Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘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.’As you walk into the Anglican shrine at Walsingham from the garden, that's the image you see first up - Our Lady, with a sword literally piercing her heart. It brings you up short - this combination of the kitsch (because this is, after all, Walsingham), the poignant and the crudely literal. Or, of course, not truly literal - because it didn't literally happen. Can you have crudely metaphorical?
It's not a message you want to receive at your child's thanksgiving service - that your own soul will be pierced. This has already been an odd conception, followed by an odd birth - and now a foreboding, at just 6 weeks old. Mary's realising she's in for a long and bumpy ride, here, with her unusual son and her remarkably forbearing new husband.
But is the foreboding that different to any other new parent's? At least those that act like proper parents - the ones that care, and worry, and fret, and work. That's what parents do - hoping for the best, sometimes fearing the worst, working to make things well - knowing that their children need good roots, but also the chance to grow.
A feeling common to so many mothers will come - when their little boy, who was so precious and special and tiny, suddenly launches himself out onto to the world. OK, in Mary's day they didn't normally wait till they were 30 before doing that. And, even in Mary's day, they didn't normally remain single that long. Thinking about it, in that day, that must have caused her some worry as well.
But when he does fly the nest, boy does he do it. Off into the wild blue yonder, from Tyre in the north to Jericho in the south - and occasionally with his family straggling behind him. As he says things nobody expects, the fears grow in Mary's heart. Is he mad? Is he suicidal? Is he trying to wind the authorities up? Is he seriously trying to bring about a confrontation with the Romans?
We're not told where Mary was, that Sunday when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey - a pacifist entry for an unlikely king. Was she with the disciples as they shouted their hosannas? Or walking behind, worrying about what happened if he fell off the donkey? Or not in Jerusalem just yet - tearing in from the country, having heard news of yet more trouble - more excitement in this turbulent son's life. The one she couldn't marry off - even though doing that would have been another sword in her heart. A smaller one, though, sure. And one with the promise of joy to come.
But he wasn't going to bring her immortality through grandchildren. That she probably knew already. And that she knew for certain on that Friday when the sword found its place for sure. On that black day when nature screamed out against that injustice of all injustice, and the unusual, unhoped-for, unexpected son she'd nurtured and loved all these long years bowed his head under the weight of everybody else's failure.
She gave him the human nature we share. She entered into the passion - as he carried our griefs, so she carried her grief. She stands there, at the cross, as one among so many mothers - and fathers - who look aghast at what the world has done. Who've brought children into the world - hoped for them, cared for them - but known that, one way or another, they must give them up. She stands with all those who look at the waste and pain in the world, and wonder why. As she holds the broken body of her boy she weeps for him - and we weep for the world with her.
In Mary I see so much that we know. Surprise, joy, hope, fear, despair. Yet through her, God came into the world. You can see the Crucifixion as a pointless, small act - one more dead Jew in a world that has always killed Jews. Or you can see it as a cosmic event - the Sinless One defeating the powers of evil. Somewhere in between those two, there's the tragedy of a parent grieving for a child - hopeless, personal, overwhelming. And somehow, in this case, mirroring the grief of that child's other parent - the one who sent their child into a world, knowing how it would go, and who now turns the sky black, and shakes the earth in his own grief at this consummation.
But if she shared in that grieving, how much more do we share in her joy? A son unexpected in his conception - and totally unexpected in his return from the womb of the earth. A son given up to death, at the hands of the frightened, the oppressors, the evil, the hopeless - returned through the power of the Awesome one. The almighty one. The holy one.
Some Christians are accused of making too much of Mary - of raising her up too much like a kind of demi-god. Making her too pure, too good, too - too much like her Son is, in fact, supposed to be. But I want to be with her in her humanity - to see her as the archetypal Christian she actually is. Weeping at the way things are, but knowing there is a better way. Rejoicing at the Resurrection, knowing that the Slain One is actually the Living One. Being filled with the spirit, sharing broken bread, and giving thanks always. And waiting in patience - as she once did for a first time - for the day he comes again.