A Commentary on the Rosary
Stratford Caldecott



The Rosary

A commentary by Stratford Caldecott


The Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary is perhaps the most widely-disseminated and popular devotion among Catholics outside of the Liturgy of the Mass.   A circular string of beads, each representing a prayer that is said whilst moving the fingers along the string, it can sometimes look like a mechanical substitute for “real” prayer.  But used correctly (that is, when prayed slowly and mindfully), it can lead to a much deeper, active, interior participation in the Christian mysteries.


The Rosary is associated with Mary, but it is almost entirely focused on the life of her Son.  Mary simply serves here as our "initiator" into the mysteries of Christ. In other words, the Rosary contains the Mother of God’s own meditations on the Incarnation. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth , and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things carefully in her heart (Luke 2:51).


The majority of the beads on the Rosary represent a short prayer called the “Hail Mary”. The first words of this prayer are those that were spoken by the Angel when he appeared to her before the conception of Christ. Every time we repeat the words of this prayer we are trying to approach Jesus through Mary.


Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.


The Rosary is also a "metaphysical" prayer. Mary is like the primordial waters lying open before the life-giving action of God at the beginning of the world.  By praying we are trying to become like her, receptive to the will of God.  Mary’s fiat ("Let it be to me according to your word") echoes God’s fiat ("Let there be light") in the very beginning of creation, and her Son’s fiat ("Let not my will but thine be done") in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42, etc.).


The Structure of the Mysteries

The one hundred and fifty Hail Marys of the traditional Rosary are sometimes preceded by three which represent Faith, Hope and Charity. But the most obvious and important structural principle of the Rosary lies in the order of mysteries which are assigned to be contemplated during each "decade" or sequence of ten Hail Marys, and which are listed lower down.


Of course, a "mystery" here does not mean something that is deliberately being kept obscure. It is not something irrational or something secretive. It is, however, something that our human intelligence cannot fully understand, or get to the bottom of. It may consequently in a sense be "hidden" (though not intentionally) from those who insist on grasping everything quickly and superficially.


The greatest practical difficulty that many people encounter in the devotion lies in the attempt to pray verbally at the same time as gazing interiorly upon the mysteries evoked through an image – a tableau or icon - in the imagination. To do so requires a mental discipline that brings the mind into closer alignment with the pattern of Mary’s thoughts as she treasures these memories of her Son and "ponders them in her heart".


The five Joyful, five Sorrowful and five Glorious mysteries describe the life of human childhood, the adult life and the supernatural life. Taken as applying to the individual soul they describe, first, the life of the soul as it opens itself to grace, second as it struggles to follow Christ, and finally as it experiences the transformation wrought by grace.


In his Apostolic Letter published in October 2002 (Rosarium Virginis Mariae), Pope John Paul II introduced a further set of five "Luminous" mysteries to be prayed between the Joyful and the Sorrowful. These summarize Christ’s public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion (his Baptism in the Jordan , the Miracle at Cana , the Announcement of the Kingdom, his Transfiguration on the Mountain, and the Eucharist or Last Supper).


It may seem strange that a Pope so traditionally-minded, especially in matters of Marian devotion, should be willing to innovate in such a drastic manner.  The Trinitarian structure of the Rosary had been well established since at least the fifteenth century. The Rosary seems to have begun as a way of praying the 150 Psalms in three groups of 50 – a kind of lay breviary. Partly for convenience, the Psalms were later replaced with Our Fathers, and later Hail Marys, in five sets of ten beads at a time, each set of 50 linked to one of the three cycles of Mysteries.  But by adding another set of 50, with another cycle of Mysteries, John Paul II had effectively broken the tradition linking the Rosary to the Psalms.  Although the link had become vestigial, I do not believe he would have done so without direct inspiration or authorization from heaven.  So what was the meaning of the change?


To begin with, the four sets of mysteries may be compared to the Cross, with its four arms. If we stand at the base of the Cross, we are present with Mary the Mother of God.  Thus we begin our meditation by thinking of the Joyful Mysteries, recalling the Incarnation. Then we look up.  Above the head of Jesus is the plaque affixed by the order of Pilate, bearing the message: "Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews".  The two horizontal arms of the Cross linked by this proclamation therefore represent the Kingship of Jesus.  One arm points towards the good thief who recognized him as King and the other to the unrepentant, who did not.  The two arms also represent the Kingship as lived (the Sorrowful Mysteries, for on earth Our Lord lived his Kingship as the Passion) and as taught (the Luminous Mysteries). Finally, when we look up higher, to the top of the Cross, we are remembering the Glories of heaven to which the Cross conducts us.


