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Thursday 1 April 2021

Good Friday: Mary, A Sword Will Pierce Your Soul


Inhumane. We all know what that means don’t we. It means “without compassion for misery or suffering; cruel.” Or to say it another way, “not humane; lacking humanity, kindness, compassion, etc.” We don’t use this word to describe animals, no matter how savagely they act. No matter how rabid a dog gets, or how violent a hippopotamus gets, we don’t describe them as inhumane, because we don’t expect humanity from a beast. We expect beastly behaviour from beasts. Though, because of the beauty God has built into our world, we often get kindness and gentleness in undeserved ways from our animals and pets.

No, inhumane is reserved for humans who act in ways, which, well…are inhuman. And the sad thing about our world is that it is full of inhumane people and inhumane acts. So many examples can be given. Think of the way they wrested confessions out of prisoners in medieval times. Think of the way some tribes treat each other in African genocides. Think of how Western nations ravaged each other in war, after war, for centuries, finally culminating in the two most inhumane wars in history, WW1 and WW2. If there is one thing our world needs less of it is the inhumane, and it needs a lot more good humanity.

Good Friday gives us an amazing event where in an act of the cruellest inhumanity, true humanity is revealed in its most powerful weakness, in a way that redeemed all of humanity. Let’s have a look at how all of these forces converged, starting with something prophesied to Mary. 

Divine Humanity 

      Let’s read what Luke tells us in Luke 2:22-35 - “22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him.” 

      We live in a very different world to the one in which this event happened. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Jews were very familiar with the idea of gods interacting with man. One of their most famous stories, which almost every ancient person in the Roman Empire was familiar with, was the account of the Odyssey. What’s fascinating is that Ulysses, or Odysseus, had his own god, actually goddess (Minerva) following him everywhere, helping him out. Indeed, the Iliad, the famous story of Troy, is as much about battles between the gods, as it is between the Greeks and Trojans. Think also about Hercules, who is half god and half man. They were familiar with the idea of the “gods” interacting with man.

      There is even a sense of the human image in these gods. It is almost as if the ancient Greek gods were created in the image of man, an inversion of Genesis 1. But they are best described an inhumane, rather than human like. They have all of the pettiness, wickedness, and intelligence of humanity, but in a sort of demonic form, because they were originally demons. The Greek or Roman gods could look like a man, or woman, or even switch genders, which they often did. But actually become a man, and live as a man, and be limited by humanity…that is something different. 

      What the Son of God was doing through the incarnation, in becoming flesh living amongst us is truly profound, because by an act of incredible divinity, in Jesus, humanity was being demonstrated in all of its best qualities. What God was doing, was exactly what we need, bringing more humanity into the world, through this divine act. Think about what God did:

      Jesus, the divine, eternal, never corrupted, never corruptible son of God became a little child, born of this humble young woman. How much more human can you get? There is nothing quite like the birth of a child. We can all relate to this. We have all been children and remember our dependency on our parents. Even if we cannot remember our earliest days. Many of us have had children, and know how that changed our lives. I remember being a little anxious about how I would deal with the responsibility of being a parent. How would I react, what was going to change in my life? How would I cope? But not only do you cope, you thrive, because there is no physical gift greater in this life. Many of you have had this joy doubled by being grandparents. And many of us have that to look forward to. But think about how this act also affirmed motherhood. Mary, a humble Jewish girl, of no repute or fame, but of eminent dignity carried Jesus in her womb for nine months. Just like every other mother has done their child. This is something no man can fully understand or appreciate. This is a gift that a woman receives. A privilege that God bestows on them. An experience that every mother shares, that no man can really comprehend. God chose this to be his method of bringing the divine saviour into the world. This is really quite incredible.

      Imagine raising this child, to become a young man, who spoke with such wisdom he confounded those who heard him in the temple. Look what happens there, Luke 2:49-51 - “49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.” Mary treasured these things in her heart, because even though she knew Jesus was different to other children in significant ways, he was still her boy. We all treasure our children, and we all revel in their uniqueness. But Jesus was genuinely unique in a way no one else is; God and man. Human and divine. But still his humanity is real, I mean he had a real, genuine, human mother. 

            God truly was affirming the dignity of humanity, in his quest to save and redeem humanity from our inhumanity. In so many ways we had rejected God, and so what did he do? He became the most humane of all of us. 

