speak metaphorically — Christ ran into His Own Sacred Heart, in the sense that He willed all the sufferings from Bethlehem to Calvary. He was the cause of His own death, St. Thomas tells us, and in two ways: directly, by being in such antagonism to the world that the world could not endure His Presence. Simeon foretold this by saying He was "a sign to be contradicted." The essence of evil is not robbing, stealing, murdering; it is the crucifixion of Goodness, the elimination of the Moral Principle of life, so that one may sin without remorse and with impunity. Indirectly, Christ was the cause of His Own death, as St. Thomas tells us, "by not preventing it when He could do so; just as one person is said to drench another by not closing the window through which it is raining; and in this way Christ was the cause of His Own Passion and Death." He could have used His Power and hurled thunderbolts against Pilate and Herod; He could have appealed to the masses with the magnetism of His Word; He could have changed nails into rosebuds and a crown of thorns into a golden diadem; He could have come down from the Cross when He was challenged to do so. But "since Christ's soul did not repel the injury inflicted on His body, but willed His corporeal nature to succumb to such an injury, He is said to have laid down His life or died voluntarily," St. Thomas tells us.
The Sword, therefore, was His Own will to die, that we might be saved from the double death. But He also willed that His Mother should be as closely associated with Him as any human person could be associated with a Divine Person. Pius X declared that the bond between them was so intimate that the words of the Prophet could be applied to both: Defecit in dolore vita mea, et anni mei in gemitibus (Ps 31:11). If it be granted with Leo XIII that "God willed that the grace and truth which Christ won for us should be bestowed on us in no other way than through Mary," then she, too, had to will cooperation in redemption, as Christ willed it as the Redeemer Himself. Christ willed that she should suffer with Him, some theologians say, per modum unius. If He willed His death, He willed her Dolors. And if He willed to be a "Man of Sorrows," He willed that she be the "Mother of Sorrows." But it was no imposed will; she accepted it all in her original Fiat in the Annunciation. The Sword He plunged into His Heart, He, with her cooperation, plunged into her own. He could hardly have done this if she were not His Mother and if they were not in a spiritual sense "two in one flesh," "two in one mind." The sorrows of His Passion were His, but His Mother considered them her own, too, for this is the meaning of compassion.

There were not seven swords but only one, and it plunged into two hearts. The Seven Dolors are as seven thrusts of the Sword Christ, one edge for Him as Redeemer, the other edge for her as the Mother of the Redeemer. Christ is the Sword of His Own Passion; He is the Sword of her compassion. Pius XII says that she, as the true Queen of Martyrs, more than any of the faithful, filled up for His Body the Church the sufferings that were wanting to the Passion of Christ!

This was the first reason why God permitted her Dolors, that she might be the first after the Redeemer Himself to continue His Passion and death in His Mystical Body. Our Lord warned: "As they hated Me, so will they hate you." If the law that Good Friday is the condition of an Easter Sunday binds all the faithful, then it must with greater rigor bind her who is the Mother of the Savior. An unsuffering Christ Who ignored sin would be reduced to the level of an ethical reformer, like Buddha or Confucius. An unsuffering Madonna to the suffering Christ would be a loveless Madonna. Who is there who loves, who does not want to share the sorrows of the beloved? Since Christ loved mankind so much as to want to die to expiate their guilt, then He should also will that His Mother, who lived only to do His will, should also be wrapped in the swaddling bands of His griefs.
But she also had to suffer for our sakes as well as for His. As Our Lord learned obedience by which He suffered, so Mary had to learn motherhood, not by appointment but by experience with the burdens of the human heart. The rich cannot console the poor unless they become less rich for the sake of the poor; Mary cannot wipe away human tears unless she herself has been their fountain. The title "Mother of the Afflicted" had to be earned in the school of affliction. She does not expiate for sins; she does not redeem; she is not a savior — but by His will and by her own, she is so much bound up with Him that His Passion would have been entirely different had there not been her compassion.
He also plunged the sword into her own soul in the sense that He called her to be a cooperator with Him, as the new Eve, in the regeneration of humanity. When the mother of James and John asked political preferment for her sons, they were asked if they could drink of His chalice. That was the condition of being in His Kingdom. What draining of the chalice, then, shall be the condition of being the Mother of the Crucified! St. Paul tells us that we cannot be partakers of His glory unless we partake also of His crucifixion. If, then, the sons of Mary are not exempt from the law of sacrifice, certainly Mary herself, who is the Mother of God, shall be less exempt. Hence Stabat Mater pleads that Mary's compassion with Christ be shared with us:

These five wounds of Jesus smitten,
Mother in my heart be written
Deeply as in thine they be;
Thou my Savior's Cross who bearest
Thou thy Son's rebuke who sharest,
Let me share them both with thee.