The fourfold structure of the Mysteries also recalls the fourfold structure of the Gospels, and each of the four sets of Mysteries seems to correspond to one of the Gospels in a special way. The Joyful Mysteries correspond to the Gospel of Matthew, whose symbol is a Man and who emphasizes the titles “Son of Man”, “Son of Abraham”, “Son of David”.  The Sorrowful correspond to Luke, whose symbol is the Ox and whose Gospel emphasizes the role of Jesus as sacrificial victim.  The Luminous would then correspond with Mark, whose symbol is the Lion, and who proclaims the divine power of the Lord.  Finally the Glorious Mysteries can be associated with John, whose symbol is the Eagle, and who teaches us about the intimate relationship between the Son and his heavenly Father.


Ancient and medieval thinkers found symbolic significance in numerical patterns. The Apostles’ Creed through which one enters the Rosary has twelve sections, like the gates of the New Jerusalem.  The Lord’s Prayer which begins each sequence has seven, like the seven sacraments or the seven days of creation.  The Glory Be with which each sequence ends is Trinitarian.  Each sequence of beads is made up of ten Hail Marys, ten being the sum of seven and three, itself symbolic of the expansion of the totality of numbers contained in One. A Rosary contains five mysteries, five being the number of life and growth, found especially in flowers and leaves.  Five is also closely related to the Golden Ratio and thus to many aspects of beauty in nature.  By the addition of the Luminous Mysteries, bringing the number of rosaries to four, Pope John Paul II seems to have brought the tradition to its completion.


Ways of Praying the Rosary

There are many forms of Rosary, both short and long (for example, "Rosary Rings" or Chaplets are very popular, which contain only ten marks or beads and a cross). The full Rosary is a circular string of five groups of ten beads interspersed by larger or slightly separate ones (marking the beginning or end of each decade). To go around the Rosary once with one’s fingers is to pray one of the four sets of mysteries (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful or Glorious).


The beginning of the Rosary normally consists of a short string consisting of a Crucifix, followed by a single bead at the beginning and end of a sequence of three.  This leads to a holy image or medal, attached to which is the longer, circular part of the Rosary. The prayers assigned to the short string are the Apostles’ Creed (for the Cross), an Our Father, three Hail Marys (for Faith, Hope and Charity), and a Glory Be.  In this way one enters the Rose Garden of Our Lady through the Cross, along the “path” of the three theological virtues, and through the "gate" represented by the medallion.


A complete circuit of the longer part of the Rosary includes five sets of ten Hail Marys, one set for each of five mysteries, each such “decade” beginning with the Lord’s Prayer and ending with a Glory Be. When one reaches the medallion again at the end of the circuit, one prays some closing prayers, including the Salve Regina or "Hail, Holy Queen".  The idea is to close the gate of the Garden behind one and leave softly.


When praying the Rosary, it is customary also to “offer” each decade for a particular “intention” or for a particular person.  Thus one might offer a decade for the healing or comfort of a friend or enemy, or for the ending of a war, or the establishment of justice in a certain situation, for example.


In Germany , a brief line referring to each Mystery is often inserted in between the two halves of the Hail Mary, after "...and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus". This helps the praying soul to remember the Mysteries and to contemplate them in series. Thus one might pray as follows:



The Joyful Mysteries

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, whom you, O Virgin, conceived of the Holy Spirit

...Jesus, whom you, O Virgin, took to Elizabeth

...Jesus, to whom you, O Virgin, gave birth

...Jesus, whom you, O Virgin, offered up in the Temple

...Jesus, whom you, O Virgin, found again in the Temple


The Luminous Mysteries

Jesus, who was baptized in the Jordan

Jesus, who turned water into wine

Jesus, who proclaimed the Kingdom of God

Jesus, who was transfigured on the mountain

Jesus, who gave himself to us as Eucharist


The Sorrowful Mysteries

...Jesus, who sweated blood for us

...Jesus, who was scourged for us

...Jesus, who was crowned with thorns for us

...Jesus, who bore the heavy Cross for us

...Jesus, who was crucified for us


The Glorious Mysteries

...Jesus, who rose from the dead

Jesus, who ascended into Heaven

Jesus, who sent us the Holy Spirit

Jesus, who took you, O Virgin, up into Heaven

Jesus, who crowned you, O Virgin, in Heaven


Many Catholics also insert a short "Fatima Prayer" after each decade, after the Glory Be. It is a prayer for universal salvation (in the sense of 1Timothy 2:4), and the words are as follows: "O my Jesus, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy."


