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What the Old Man Said (to Mary)

A meditation on the Visitation, Luke 2:22-38.

I think the old man’s words are some of the fiercest to be found in the scripture, if you are a parent, that is, and, especially, if you are a mother. That he says them to Mary, Jesus’ mother, at what you think should have been a celebrative time, the day of the baby’s presentation in the temple, surely must have confused the day for both parents and anyone near and listening.


He had words of his own to say to God and words to the family to say, but it was what he said to the mother we remember. It was what he said to the mother, like words that will be said to many mothers in all times, words that confirm a mother’s hopes and fears for her children. Words mothers hear when children become adolescents and adolescents become young adults, words proclaiming independence and separation. And words that mother’s hear after accidents and trauma, at hospital bedsides, and in the midst of wars, too.


Words like these are not welcome by us fathers, either – and some of us may be nearly as close to our children as are their mothers – but I have seen an existential difference in the bond between mothers and their children. We are the fathers, but we have not borne these children. We have not carried them of ourselves, flesh to flesh, bone to bone, sharing the same heartbeat, the same nourishment, the same life. We love them but, for mothers, for a while at least, the entwining of mothers and their children is mysterious and resists separation without pain or, in the extreme, death.


It was an old man’s words, a devout and righteous old man named Simeon, says the gospel according to Luke, who blessed the family – not just the child, but the family – and said to his mother – to his mother,


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. (Luke 2:34-35)


“And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”


Had you been there you might have seen her wince when she heard the old man say these words. Had you been there you might have heard her whisper, “So, it was an angel I saw, after all.”


Had you been there you might have seen the fall of her face when she realized it was her child – her child – but not just her child she was holding. She had told herself for a long time that what we call Annunciation had happened and yet, you know, she had been so young. She had been so unused to the way of the world and, especially, the way of holy things, of holy mysteries and angels and God-who-comes-with-justice-and-mercy to take away the sins of the world.


For a while, especially on the sleepless nights near the end of the pregnancy, you might have heard her praying, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, thank you for this child. May he grow to be a blessing. Let him grow to be the child we will love for the length of our lives. May he grow up and grow old and prosper.”


But now she knew – she knew – it was not to be.

The old man’s words brought blessing for her family and reminder that the blessings of the Lord are not free. They are not like some yard sale good or leftover holiday bargain. They are not like some cheap trinket or hand-me-down. The blessings of God are strong, mighty and deep, upending human plans, overturning worlds, bringing eternal salvation and bought with a price that will pierce all our souls, thank you God.


The blessing of God is God come among us: God who is beyond understanding who chooses to become understandable through the birth of a baby – and through the searing-never-get-over-it-as-long-as-she-lives life of this compassionate, faithful, tough-as-nails woman, who would be seen as barely more than a girl to our culture.


Can we explain it? Just try.


Better to look full into her face and the face of her Baby, to accept this is how God chose to say this is what God is like.


Better to fall on your knees and say Thank you God.


Better to weep whatever tears you need to weep for the sword that pierces your soul and sing




Grace and peace,

Bob Guffey

Previously published by in a slightly different format.

Image credit: "Annunciation," 1898. Born in 1859, in Pittsburgh, PA, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African-American artists to gain international attention. Tanner died in 1937, while living in Paris, France.


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