A sword shall pierce through thy own soul

4th Week of Great Lent – Wednesday Matins



Standing by the cross of the child whom she bore without seed, the Virgin Mother cried aloud: “O my son, a sword has pierced my heart, and I cannot bear to see Thee hanging upon the wood. Before Thee all tings tremble, for Thou art their Creator and their God. Glory be to Thee, O longsuffering Lord. (Matins Stavrotheotokion, Tone 6, after the second reading from the Psalter, Lenten Triodion, Tuesday in the 4th week of Great Lent)


The “Stavrotheotokion” is a hymn about the cross and the Theotokos (“Stavros” = Greek for Cross). Many of them are found in the services for Wednesday and Friday. They generally focus on the experiences and suffering of the Theotokos when her son was on the cross, and are a rich source of theology about the cross and the incarnation. Basically all the hymns about the Theotokos are about the incarnation. The Stavrotheotokion in particular is particularly poetic, and often presented as a dialogue between the Mother of God and her son.


Much that we know was not expressed in the Scripture, but is a closely guarded treasure held by the church, and well known to her. The Mother of God lived in the home of St John the Theologian for many years in obedience to the command of her son [1], and was well known to the Apostles, and she transmitted much of her considerable wisdom to them over the years.


Those who do not venerate the Theotokos, considering her to be merely a good Jewish married woman, cannot understand the reverence the Orthodox hold for her. I personally believe that she is not well understood in our time because ours is an age of carnality and noise. The purpose of the Christian life is not well understood, nor its ascetical life, nor its wholehearted pursuit of holiness. The quintessential example of holiness among mortal human beings is the Theotokos, and her holiness, obedience and sacrifice can only be understood by those who have lived a full life of sacrifice, obedience to the commandments, and have in so doing, become holy.


The Stavrotheokion usually describes the condition of holiness by the way it poetically expresses theology. We should emulate its “spirit” as much as we should believe and live according to the theology it expresses. We cannot understand this particular hymn or most other hymns about the Theotokos unless we enter into their spirit – they are describing the ruminations of someone who, of her own free will and out of submission to God, has become holy. We are seeing a “picture” of holiness.


This particular hymn discusses the fulfillment of a prophesy. We all know of many Old Testament prophesies concerning Jesus Christ, such as: He would be born of a virgin and in Bethlehem, His coming would be heralded by a star, He would hang on the cross between two malefactors and many others [2], but there are also many New Testament prophesies concerning Him, some of which were fulfilled in His earthly lifetime, and others which were fulfilled after His resurrection or will be in due time.


And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;  (35)   (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)


The Christian life consists of emulation. The Lord commanded us to “follow me!” [3], and the Apostle Paul was well aware that a large part of his ministry was to be an example for the people to follow [4], and even explicitly told them to follow his example.  We learn to be holy by observing holiness in the Lord and His “good and faithful” [5] servants and attempting to emulate it.


Our hymns focus a great deal on the disposition of the Theotokos, often as a poetic dialogue with her son, precisely because this demonstrates an aspect of holiness that we must emulate.




Priest Seraphim Holland 2010.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas



and on our blog.

New commentaries are posted on our BLOG: http://www/.orthodox.net/redeemingthetime


Daily Lenten Meditations on the service texts and scripture readings: http://www.orthodox.net/dailylent


Compendium of materials about Great Lent:



Use this for any edifying reason, but please give credit, and include the URL were the text was found. We would love to hear from you with comments!


[1] Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.  (26)  When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!  (27)  Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. (John 19:25-27 KJV  )



[2] Isaiah 7:14, Septuagint  Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel


Micah 5:2 KJV  But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.


Numbers 24:15-17 Brenton  Septuagint  And he took up his parable and said, Balaam the son of Beor says, the man who sees truly says,  (16)  hearing the oracles of God, receiving knowledge from the Most High, and having seen a vision of God in sleep; his eyes were opened.  (17)  I will point to him, but not now; I bless him, but he draws not near: a star shall rise out of Jacob, a man shall spring out of Israel; and shall crush the princes of Moab, and shall spoil all the sons of Seth.


Isaiah 53:12 KJV  Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.


