March 25 — Good Friday


This year, Good Friday coincides with the Annunciation—the celebration of the Angelic announcement to Mary. As such, on this day Christians honor both the death of Christ on the cross, and his conception in the womb of Mary. We are perhaps not accustomed to meditating upon these two aspects together, but Church Fathers such as Ephrem the Syrian certainly were aware of the connection:

Moses shut in the lamb in April
On the tenth day—a symbol of the Son
Who came into the womb and closed Himself up
On the tenth day…
(Hymn 5 on the Nativity st. 14, translation Kathleen E. McVey; cf. also Hymn 4 st. 31-34, etc)

The conception here is coordinated with the 10th of Nisan, at the time when the lambs are set aside in preparation of slaughtering for Passover (4 days later), cf. Exodus 12:3-6. Indeed, it may be most profitable on this day to consider the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), both the prophecy (arranged chiastically):

ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$ kai\ ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai
    kai\ dw/sei au)tw=| ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ to\n qro/non Daui\d tou= patro/$ au)tou=
    kai\ basileu/sei e)pi\ to\n oi@kon  )Iakw\b ei)$ tou\$ ai)w=na$
kai\ th=$ basilei/a$ au)tou= ou)k e&stai te/lo$

“This (one) shall be great and called Son of the Highest
and the Lord God shall give him the throne of David his father
and he shall be king upon the house of Jacob into the Ages
and of his Kingdom there shall not be an end” (vv. 32-33)

and the answer to Mary’s question:

pneu=ma a%gion e)peleu/setai e)pi\ se
   kai\ du/nami$ u(yi/stou e)piskia/sei soi:
dio\ kai\ to\ gennw/menon a%gion
   klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=

“(The) Holy Breath [i.e. Holy Spirit] shall come upon you
and (the) Power of the Highest will cast shadow upon you
through which the (one) coming-to-be (born) is holy
called the Son of God”
[the last portion can also be rendered as:]
through which the (one) coming-to-be (born)
shall be called holy, the Son of God” (v. 35)

However, I would like to look briefly here at another episode from the Lukan Infancy Narratives involving Mary: namely, the encounter with Simeon in the Temple (Luke 2:25-35), since it has traditionally been associated with the Passion of Christ. There are four parts to the narrative: (a) the purification of Mary / presentation of Jesus [2:22-24], (b) the introduction and Canticle of Simeon [2:25-32], (c) the Prophecy of Simeon [2:33-35], and (d) the presence of the prophetess Anna in the Temple [2:36-38], along with a concluding notice by Luke [2:39-40]. The Canticle of Simeon (known by its Latin translation as the Nunc Dimittis) is one of the most beautiful and cherished of New Testament hymns, and quickly became a fixed part of the liturgy: traditionally sung as part of the Daily Office (at Compline), as well as in funeral services, it holds a special place in the Holy Week Office.

I wish to focus on the second part of the Simeon episode, the prophecy (vv. 34-35). For the moment, I leave out the parenthetical prophecy regarding Mary, so that it is easier to see the prophecy in context:

i(dou\ ou!to$ kei=tai ei)$ ptw=sin kai\ a)na/stasin
    pollw=n e)n tw=|  )Israh/l
kai\ ei)$ shmei=on a)ntilego/menon
{prophecy regarding Mary}
  o%pw$ a*n a)pokalufqw=sin e)k pollw=n kardiw=n dialogismoi/

“See this (one) is laid (down) unto the falling (down) and standing up
of many in Israel
and unto a sign being counted (i.e. spoken) against
{prophecy regarding Mary}
so that the countings-through (i.e. reasonings/reckonings) out of many hearts might be uncovered”

[or, in smoother, conventional translation:]

“See this (one) is set for the falling and rising
of many in Israel
and for a sign to be spoken against
{prophecy regarding Mary}
so that the thoughts of many hearts might be uncovered”

The prophecy is fairly clear: Christ’s life and presence is set toward (and will lead to) the “falling down and standing up” of “many” in Israel. Are these separate groups of people, or separate conditions in which the same person may find him/herself? Or both? That there is some sort of division intended, I think is certain. And, indeed, throughout Jesus’ ministry, up to his death and resurrection, and for all the centuries thereafter, this prophecy seems to hold. Jesus himself speaks of bringing a “sword” (Matthew 10:34)—his life and teachings, indeed, his very presence, will cause division even between members of a family. There is a two-fold aspect to the second stanza as well: (a) a sign spoken against, (b) thoughts of many hearts uncovered. The adverb o%pw$ (used as a conjunction), links the two phrases into a purpose clause—i.e., the sign is spoken against “so as” or “so that” the reckonings of many hearts will be revealed. In other words, speaking against Christ (and what he signifies) is for the purpose of (and results in) the revealing of what is inside the human heart. Why “many” and not “all”? It is possible that the primary emphasis is directed toward believers, not all the people; that is, it is not a blanket expression of judgment, but of the sifting through and revealing of those who will come to believe.

What then of the difficult prophecy regarding Mary which is embedded in the oracle? The Greek reads:

kai\ sou= [de\] au)th=$ th\n yuxh\n dieleu/setai r(omfai/a
“[and] also of you (your)self a sword will go through your heart”

The precise meaning of the statement is difficult to determine. Traditionally, it has been seen as a prophecy of the suffering Mary will experience when she sees Jesus put to death on the cross—this is the popular “Sorrowful mother” (mater dolorosa) of the Stabat Mater and Pieta in Christian art. Some would treat this more generally in terms of the suffering and rejection Mary would experience (vicariously through Christ) or in her own person. Many scholars today tend to focus more specifically on Mary’s role elsewhere in Luke-Acts: she does not appear in the Passion scene at all; also several of the scenes in which she appears (2:19, 33, 51) in the Infancy narrative emphasize that she “treasured” [suneth/rei, lit. “guarded/kept together”] and “pondered” [sumba/llousa, lit. “threw/put together”] in her heart the things she has witnessed (v. 19). This, along with the position of the statement—right before “so that the thoughts of many might be uncovered”—has suggested that the “sword” is actually one of discernment or discrimination: that is, Mary herself will come to understand the reality of who Christ is, but only with struggle and difficulty. However, in the only other (Scriptural) reference to a sword “going through” (Ezekiel 14:17), it is clearly an invading sword of judgment, “cutting off” man and beast, leaving only a remnant to survive. Is it possible that Mary here is meant as a symbol (the “mother”) of all Israel (or at least the “many”), and the sword passing through her represents the very same judgment and uncovering of thoughts that will divide the people, leaving “alive” only a believing remnant?

Mary does, of course make an appearance at the cross in the Gospel of John (19:25-27), and this becomes the basis for her traditional role in the Passion. Both Byzantine and Western art, the image of the Mary and the “Beloved Disciple” (John) flanking the cross became standard.


However, in the West, by the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, a more popular image was the Mater Dolorosa at the foot of the cross, after the deposition, holding the dead body of Jesus (the Pieta). The visceral imagery and sheer pathos of the scene made it a favorite in Renaissance art, the most famous, of course, is that of Michelangelo.


Returning to the juxtaposition of the birth and death of Jesus, one should mention a type of combination icon which developed in Byzantine tradition—on one side, Mary with the baby Jesus (here the Virgin Hodegetria type), on the other, Jesus as the “Man of Sorrows”.

(For further notes on the Passion Narratives, see the second half of an article posted last Easter.)

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