The mysteries are often assigned to different days of the week. The Joyful used to be said on Mondays and Thursdays (and Sundays during Advent and Epiphany), the Sorrowful on Tuesdays and Fridays but daily in Lent, and the Glorious on Wednesdays and Saturdays (and Sundays from Easter to Advent). John Paul II suggested Thursday as the day for praying the Mysteries of Light, leaving Friday for the Sorrowful and moving the Joyful to Saturday. Thus one may still follow the traditional threefold sequence on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, before praying the whole set of four beginning on Thursday, finishing with the Glorious mysteries on Sunday. (In terms of number symbolism, this division of the week into two parts brings out the fact that seven, which is the number of the Covenant and of Creation, is made by the adding groups of three and four, just as twelve is produced by multiplying them.)


Opening and Closing Prayers


The Rosary may begin with this prayer:


Queen of the Holy Rosary, inspire in my heart a true love of this devotion, so that by meditating on the mysteries of our Redemption which are recalled in it, I may be enriched with its fruits and obtain peace for the world, the conversion of sinners, and the favour which I ask of you in this Rosary, which is to pray for me to the Lord our God, in the name of Christ our Saviour, for [insert your petition]. I ask it for the greater glory of God, for your own honour, Mary, and for the good of souls, especially my own. Amen.

The Rosary normally ends with these prayers:


Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Our life, our sweetness and our hope.

To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To you do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Pray for us, most holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

O God, whose only begotten Son by his life, death and Resurrection has purchased for us the rewards of eternal life, grant we beseech thee that, meditating upon these Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may both imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.


[Optional:] May the divine assistance remain always with us. Amen. And may the souls of the faithful departed [especially…..], through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.



Commentary on the Mysteries


As one prays each decade of the Rosary, it is helpful to focus one’s imaginative and intellectual attention (and thus one’s feelings and prayer) around one particular mystery in the life of Jesus and Mary.  The following commentary tries to bring out the way each of these mysteries relates to the others and to our own life – how each can lead us deeper into the life of faith.


After the name of each mystery I have put [in brackets like this] one of the things we might pray for during this meditation.


1. Joyful Mysteries: The Hidden Life


The soul prepares herself to welcome Christ, she manifests him

and eventually is forced to go deeper, through loss, into

the temple of the heart where he may be found again.


The Annunciation [to be humble]

The Angel greets Mary, who is little more than a child: "Hail Mary". In Latin, the word "Hail" is Ave, the reversal of Eva, which is the name of our fallen Mother. This reminds us that the first mystery is to do with a reversal of the Fall.  (Ave is also thought by some to be a shortened version of absque vae – meaning “without woe”.)

"Full of Grace". The Angel pronounces this as though it were a name or title, and so it is: Mary is the one who is full of grace, for she is without sin; that is, without any space from which grace has been excluded.


Mary is "immaculate" because she is sanctified in advance by the Son who is to be born of her, who existed as God eternally before her own birth, and without whom no one born after Adam could escape the presence of sin. God permits her to be born without the damage resulting from human sin, knowing that her Son will pay the price of her innocence upon the Cross. For when she reaches the age when she might consent to his conception within her womb, her freedom to do so must not be impeded by the reluctance that comes from moral weakness.


Now nothing in her resists the will of God. She is free to oppose it, of course, but why should she? She knows or senses that it is in the will of the creator that the interests of the creature are best defended. Yet the future of the world hangs on her reply to the Angel, for the decision is not automatic: it is an act she must make her own, a step she must take, which no one can do for her. Eve was just as free to reject the temptation of the Serpent, yet chose not to do so.


"The Lord is with thee." In a sense the Angel is the Lord’s presence to her, announcing in these words his arrival and what it means. In another sense she is the one with whom the Lord is always present. For us this second meaning is important, for if we lose the Lord, or a sense of his presence, we may find it again by going to Mary.


The Rosary is also the story of the Christian soul, and thus Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel may be taken to represent our own encounter with our angelic Guardian. We are thereby approaching that level of our being which Mary represents. We hear the voice of the Angel who is continually in the presence of God, we feel the touch of divine love, the necessary word of guidance.


In this meeting with the Angel the purpose of our life is revealed. Our mission is assigned to us, if we will accept it. How will we answer?


Each time we pray this Mystery we are trying to make it our own, to pour ourselves (as it were) into the mould of Mary, or to reach that place in ourselves where the Lord’s will is to be done.


Mary replies, "Let it be done (fiat) to me according to thy word." Her fiat echoes God’s fiat lux ("Let there be light") in the very beginning of creation, and her Son’s fiat ("Not my will but thine be done") in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42). She becomes in that moment of acceptance the Mother of the Son who is God.