[3] Mathew 16:24  Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.


Matthew 19:21  Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.


And other examples.

[4] 2Thessalonian 3:7-9 For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you;  (8)  Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you:  (9)  Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.


[5] From the parable of the talents: “His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”  (Matthew 25:21)


  1. Father, Bless,
    Not only must we take up our cross in order to follow Him, but like the Theotokos, we must also watch and pray as our dear loved suffer upon their crosses.  Of course, this is part of our own crucifixion–to share in their sufferings–to suffer with them and for them.
    Such suffering would be unbearable were it not for the comfort of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of the rest of the story….

  2. I very much agree – unless the Holy Spirit comforts us, we could not endure the suffering.

    I also was trying to get out of my head and onto the page my inner conviction that we do not suffer enough, because we are not holy. We cannot comprehend the sacrifice of our Lord because we are not holy. The holy have finely attuned senses – ours are coarse and we suffer from "stony insensibility" because of our sins. The "dialogues" of the Theotokos in the Stavrotheotokia, are I think, and example, of, to make up a word: "anti-insensibility".

  3. In an inexplicable way the thinking of the Cross, and praying to the Cross, enhance my zest, and revives me…The more I evoke the thought of the Holy Cross, the more I become alive. I noticed it quite long ago, when started to pray to the Cross once during Great Lent. I intender to increase my understanding of the Cross, God's sufferings, – as I felt I could not comprehend it even in the little extent enough. At that time I thought it was possible for me. I bought a book of Canons to the Cross, with the Akathist to it, and read them regularly, especially during the Cross Veneration Week. So I, as a good school disciple, paid more attention to the Cross & everything connected with it. As I can judge, it did not increase my awareness & comprehension, but it produced an effect! – I noticed I could pray diligently & quite attentively to the Cross, – with more attention & self-concentration than I usually prayed to any saint….and I also discovered that it gave me…joy. and the feeling of protection, of being sure of my way & what I do, of being A PART OF.   And my regular reading of those several Canons to the Cross made me stronger & delighted.
    And how they helped me when my grandfather died! The Canons helped me to unite my life, his life, God, the future…altogether. To feel the unity & eternity…the thread that cannot be cut. and that this feeling can be even much tighter, if I do not weaken or cut this invisible thread by my sins & evil.  
    Now what warns me is my impossibility, unwillingness to treat sufferings of my relatives & beloved ones as a true Christian should bear it – fully trusting God's Sacrifice & His Cross, calmly & courageously, with humility & trust in the Lord. I always try to grumble, tend to hide, to avoid the reality…and I just pray with all the fibres of my soul so that I am able to carry my cross, and my relatives crosses as I should. If a person manages to learn it, fully relying on God, he will feel real happiness – in God – in spite of all the circumstances.

  4. Not meaning this as an excuse, by any means, but just as an examination and confession of my own problem with stony insensibility:  Unless and until I become holy I cannot bear to look at the suffering Lord, or the suffering of others, full in the face. Because of the burden of my many sins and a heart that has been hardened through years of attempting to protect itself from pain, I continue to turn away, to hide my face from the suffering of my loved ones and to attempt to run from my own suffering. 
    Fortunately, the Lord, in His mercy, pursues me–and He runs faster than I can.  Gently, but firmly, He continually brings me back to my cross so that, through the process of crucifixion, my heart of stone can be transformed into one that can truly feel and bear the burden of suffering for others and can truly appreciate His sacrifice for me.  Without a pure heart, who can look upon such suffering and bear it?  Without a pure heart, who can look upon His face and live?

  5. As I contemplate the pain and suffering that goes with this life; I am aware that without the Cross there can be no true miracles.  The sword that pierces my side is what precedes the great miracle of life.  I am reminded that the lives of the Saints were not spent in Joy but were also spent in pain.
    I am also reminded that Jesus said "Can You Indeed be Baptized with the Baptism I am Baptized with.  I can never forget that as a Christian I am called to martyrdom.  I am also reminded that we should persecute ourselves, always remembering that Jesus' call is "To be perfect as your Father in Heaven is Perfect.    

  6. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the great work Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *