“O Blessed Rosary of Mary, sweet chain which unites us to God, bond of love which unites us to the angels, tower of salvation against the assaults of Hell, safe port in our universal shipwreck, we will never abandon you. You will be our comfort in the hour of death: yours our final kiss as life ebbs away. And the last word from our lips will be your sweet name, O Queen of the Rosary, O dearest Mother, O Refuge of Sinners, O Sovereign Consoler of the Afflicted. May you be everywhere blessed, today and always, on earth and in heaven”.
With these words of Blessed Bartolo Longo, the apostle of the Rosary, Pope Saint John Paul II ended his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary) (2002), a meditation both personal and ecclesial – it marked the beginning of the 25th year of his pontificate and also opened a Year of the Rosary to coincide with that silver jubilee. It was in all ways a deeply personal document, since it is well known that the prayer of the Rosary, and the figure of God’s Mother, Mary, occupied a central place throughout John Paul’s life, and his references to the Blessed Virgin throughout his teaching were never wanting.
With this letter John Paul II took the opportunity to offer again, as had many of his predecessors, teaching on the prayer of the Rosary and its place in Catholic piety. In addition, however, something quite new was given to us – along with the traditional scheme of the mysteries arranged according to the themes of Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious, the Pope asked the faithful to take up a new set of mysteries – the Luminous Mysteries, or Mysteries of Light. Whether or not this has been done – and it takes time, of course, to adjust something so traditionally and well established as the scheme of the Rosary in the popular mind and praxis – the Mysteries of Light give us an extraordinary and worthy new brightness in this prayer. This short reflection hopes to give some insight into why they do so well in their inclusion in the Rosary.
Above all, the Rosary is meant to draw us deep into the heart of the Gospel and particular events of Christ’s life, and so becomes a sort of lectio divina – a divine and sacred way of reading – both Sacred Scripture and the person and event of Jesus Christ. It is a prayer form which explicitly invites and acknowledges Mary, God’s Mother, the God Bearer, as guide, witness and commentator. It does so because of the incontrovertible intimacy which Mary enjoyed with her Son. We might say that this intimacy is, of course, a human one, but it is also one established in the life of grace, since Mary, by her free acceptance of God’s will for her, lives out the fullness of grace given her to prepare her to become Mother of Christ, Mother of the Father’s Son, the Father’s Eternal Word. Whether she was physically present at each event which the Rosary recalls we cannot know from Scripture, but faith tells us that her witness of her son’s life, death and resurrection is one which was made real by her faith in God’s plan. She therefore lived, in a sense, what her son lived, and heard, both with her ears and with her heart, all that he said, and saw all that he did. As witness she also provides commentary for us, since she invites us, with her, to become witness and therefore to be drawn into, become part of, the events which the Rosary prayer embraces.
The Rosary is about Mary only insofar as it is principally about Christ, and she is the one who can teach us to gaze upon her son’s face, and thus teach us true contemplation of the Saviour’s words and deeds. As Christ reveals to us the face of the Father, so, we might say, Mary invites us to look lovingly upon the face of Christ and see there the story of our redemption.
The Mysteries of Light help to fill out and complete the tapestry which the Rosary has always sought to present to us of Christ’s life. They bridge the lacuna between the early years of Christ’s Incarnation, birth and childhood, and the events of the Passion and Death. In this sense, they are truly a tool for a new evangelisation – they seek to deepen our awareness of the principal mysteries of Christ’s public appearance and mission, and ground us in reflection on his teaching and preaching and the signs which accompanied this. They are the chapters in which we read of the gradual realisation which the crowds, and his disciples, had about him, from whence he came, and for what he came. To pray these mysteries of the Rosary is to immerse ourselves again in the thrill, the boldness, the newness, the astonishment, the challenge, the comfort, the revelation which, in Mary’s experience, had all the freshness of a Mother watching her son grow and live to the full.