The Visitation [to love others]

The spiritual, inner encounter with God, and the conception of the divine life within the soul and body of Mary, immediately leads to a human encounter. It impels Mary to an act of charity, sending her across the hills to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth, to share her joy and support her in a difficult pregnancy.


We imagine she would not have been allowed to go across country all alone, without companions, but it seems unlikely Joseph was with her, or that he yet knew of Mary’s own pregnancy. The Bible tells us that she stayed for about three months. Since the Angel had come to her in Elizabeth ’s sixth month of pregnancy, this means she stayed with Elizabeth until the birth of the Baptist.


We, too, to the extent we are able to receive the grace God offers, find the motivation to turn away from ourselves towards another’s need. This is part of the mission that is entrusted to us, just as it is part of Mary’s mission to go to Elizabeth .


"Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." Elizabeth ’s greeting becomes as much a part of the prayer we associate with Mary as that of the Angel. The two blend into each other, for behind both is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which is the voice of prayer itself.


Once the soul has met God in the Angel, she can meet God everywhere, whether at home or at the end of a long journey, in the self or in others. Mary’s encounter is now with the mother of a prophet, and with the prophet John himself, hidden but dancing in the womb before Mary, like King David before the tabernacle of the Lord. His motion, perhaps no more than a kick, is interpreted by Elizabeth with prophetic insight, and emphasizes the physicality of the Incarnation.


These are real babies, real wombs, real mothers. The events picked out by the Gospel writers are selected and stylized, almost hieratic or emblematic, to emphasize the meanings now known to be present in them.


We must place ourselves not only in the position of Mary, but in the position of Elizabeth , greeting Mary with joy, and praising the mystery accomplished in her. But it is a mystery in which Elizabeth has a part. The Holy Spirit who inspired her is also the Spirit of that love which unites her with her cousin and with us, so that in this Spirit we are all Mary, all Elizabeth, all Zechariah, all Joseph.


The Nativity [to be poor in spirit]

Each set of five mysteries can be read from the centre out. At the heart of the Joyful mysteries is this one, the mystery of the Nativity or Birth of Christ, or Christmas, while at the heart of the Luminous is the Prophecy of the Kingdom, at the heart of the Sorrowful is his Crowning with Thorns, and at the heart of the Glorious is the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles (the Nativity of the Church). Each of these central mysteries in a sequence of five concerns kingship, for the Nativity is the birth of the true King albeit in obscurity, the Crowning with Thorns is a real coronation although it appears to be a form of humiliation, and at Pentecost the flames of fire come to rest on the heads of the Apostles. The entire series ends with the Coronation of the Virgin. After all, God is the King of Israel : the fulfilment of the Covenant is the coming of the Kingdom and the sharing of his royalty with the People of God ("You are a royal priesthood...").


But first and foremost, the Nativity is simply a birth, which is the bringing forth of the secret that Mary has cherished within her for nine months – the face that God has fashioned for himself in the womb of the world. This is nothing less than a re-making of the world, for the world as it existed before was perishing, falling into nothingness, whereas now it is united through this tiny child with the divine life of the Trinity.


Into relation with this child all people and things are being drawn, and in this relationship they will pass through death into a new existence. The seed of this life began to grow in the earth’s soil at the Annunciation, but now it shows itself above ground, at Epiphany it will be acknowledged by the Wise, and on the Cross it will spread its branches over the earth.


In the image of Madonna and Child is represented the drama of the human personality, coming to birth in the meeting of two gazes and of two smiles, the mother’s smile kindling the child’s, the child’s spontaneous smile evoking this sign of love from the enfolding cosmos.


The Mother here is the purely human, the Child is God. It is Joseph’s mission to protect and raise this Child, which means first of all to shelter the Mother who is the Child’s first home. Icons of the Nativity show him weary, perhaps doubting his fitness for the task, puzzling over God’s plan.  He is appointed to represent the heavenly Father and become an Icon of the Invisible.


The Presentation in the Temple [to be pure and obedient]

The mysteries represented in the Rosary as "Joyful" partly concern the continuity of the Old in the New Testament. The mystery of the Presentation shows the submission of Joseph and Mary to the Law and the Temple traditions, and it shows the recognition by Simeon and Anna of Israel’s Messiah.


An old man and an old woman, no doubt tolerated by the Temple authorities but hardly respected – perhaps on occasion mocked – faithful to the inspiration they have been given and empowered by the Spirit, see the significance of this one child among a thousand others.