The seven thrusts of the Sword are Simeon's prophecy, the flight into Egypt, the three days' loss, meeting Jesus with His Cross, the Crucifixion, the taking down from the Cross, the burial of Jesus.

The initial thrust was the prophecy of Simeon. The Divine Child, only forty days old, is brought to the Temple; no sooner is the Light of the World laid in Simeon's arms than he breaks out into his swan song: he is ready to die because he has seen the Savior. After foretelling that the Child is a sign to be contradicted, he tells Mary: "Thine own soul a sword shall pierce." Note that Simeon did not say that the sword would pierce her body. The lance of the centurion might do that to the Heart of Christ, and His Body might be so bruised that "even the bones of His Body could be numbered," but the Virginal body would be spared an outer assault. As in the Annunciation when she conceived — unlike human love — the ecstasy was first in her soul and then in her body; so now in her compassion, the pains of martyrdom are first in her soul and only then in her sympathetic flesh, which echoed to every scourge that fell on her Son's back or pierced His hands and feet.
The Sword is only forty days old, and yet He knows how to unsheath it. From that moment on, every time she would lift infant hands, she would see fall across them the shadow of nails. If her heart was to be one with His, then like Him she must see every sunset as a blood-red image of the Passion. In one sense, her dead would not be buried, as the Sword in her own soul would not be plucked out. Simeon threw away the sheath as her own Child flashed the blade. Every pulse in His tiny wrist would sound like the echo of an oncoming hammer. But her sorrow was not what she suffered but what He had to suffer. That was the tragedy. Love never thinks of itself. If He belonged to sinners, so would she.
The Savior's edge of the sword was telling His Mother, through Simeon, that He was to be a victim for sin; her edge was knowing that she would be a Trustee of His life until the hour of sacrifice. With one word Simeon foretells His Crucifixion and her sorrow. No sooner is this young life launched than an old man foretells the shipwreck. A Mother has only forty days of embracing her Infant Child when she sees the shadow of a contradiction thrown across His life. She had no chalice of sin to drink, no cup of the Father's bitterness such as her Son would drink in the Garden, and yet He holds the cup to her lips.
The enmity of the world is the lot of everyone closely associated with Jesus. How few are the converts to the Faith who have not felt the scorn and bigotry of the world that protests their leaving the mediocrity of humanism for the high level of the supernatural. Our Lord, speaking of the opposition they would evoke, said: "I came to bring the sword, to set father against son, and mother against daughter." If a convert feels that contradiction, then how much worse shall Mary, who mothered the Cross-bearer! Truly, He came to bring the Sword, and His Mother is the first to feel it, not in the sense of an unwilling victim but rather one whose free Fiat made her united with Him in the act of redemption. If you were the only person who had eyes in a world full of the blind, would you not be their staff? If kindness before the wounded binds up the sores, then shall virtue in the face of sin seek to be dispensed from cooperation with Him Who wipes out the guilt? If Mary, who was sinless, would with joy accept a Sword from Divine sinlessness, then who of us, who are guilty of sin, shall ever complain if the same Jesus permits us a sorrow for the remission of our sins?
  O Mary pierced with sorrow
Remember, reach and save
The soul that goes tomorrow
Before the God that gave;
As each was born of woman
For each, in utter need,
True comrade and brave foeman
Madonna, intercede. (1)

The second piercing by the Sword was the summoning of His Mother to share sorrow with all the exiles and the displaced persons of the world, of whom He Himself was the first born. The dictator Herod, fearful lest He Who came to bring a golden crown would steal a tinsel one, sought to kill the Infant Jesus not yet two years old. Two swords are now swinging: one wielded by Herod, who would kill the Prince of Peace to have the false peace of the reign of power; the other by the Sword Himself, Who would have His Own Mother see the Exodus reversed, as He now goes back to the land from whence He once led His Own people. And Joseph is still charged with guarding the Living Bread! Hearts could bear sorrows more readily if they could be assured that they came directly from God. That her Divine Son should have used Simeon as the instrument of the first thrust was understandable, for "the Holy Spirit was in him." But this second thrust used the instrumentality of wicked men. How often we feel that God has abandoned us when He allows the perversity of men to grieve us, and yet Divine Omnipotence is in Mary's arms and still allows it! The Cross seems to be double-crossed when it does not come from Him, but in such cases it is not our patience that is tried but our humility and our faith. And yet if the Son of God in His human nature and His Blessed Mother did not both feel the tragedy of millions in our civilization pursued by other Herods; if they did not share the experience of violent uprootings from homeland and that forced grafting into the wild olives of Siberia; if both the new Adam and the new Eve were not the first displaced persons of Christian history, then refugees would raise their fists to Heaven and say, "God does not know what I suffer." or "No woman ever bore such grief."