The Baptism in the Jordan
The first Luminous Mystery places us in the water with Jesus and the Baptist! With Mary, we watch the inauguration of Christ’s public life and ministry, for that is what this moment of baptism is. Jesus has no need to turn from sin for he will be the one who becomes sin for us, on the Cross. Rather, the baptism in the Jordan allows us to see the presence of Father, Son and Spirit in this moment which announces a new creation. Mary has already experienced this – the moment of the Incarnation was, likewise, a Trinity theophany, God utterly present and allowing himself to be seen with the senses which are rconstituted by faith rather than body. In Mary, both body and faith participate in the mystery of God’s Presence. For us, also, baptism does the same – body and faith witness together the elevation which we receive.
Sons and daughters of the Father! This is the dynamism of our identity in relationship with the God who unites himself with us in that sacrament. Baptism is always dynamic, always a thing of power and of the Spirit. It never ceases to be the mysterious life within each of us who have received it, which calls us to the fullness of life in imitation of Christ. Mary did not need baptism – the Father had already made her a Temple fit for the Son, a place kept free from sin, filled with the Spirit. Our baptism is intended for something similar – that we become, over the time of our lives, a habitation, where God makes his dwelling place, deep within our deepest selves, which he knows but we only know vaguely now. The grace of our baptism means that each day we are invited to begin this search into God again, in which our own vocation is revealed and consecrated.
The Self-Revelation at the Wedding at Cana
In his Gospel, John describes the miracle worked at Cana as the first of Jesus’ signs (John 2:11), so, after the public appearance of Jesus, it’s appropriate that this first sign, first miracle, if you like, continue the series of the Luminous Mysteries. We should also remember that, for John, the Word who takes flesh and dwells amongst us is the true light come into the world for our salvation, a light which the darkness in the world cannot overcome. With each Luminous Mystery this light, if you like, becomes more pronounced, brighter, stronger, and more evidently a light which points to Truth and Life.
Mary’s role in this story bears reflection. The mystery presents her in a very active mode, asking her Son to intervene, and then instructing the servants to follow Christ’s directions. This is a role which has been Mary’s, for believers, since this very moment. She looks to her Son, anticipating our requests, seeing our needs, articulating them even when we cannot find words because of the burden of our sorrow, or grief, or need, or shame. In the same way, she looks from her Son to us – do whatever he tells you to do, she says to us as well as the Cana wedding stewards. She was, after all, the first to live discipleship perfectly by doing exactly what was asked of her by the Father. Carrying out the Father’s will, in humility, freedom and joy, she anticipates Christ’s own great and never to be surpassed obedience. She asks us to do the same. What does he ask of you? Now, do what he asks you to do and see what signs he works through you!
Sometimes we stop short when we hear Christ’s address to his Mother – “Woman!” he says, “Gunai” in Greek. In fact, this is the form of address which he will use again when he looks at Mary from his place on the Cross. Above all, we should understand here the extraordinary position which Mary already occupied in the early Church community as Mother of the Word – she is not just “woman” but “The Woman”, the “new woman” who stands at the side of Christ, the New Man. So, when Christ addresses her as such he presents her to us as the archetype of woman in whom God moves aside the fall of the first woman. Disobedience is replaced by obedience (that is to say, deep listening, to hear what is really being said); pride is replaced by humility (Mary is fully herself, as God had always intended that she should be); the selfishness of exclusivity and one’s own power is replaced by selflessness in turning toward Christ and presenting him, not herself, to those around.
All this is the context for that first sign by which he let his disciples know who he was. This is the first moment, the first blink of light, when we know that Christ’s mission is to be carried out by word and deed.
The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God
Placed at the centre of the five Mysteries of Light this mystery, in a sense, serves as the pivot around which the others turn. Christ’s first words in Mark’s Gospel draw the listener’s attention to the announcement of the messianic kingdom, the kingdom of God, in which everyone and everything will become aware of God’s righteousness and the invitation to enter into right relationship with the God who brings everything to perfection in himself. This is why Jesus comes to us – to be the Father’s definitive word and revelation, inviting repentance and bringing forgiveness.