Anna reads the destiny of the Mother in the face of the Child, for a sword is coming that will pierce her soul. It is the sword of Roman power, the power to kill the Son when he is betrayed by his friends. At a deeper level it is the burning sword of the Angel who guards the way back to the Garden in Eden – which is that place where all men are united in one Man. The return to unity, to inner peace, lies through the Cross of separation and desolation, in which every form of disunity and alienation is gathered together in one human existence.


These ten prayers also concern the mystery of purity, for the act of childbearing is sacred and the mother exists for a time outside the formalities of religion. Now she brings the fruit of her womb to become a part of the wider community, and in this case she brings to the Temple the source of all purity and all sanctification.


There is no stain of sin, no damage to the human will, either of Mother or of Son. They come to the Temple because we perform religious rituals primarily to give glory to God for his own sake – not to benefit ourselves.


Simeon and Anna would not have recognized Jesus unless they had maintained great purity in their heart, which is the organ of interior sight. If their imagination had been distracted by images of worldly pleasure or the passions of anger and jealousy, the light that shone from the Child would not have been evident to them. Like recognizes like, and the coming of the dawn to Israel brings peace to the watchman.


The Finding in the Temple [to search for God everywhere]

This mystery looks forward to the public ministry of the Lord’s teaching years, between his Baptism in the Jordan and his Passion. Here in his childhood (and even in adulthood he does not cease to be a child) he is already engaged in dialogue with the teachers of Israel , and even his questions express a wisdom greater than that of Solomon.


The mystery also represents the twelve years up to that point, years in which he grew in the home of Joseph and Mary, and also in awareness of his mission to the People of Israel. It is the mystery of his obedience to Joseph and Mary, and therefore of his humility. It is the mystery of his hiddenness, even from the parents who know the secret of his conception, and therefore of the "secret" teaching which, though manifest, is only revealed and understood to those who "have ears to hear", at the right time and place.


Christ always stands in the Temple , in the Church, asking questions and answering them. His presence is always a challenge to the masters of the Law and Doctrine, for he stands among them as the truth embodied completely in a living person, not as a system of propositions or a book.


This is also the mystery of conversation with the Word: the Word of God speaking by means of words in a human language with his creatures. Here is an image of the Trinity reproduced in the second Person: his human mind forming an idea, the idea embodied in a word, and the word sent forth on his breath, uniting him in exchange with those who receive and understand.


It is the mystery of losing and finding, of losing perhaps in order to find, for when they found him it was to understand him better than before – and at the same time less than before, because they had been led deeper into the mystery of his mission.


We search for Jesus – that is, for God in findable form – and we search for him in the three days when he is absent from us (in the Tomb) or when we are absent from him (looking in the wrong place). We will find him, but he may be surprised that we did not find him earlier.



2. The Mysteries of Light: Revealing the Kingdom to Mere Children


The soul is filled with light, the light of the world,

unrecognized by so many yet present in everywhere

 in truth, goodness, and beauty.


The Baptism in the Jordan [to be faithful to the promises of our baptism]

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”  Up to now Jesus has lived with his mother, but now the Lord is beginning his ministry.  He is leaving the obscurity of his hidden life with Mary to reveal the light of the kingdom.  His baptism at John’s hands marks the transition.  When he steps into the waters of the river that runs through Israel , the earthly waters are mingled with the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14), flowing from the heart of Jesus.  Earthly waters become Living Waters: this is the mystical beginning of sacramental Baptism.


The descent of the Holy Spirit like a dove upon Jesus, as he stands in the waters and hears the voice of the Father, is the most extraordinary image of the Trinity in action, creating and re-creating the world. In the very first verses of Genesis the Spirit of God hovers over the waters as the world is created by the sound of God’s voice. God’s first words are Fiat lux (“Let there be light”).  That was the original “luminous mystery”.


The Spirit is the breath of God, the Son is his Word.  In the Son all things are made, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.  The Son is the true Light that shines from the darkness of the Father.  He is the Father’s Fiat.


The solid earth is made between the upper and lower waters, after they are separated on the second day, and after the lower waters are gathered together on the third.  Standing in the Jordan, Jesus stands in the midst of the lower waters, like a new-made continent, or like a new Ark in which good creatures may be kept safe from the Flood.


Like Moses walking into the Red Sea, like Joshua crossing the Jordan, Jesus leads his people through these waters into freedom and the Land of Promise . First, he must spend 40 days (as the Israelites spent 40 years) in the wilderness, tempted but not failing, as they were tempted and failed so many times.