It was for the sake of womanhood that Mary had to suffer, with Jesus, the heart-rendings of an inhospitable earth. That primal gift of the Immaculate Conception and her Virginity were walls of partition between herself and the evil world. But now the Sword was cleaving the wall, breaking it down, allowing her to feel what He Himself would feel in the prime of His life. She, too, must have her Pilates and her Herods! As a priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament to the sick would defend it unto the shedding of his blood, so Mary carrying Emmanuel was learning that to be His Mother meant to suffer with Him, that she may reign with Him. Simeon's word touched her only internally; Herod's wrath, the Egyptian flight shifted the battle against evil to the outside, as Her Son would later move from the Agony of a Garden to the Crucifixion on a Hill. One word from that Babe at her breast could have silenced all Herods from that day until Stalin or Mao Tse-tung, but that word He would not speak. The Word was now a Sword. And yet, how inexpressibly more poignant must have been the grief of her Infant Son, Who, with His Infinite Mind, knew and willed all that was transpiring! A mother watching surgery on her infant suffers for the child and yet endures it for a greater future good; here the Son is the surgeon Who, with a two-edged sword, pierces first His Own Heart before He pierces that of His Mother, as if to blunt the piercing when it touches her. The Word is a two-edged sword! Were it but single-edged, then He would hold the handle and only she would feel the blade, which would be cruel. But here nothing enters into her soul that has not first entered into His. He willed the tragedy He would suffer from the hands of evil men. She willed it, too, but first because it was His will that, as He would undo Adam, so should she undo Eve.
Mary knew that the Infant in her arms had not yet raised His voice against evil, but she nevertheless sees all the bigots and tyrants, dictators and communists, the intolerant and libertines rage and storm against Him. He was as light as a feather in her arms, but He was heavier than a planet on their hearts —"set for the fall and the resurrection of many." A Babe was hated! That was the point of the second thrust of the Sword. "As they have hated Me, so will they hate you." The hatred of men against Him she would feel as her very own! But, as He bore love to those who hated, so did she. She would go down to Egypt a thousand times and amidst a thousand fears, could she but save one single man from committing a single sin, for his sake as well as God's.

Now that Mary is crowned in Heaven, as she looks down on the earth, she sees millions of men still banishing the Creator out of their lands and driving Him out of their hearts. Many men do not spend most of their time making a living; they spend most of it flying from God! He, on His side, will not destroy their freedom, and they, on their side, will not choose Him. But as Mary in this second dolor was not angry with the wicked but unhappy for their sakes, so now in Heaven her compassion and love of sinners almost seem to rise with the measure of their sin. The more closely a soul is united with Jesus, the more it loves sinners. A patient can be so sick with fever that in his delirium he believes himself to be well; a sinner can be so engrossed in sin as to believe himself to be good. Only the healthy really know the sickness of the patient, and only those without sin know the gravity of sin and seek to cure it. Both Jesus and Mary in the flight to Egypt experienced in their goodness (infinite in the one, finite in the other) the two psychic effects of sins: fear and flight. Unless fear is overcome in forgiveness, it ends in the persecution of others; unless escapism is conquered by a return to God, it drowns itself in alcoholism, opiates, the boredom of excitement! Would that all the psychiatrists of the world knew that both these effects of sin are conquered not by self-indulgence in the flesh but by love, which masters fear, and by penance, which arrests flight. Our Lord and His Blessed Mother willingly suffered both these psychological effects so that sinning souls might be freed from them. The real "shock treatment" the guilty have not yet experienced is the shock of invoking a Woman with a Babe who will take them down to Egypt to eat the corn of tribulation and the wheat of penance! When the heart of man is not at home in Nazareth but in escape from reality, it may still have hope; for the Madonna and the Child will meet it, even in its wild flight to the desert Egypts of this world.

The three days' loss of the Divine Child was the third thrust of the Sword. One edge went into His Own soul as He hid from His Mother and His foster father, to remind them, as He said, that He must be about "His Father's business." But since Heaven, too, plays hide and seek, the other edge of the Sword was the grief of Mary's loss and seeking. He was hers: that is why she sought Him. He was on the business of redemption; that was why He left her and went to the Temple. Not only was there a physical loss, but there was also a spiritual trial. "But the boy Jesus, unknown to His parents, continued His stay in Jerusalem" (Lk 2:43). Our Lord said: "What reason had you to search for Me? Could you not tell that I must needs be in the place which belongs to My Father?" (Lk 2:49). "These words which he spoke to them were beyond their understanding" (Lk 2:50). Later on there would be another three days' loss when the body of Jesus would be laid in a tomb. This loss was a foretaste and prelude to that loss, as well as a shadow of the three years' loss during His public ministry.