Mary has already spoken about the great pre-history which has prepared for this Christ and kingdom-event: her Magnificat provides the faith background which points to God’s covenant mercy and love and the overturning of the accepted order of worldly affairs. The true inheritors of the kingdom of God will be those whom society regards as nothing and dispensable, those who have suffered injustice and persecution, those who are marginalised and counted for nothing and less than nothing. Thus, the proclamation of the kingdom will be welcomed in the gospels by those who seek Jesus’ company, because they know themselves to be included not for what they do but for who they are – the ones who are called sons and daughters of the Father. And so, tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, the sick and despised, are making their way into the kingdom before those who were convinced that it was theirs already.
Possession of the kingdom is not without its demands – that’s why Christ’s announcement opens with the call to repentance. If the kingdom is offered, it is received in our conversion and perseverance in conversion. In this, we are co-workers in the kingdom – we recognise our call to enter in, and further our duty to preach it by our words and deeds which ring true. So, the proclamation of the kingdom – already present in Christ’s being among us and in the redemption he wins for us on the Cross, but not fully realised until Christ presents everything to the Father and is all in all – is a task given to us now, and more urgent than ever.
At some stage close to the beginning of the Passion and the darkness which will, for a while, embrace Christ and his disciples, Christ, with those three closest to him as companions, is seen for who he really is. This moment of supreme illumination, when God punches a hole in our otherwise dull senses, is the transcendent entering into the immanent. Christ has always been this – but those with him have not been able to see him! In this sense, the moment of the transfiguration is about our acquiring eyes which are entirely open to God’s presence.
The light which is Christ here – this is, above all, John’s light which darkness cannot overcome – shows Christ to be Lord of history, all time and every place and people. With him are Moses and Elijah – not just the two great figures of the Jewish experience of God’s living with them, but the representatives of the Law and Spirit, the two sides of life lived in obedience to the Father. The law given by God to Moses mirrors the eternal law of love which is fulfilled in Christ’s integral self-giving; and the spirit which is passed from Elijah to his disciple, Elisha, is the spirit of the word of revelation which speaks of God’s living in the midst of his people, realised when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, and continued dynamically in the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit birthing the Church. This is the foretaste of the victory of Light over darkness for ever.
We see, now, with Mary’s eyes – eyes which are always open to the presence of God in the glory of the Son. Peter, at the Transfiguration event, wanted to build three tents so that the experience could be prolonged. Mary has already become tent – tabernacle – for the Word, and invites us to do the same. The passing moment of the Transfiguration must give way – so that each of us can gaze upon the Word who is always before us, inviting contemplation in word and sacrament.
The Institution of the Eucharist
Christ’s great gift of himself, the abiding memorial, completes the Mysteries of Light. The sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood has rightly been called the source and summit of our Christian lives. Everything flows from it, and everything finds its highest point in it.
When Christ did this for us he gave the command “do this in memory of me”. As a Jew – and this will have been shared by those with him who celebrated that peculiar Passover meal – to speak of ‘memorial’ at that moment will have been, and remains, a very specific calling to mind and action. To do so, to celebrate memorial, is to call to mind the very action which Christ performed and to enter into it completely. The Jewish family celebrating Passover enter into and experience that night of deliverance from slavery into freedom, when God inetrevens to save in a way never done before. That saving action transcends and remains. Christ’s action was and is God’s definitive salvific act of intervention in our history – it is therefore an action which occurs in time, so that we can fully experience it, and yet transcends time, because it remains God’s action, and God is above time as the only one who “experiences” time as “now”. It is an act which is done once because it need not be repeated – the once is complete, without beginning or end. So, when we do this in his memory we enter into that one and complete action and yet it is done there in our celebration. It is never a repeat of what Christ does, nor is it simply commemoration. It is God-event into which we enter.
The Eucharist constitutes us as the People of God and the Body of Christ, a people called into new covenant with God and established as Church. Since it is intimately and wholly joined to the Paschal event of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, it is complete in itself and complete in the plan of salvation – in it, the mystery of the Incarnation is made complete in the mystery of faith. For Mary this is, in many ways, the interpretive key for her mystery, since she too is completely at the service of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery, a witness to both by her very participation. The Word, in that moment when he came to be conceived in her, took his flesh from her flesh, and now and always, in the Eucharistic sacrifice, gives us his flesh and blood so that we can be one with him.
-Part of our ‘Mary Most Holy’ series-