The Spirit sends him into the desert places as God sent the fallen Adam out of the Garden into a wilderness, saying, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  The Second Adam must have remembered these words as he yearned for bread, only too conscious of the mortality he had put on with his human nature.  But he refuses to turn stones into bread for himself, for that is not his Father’s will, and he will obey no one else.


The three temptations represent all possible temptations (physical, psychological, spiritual), and Jesus’s victory over them creates in human nature the possibility of the three Vows (poverty, chastity, obedience).  Thus he turns the wilderness of human nature back into a Garden, and the wild beasts and angels come and minister to him, as they did for Adam in his innocence.


The Wedding at Cana [to trust in Mary]

His mission having begun with his return from the wilderness, now we begin to see signs that testify to Jesus’s authority and manifest his nature. This one is the first of seven miracles recorded by the Evangelist John (corresponding perhaps to the seven days of creation and the seven “I am” sayings), which include also three miracles of healing, one of the multiplication of bread, one of walking on water, and one of raising of the dead.  In the Rosary, this one may be taken to stand in for all the other miracles recorded of Christ in Scripture.


This first miracle is precipitated by Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Noticing the lack of wine at the wedding, she prompts him to do something.  Why should she do that, unless she knew he could perform miracles? Why would she persist in her confidence that he would act, even after he seemingly rebuffs her request, unless she knew him almost better than he knew himself, and was intimately aware of God’s will for him? Mary was always filled with the Holy Spirit, almost an “incarnation” of the Spirit, and just as the Spirit led Jesus from the Jordan into the wilderness, and then back to Galilee , so now Mary leads him into the performing of miracles.


Why this miracle?  Just to make a wedding party go more smoothly? How banal! But we must remember the significance of marriage in the cosmic scheme of things, and in the parables of Jesus. A wedding is a symbol of the Kingdom, and of the final reconciliation of all things in Christ – the union of divine nature with human, of heaven with earth. On one level the miracle is simply a hidden act of kindness to the bride and groom, itself not without significance. On another, it is a manifestation (at least to the disciples) of the reality that is to be preached to the people: the coming of the Kingdom of God among them.


Jesus has recently transformed the natural waters of the earth into the waters of Baptism. Now he changes six jars of water into the finest wine to show his power over the elements themselves. He had refused to exercise that power to assuage his hunger by turning stones to bread, but now at the prompting of his mother he turns water into wine for someone’s else’s sake. It is a blessing on the wedding itself, indicating that when Jesus is present in a marriage it becomes a sacrament, partaking of the communion he offers to all men in the Church. It points forward to the Last Supper, the “wedding feast of the Lamb”, and to the Cross, which seals the new Covenant in his blood.


The Proclamation of the Kingdom [for our hearts to be fully converted]

The Greek word kerygma means the preaching or proclamation of the “good news”, and this mystery refers to the moment when Jesus read aloud in the synagogue the scroll of Isaiah, proclaiming it fulfilled:


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:16-21; cf. Is. 61:1-2).


The immediate reaction of the people is admiration, but it quickly turns to anger, for he tells them he can perform no miracles there.  They try to throw him off a hilltop, but he walks through the crowd and disappears.  He does not run and hide, or dodge and weave, but “passes through the midst of them”.  How is that possible, through a crowd that wants to kill him?  Perhaps it is thanks to a miracle (invisibility, or intangibility), but however it happens we are reminded that nothing and no one can harm us unless God permits it.


This Mystery also recalls the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. Matt. 5:1-20), where he teaches the spirituality of the Kingdom – his equivalent of the Ten Commandments.  The Beatitudes are a composite portrait of his true followers: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. In Luke 9 it is linked to the sending of the Twelve, the feeding of the Five Thousand, and Peter’s inspired recognition of him as the anointed Christ of God.


The Transfiguration [to love meditation and prayer]

Before the week of his Passion, which involved his final confrontation with the powers of evil, Jesus takes his three closest disciples up into the mountain to pray. Luke tells us this was about eight days (Mark says it was six) after his prophecy of the Kingdom: “But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (9:27-8). Thus in one way, the Transfiguration is a glimpse of that Kingdom, which the disciple John was to see more fully when he was an old man, in the visions narrated in the Book of Revelation.


Jesus takes his disciples with him to pray. He is teaching them to pray, leading them in prayer, showing them what prayer means. His face is altered and his clothing becomes dazzling white as he talks to Moses and Elijah about his coming “exodus” (Luke 9:31). In Jerusalem he will lead the people of the Covenant out of the Egypt of sin, across the desert of death, and into the Promised Land. Prayer means talking on familiar terms with the greatest prophets, who are still alive with God. And though it involves going higher up in the spiritual dimension – up the mountain not down in the valley – it does not mean leaving the body behind, for the body is transfigured.