            A Sword Will Pierce Your Soul 

            And in the midst of this joy that Mary must have experienced so often in raising Jesus, there would have also been a sense of dread, because an old and devout man had prophesied this over her: “34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

      There is a grandness to the ministry of Jesus we are all familiar with. Jesus was here to defeat evil, Satan was going to oppose him. Satan’s people, the corrupt religious leaders, were going to oppose him. Jesus would clash with Pharisees, crowds and kings. Though he gave the kings very little time or regard, which is cool. He would defeat them all with his death. Humiliating the powers of darkness, taking the punishment for our sins. If this were a movie, most of the budget would be spent on illustrating the defeat of all these forces. It would be the grand, CGI, third act. 

      But there is also a simple tragedy in this whole event: a mother would have her heart broken by the loss of her son. There is this powerfully human moment near the end of Jesus’ life, while he is on the cross, dying for the sins of the whole world, suffering this inhumane death, this simple thing happens: John 19:24-25 - “So the soldiers did these things, 25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

      When Jesus was dying the sun was covered over, the sky went dark, the curtain was torn in 2 in the temple, centurions cried out, “Truly this is the Son of God!” And just before these grand cosmic events occurred we have this human moment with a son, about to die, worrying about his mother and who is going to provide for her when he is gone. Just meditate on that for a moment. Here is Mary having her soul pierced as with a sword. Imagine being a mother seeing your son, your innocent son, who loved people, cared for repentant sinners, stood against corruption, only taught the truth, and knowing he did not deserve this, but also that this was his destiny. Imagine her state of mind in that moment. What a heart-breaking day – Good Friday. 

            Some denominations overplay the role of Mary far too much. She is an amazing example of a godly woman. She was blessed with the gift of giving birth to, and raising, Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, the saviour of the world. But she was just another woman, fallen like any other human being. She was not the perfect one, Jesus was and is. 

            But in Mary God does something powerful for us all to see: he completely humanizes the experiences and life of Jesus. Jesus is God the son, eternal in nature, eternally divine. He was also a human child who experienced the same world we experience, who had a mother, and an adopted father, who had brothers and sisters, friends, got hungry, and experienced a death that was completely inhumane, which, sadly, is a thoroughly human experience. Every year, many people die in inhumane ways. But in this Human One, the Son of the Man, God was bringing the divine and the human together in such a way that we can all relate to and recognize, and what is amazing is that we can see how God turned a cruel act, crucifixion, into a symbol of salvation. 

            Nothing in this world is more inhumane than crucifixion, some things might be equal, but not worse. Excruciating, our word for the most intense pain, means “out of the cross”; in other words, the cross was so inhuman and cruel our language remembers it. So, this is something many people can relate to, and many ancients experienced. Jesus’ crucifixion event is as human as you can get, but it has the image of the divine stamped all over it, because in this one act of crucifixion redemption for all who believe was achieved. 

            Here was a mother having her soul pierced as though with a sword, as her innocent son struggled to breath in front of her on the cross. Here was a good son, worrying about what would become of his mother. Here was divinity in the flesh in Jesus letting this happen to him, as tragic and as unfair as it was, so that he could bear the punishment for my sins, for your sins, for his mother’s sins, for the sins of the whole world, 1 John 2:2 - “2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” That simply just means he made a way for all of us to be saved, if we would believe in him. 

            By making Mary more than her fellow humans with the way she is venerated by some denominations, this ironically destroys just how powerful the humanity of Mary was. Like Peter, like John, like the centurion who understood authority, like Joseph of Arimathea, like everyone else in the gospels, these people ground the ministry of Jesus in a world just like ours. It all happened in different culture, in a different nation, with a different language. But every single one of us can recognize the world Jesus is in as our world, with experiences like ours. 

            What is more human than a mother losing her son, and the son caring for how his mother will be provided for after his death? What is more human than our need for a saviour, that experienced our world, but comes from a divine place? 

            Hebrews 2:14-18 – “14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” 

                   This is why we call it Good Friday, because on a day like this one, nearly two thousand years ago in Israel, our Lord and Saviour brought divinity and humanity together to defeat evil and to pay the price for our sins. He faced inhumanity on a level that in incomprehensible, so that one day, we could live in a world where humanity and divinity live together far away from anything inhumane. Our world needs a lot more humanity. It needs the best of humanity. Well the best of humanity is revealed in the Son of Man, who is also divine, let’s look to him.