The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple is commemorated on February 2nd, 40 days after the Nativity, when the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple according to Mosaic Law, and was received by the Prophetess Anna and St. Simeon (Luke 2:22-38).
Simeon’s prophecy, which thanked God for allowing him to live to see the Messiah, spoke of Jesus’ role in salvation, and applied in part to Mary: “Behold, this child is set for the falling and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sin which shall be spoken against. Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
The clause in the prophecy “a sword will pierce your soul also…” has always been understood to refer to the intense grief the Theotokos would experience at seeing her son crucified. Just as Christ would be pierced with the instruments of the Passion, so too would the Virgin’s heart be pierced with heartbreaking grief as she stood at the foot of the Cross. It is this aspect of the prophecy that inspired the Icon of the Mother of God, “Softener of Evil Hearts”, which is also celebrated on February 2nd.
The icon appears to come from Southwestern Russia between the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, in Western Europe at this time, the Roman Catholic Church developed the “Seven Sorrows” of the Mother of God, referring to seven sorrowful events in her life, which were depicted in religious art.
Considering the relatively modern date of the “Softener of Evil Hearts” icon, plus its origins on the Russian border with Roman Catholic Europe, it is probable that the Orthodox Church adopted the image from the Catholic Church. However, in Christianity and ancient Judaism, the number seven signifies fullness or completeness. So, in Orthodoxy, the “Seven Swords” of this icon can be seen as representing the boundless sorrow experienced by the Mother of God at the realization of Simeon’s prophecy, without standing for a specific number of sorrows.
The icon can be most helpful in putting our own earthly sorrow in perspective. Thinking on our Lord’s word from the Cross, “Father, forgive them…” it becomes difficult to justify our grudges and anger. And in comparison to the Virgin’s pain, are pain seems miniscule indeed.
It is therefore advised to pray before the “Softener of Evil Hearts” icon to focus our prayers, to dispel any anger, and to soften our hearts. In this way, we are not confessing our enemies’ evil, but our own thoughts, and asking for the Theotokos to intercede on our behalf.