No one saw where Moses was buried, and Elijah was taken up bodily to heaven in a chariot of fire. The human body is an essential part of the highest prayer, for the body belongs to the whole person who is transfigured in God. The disciples are heavy with sleep but remain awake. They are not fully conscious, for their bodies still hold them back. They themselves are not yet transfigured; they are merely witnesses.


Peter’s suggestion that they make booths for Jesus, Moses and Elijah is connected with the Jewish Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (Sukkot), when the people would journey on pilgrimage to Jerusalem , and for six days whole families would eat meals together, entertain guests, and sleep in their booths. Here the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus is being identified as the goal of the Jewish pilgrimage. And just as the Glory or shekinah of the Lord was present with the Jews in the Tabernacle built by Moses to house the Ark, and just as the Lord spoke to Moses face-to-face in his tent (Ex. 33:7-11; 34:29-35; 35:1-19), so the Lord God is present with the disciples in the body of Jesus, and just as the voice of God was heard on Sinai speaking from the cloud, so the disciples hear the Father’s voice telling them to listen to the Son.


The face of Moses shone with light after he had spoken with God. Jesus also speaks with God face-to-face in prayer, and his face and clothes shine even more brightly, for he is greater than Moses. He both speaks to God and is God, in the mystery of the Trinity, for the Son is the face God turns towards himself, and the face he turns to us.


The Eucharist [to be devoted to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament]

Immediately before Christ entered into his Passion there was the Last Supper, at which he instituted the Eucharist along with the Episcopate. Thus the last of the first ten Mysteries, referring to the Eucharist, immediately precedes the first of the last ten Mysteries, which is the Agony in the Garden leading to the arrest and trial of the Son of God.


All the Luminous Mysteries are enfolded in the gift of the Eucharist. Baptism begins our initiation into the royal priesthood of Christ; the Eucharist is its completion.


“Eucharist” means thanksgiving. The essence of divine and eternal life is a receiving of existence or identity and a giving of thanks to God, which is a giving of glory and praise to the maker and source of everything we have received and that can be received. This eternal life is a participation in the love of the Holy Trinity which is the archetype of all sacrifice and of every marriage. The Eucharist is the wedding feast of the Lamb.


It is a Mystery of Light because it is the full communication of truth, the Truth who is a Person, the Word of the Father, “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9), the light that the darkness has not overcome.


In the Eucharist is the real presence of our Lord, the presence that nourishes prayer, the presence that makes the Church. Through the consecration and offering by the priest, the appearances of bread and wine become expressive of a new divine intention. Christ no longer intends to give us a mere symbol of himself – which bread and wine always are – but his very self in reality. By making this intention apply to a specific piece of bread, a specific cup of wine, he changes the reality while leaving the atoms and molecules unaltered.


The Eucharist is the Holy Grail, the cup of mercy and healing and immortality, containing the essence of all sweetness, the “one great thing to love on earth”, the source of romance, glory, honour and fidelity (Tolkien, Letter 43), the fruit of the Tree of Life.




3. Sorrowful Mysteries: The Passion of the Divine Bridegroom


The Agony in the Garden [to repent of our sins]

The saving Passion of our Lord begins in the garden of Gethsemane, to reverse the effect of a Fall that took place in the garden of Eden (and it will bear fruit in a third garden – see the first of the Glorious Mysteries). The Lord waters the ground with his sweat and blood, so that the seed he plants in the earth, in the sleeping disciples, will grow in the Church.


He prays to his Father that the "cup" will pass him by, but submits to his Father’s will. Does he pray this as the second Person of the Trinity or as a human being? As God, his will is the same as that of his Father. As man, he has a human will too, for this pertains to his nature as man. The two are not in conflict, for although he has to make the act of submission, the resistance comes not from his human side but from the natural abhorrence that his human will has to master. The unity of the two wills, human and divine, is not a unity of identity – the human nature is not the divine nature – but a unity brought about by love.


The suffering which his body and soul fear, this cup which he dreads, is the result of the Fall – of the separation that has opened up between God and creation. Man’s will has opened the wound; the will of Jesus must close it.


The cup is once more the Grail, the vessel which contains the "blood" or life of Christ separated from his body. That blood is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. It is the sacramental substance that communicates divine grace to every part of the extended body of Christ which is the Church.