Something now was hidden from Mary, in the sense that she did not understand. This was not a mere negative ignorance but a privation, a deliberate hiding by her Son of the fullness of His purpose. She had her Dark Night of the Body in Egypt; she would now have her Dark Night of the Soul in Jerusalem. Spiritual darkness and desolation have always been one of the trials of God's mystics. First it is His Body and Blood that are hid from her; now it is the brilliance of His Truth. If the second thrust companioned her with the displaced persons of the world, this third thrust would lift her into fellowship with the Saints. The Cross was now casting its shadow on her soul! Not only her virginal body must pay dearly for the privilege of her Immaculate Conception, but also her soul must pay the cost of being the Seat of Wisdom.
The two-edged sword affects both souls in the sweet beat of a rhythm. One day on Golgotha He will feel the pessimism of atheists, the despair of sinners, the loneliness of the selfish as He takes their own sins upon Himself and wraps up all their isolation in the one great cry: "My God, My God, why hast Thou abandoned Me?" She, too, must experience that loneliness and abandonment, not only in the physical loss of Christ, but also in the beclouding of all consolations. As, on the Cross, He would deny His human nature all the joys of His Divinity, so He would deny now to His Mother all the joys of His Father's business. If His edge of the Sword was abandonment, her edge would be darkness. The Gospel says there was darkness over the earth when He uttered that cry from the Cross; so now night creeps into Mary's mind because the Son Himself willed the eclipse of the sun. He almost seemed to question her right to seek Him as He asks: "What reason had you to search for Me?" (Lk 2:49). As He on the Cross, suspended between earth and Heaven, would feel abandoned by God and rejected by men, so now she with but one word from the Sword is as utterly "abandoned" by One Who is both God and man.

Darkness in the Saints is not the same as darkness in the sinners. In the former, there is no light but love; in the latter, there is night without love. It is very likely that this mystical darkness, which the Sword drove into Mary's soul, gave rise to such heroic acts of love as to raise her to new Mount Tabors she never experienced before. Light can sometimes be so bright as to blind! Mary's failure to understand the word that was spoken to her was caused less by the defect of light than by its excess. Human reason reaches a point where it cannot describe or explain what happens to the heart. Even human love in its most ecstatic moments is speechless. Reason can understand words, but it cannot understand the Word. The Gospel here tells us that what Mary did not understand was the Word that was spoken. How hard to understand the Word when it is broken into words! She did not understand, because the Word lifted her out of the one abyss of reason to the other unimaginable abyss of the Divine Mind. At such points, Divine Wisdom in its human expressions compels a confession of ignorance. It cannot tell its secret, as St. Paul would not tell his vision of the third Heaven. Words themselves were inadequate to express fully the meaning of the Word.

To prove that this darkness was unlike ignorance, the Gospel adds: "His Mother kept in her heart the memory of all this" (Lk 2:51). Her soul would keep the Word, her heart the words. He Who by His words seemed to disown her, now owns her, not only by keeping the honey of the message in the hive of her heart but also by going down to Nazareth to be subject to her.
The Divine Sword is no longer using human instruments like Simeon and Herod to brandish it. Twelve years of age, He is old enough to use it Himself. In this dolor both His natures were fastening upon her to make her a co-Redemptrix under His causality: His human nature in the physical loss, His Divine nature in the Dark Night of her soul. In the Annunciation she asks a question of an Angel: "How shall this be, seeing I know not man?" Now she addresses the God-Man Himself, calling Him "Son" and asking Him to explain and to justify Himself for what He has done. Here was a supreme consciousness that she was the Mother of God. There is always a great familiarity with God whenever there is great sanctity, and that familiarity is greater in sorrow than in joy. Saints favored by revelation from Our Lord picture Him as saying that this dolor cost Him as much suffering as any other sorrow of His life: in this, as in all other cases, He ran the Sword into His Sacred Heart before thrusting it into her Immaculate Heart, that He Himself might know the sorrow first. The grief that Our Lord would feel on leaving His Mother after the three hours on the Cross was here felt in anticipation during the three days' loss. Those who sin without having the faith never feel the anxiety of those who sin with the faith. To have God, then lose Him, was Mary's edge of the sword; to be God, and hide from those who would never leave Him, was Our Lord's edge of the sword. Both felt the effects of sin in different ways: she felt the darkness of losing God; He felt the darkness of being lost. If her sorrow was a hell, His was the agony of making it. The bitterness of death is in her soul; the sadness of inflicting it is in His!

As she became the Refuge of Sinners by knowing what it is to lose God and then find Him, so He became the Redeemer of sinners by knowing the deliberateness, the willfulness, the resoluteness of those who wound the ones they love! She felt the creature losing the Creator; He felt the Creator losing the creature. Mary lost Jesus only in mystical darkness of the soul, not in the moral blackness of an evil heart. Her loss was a veiling of His face, not a flight. But she does teach us that, when we lose God, we must not wait for Him to come back. We must go out in search of Him; and, to the joy of every sinner, she knows where He can be found!


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