The three Apostles Peter, James and John, who barely kept awake on the Mount of Transfiguration, now cannot stay awake and pray, as he asks. He prays the same prayer three times: once for each of them, for it is on their behalf, as representing all his followers, that he struggles. They sleep the sleep of the flesh (as Lancelot slept in the presence of the Grail). They cannot concentrate, cannot attend.


"Pray that you may be spared the test." But they did not, and so the test will come. They have not understood the essence of what is now to transpire on the Cross. They were not awake to see the Lord accept the cup on their behalf, or be strengthened by the Angel.


The Scourging at the Pillar [to mortify our senses]

The cords of the Roman soldiers strip away the skin and drown him in agony. The beauty that God made for him, the beauty of his body, is marred and torn. Every stroke corresponds to some just punishment for something we have done, of which he is innocent. He resents nothing but feels everything.


The pillar to which he is tied represents the centre of the universe, the axis around which it turns, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the sacred mountain, Mount Zion . For everywhere the Son of Man is, that is the centre of the universe.


The soldiers may be doing their duty, following orders, or they may be enjoying the job a little too much. Hardened by their work, they are hardened against human feeling, and their consciences do not feel the blows from each stroke of the lash, which falls on them though they do not realize it.


The Crowning with Thorns [to love humiliation]

The middle Mystery of this series of five is the one that corresponds to the Nativity, the Proclamation of the Kingdom, and Pentecost in the other series.


Jesus, the one who sees all, is blindfolded by men and made into a joke for their amusement, but this is only the reverse side of the mystery of his glorification. It is what glory looks like when it is seen in the distorting mirror of sin.


He is challenged by the soldiers to prophecy – who hit you then? He knows but does not say, for he is ready to bury their wickedness in his forgiveness, and they will know that forgiveness, burning with shame when the knowledge comes.


The crowning is a real coronation, for in the acceptance of this mockery for love of us he makes it golden, just as his wounds will shine after the Resurrection.


He needs nothing to be king of the universe, only to be doing his Father’s will.


The Carrying of the Cross [to be patient under trials]

He tells us we must each carry our Cross, but that the burden will be light. For him it is not light at all, since he feels the weight of it in order that we might be comforted by his presence with us when we carry our own.


If it seems heavy to us, then we are not letting him bear it in us, as he has done already. We think perhaps that we will spare him further pain, but really we are refusing to walk with him, refusing his companionship. Such is his love for us that the best way for us to console and assist him is to let him comfort us.


All this is easy to say, and less easy to do. When the burden comes, it seems impossible to bear, and so Jesus himself fell three times under it. In the end Jesus had to be helped by another. No one is really alone.


What makes it worse is that the burden is something that will be our instrument of torture. But for Jesus it is his throne and the instrument of salvation. It is the doorway to heaven and the veil of the Father. It is his Mother and his Brothers.


The Crucifixion [to be forgiven our sins]

Nailed to the Cross are our sins. All that we have done wrong, all that we might do wrong, is stabbed into the wood and fixed there. The interior of sin is revealed for those who can bear to look. Jesus has made himself a mirror. This is what we are doing to ourselves by choosing what seems pleasant over the order of the universe that we know in our heart.


There are two thieves crucified on either side, one repenting and one rejecting. It is the scene of the Last Judgement, when men will welcome or reject the presence of God in their own hearts. Below are standing Mary and John, each entrusted to the other by the Word of God. John represents all the disciples, even those temporarily absent through fear and confusion. Mary is giving birth to the Church.


The stream of blood and water that flows out from the dead Christ is akin to the blood mingled with water that flows out from under the altar of the Temple when the sacrifices are made. The body of Jesus is the new Temple , his Sacred Heart the new altar. The water and blood, become Eucharist for us, are the spring that gives eternal life, a river of grace that flows through the seven sacraments.


That river of grace is caught, in the visionary world, by an angel, in a golden cup, the Holy Grail. This sacred Vessel is the Church, the Blessed Virgin standing beneath the Cross, the Ark. The cup signifies that nothing is lost. The river of the sacraments flows between heaven and earth, between the soul and the body of Christ separated from each other by death, a separation that makes room for us to become the extended body of Christ, in whom his Spirit lives.



4. Glorious Mysteries: The Return to God

The Resurrection [for Faith in Christ]
If all human beings are in Adam, and Adam is in Christ, then all of us have died and all been resurrected by the power of God. But the lives of human beings are spread out in time and space, so that when we look at Christ’s life on earth we are looking both into the past and into the future. Our resurrection has happened in Christ, but not yet in us.

Faith is the beginning of our resurrection. It is the first fruit of the Tree of Life, which God gives us so that we might live forever. It is an act of will, a decision to trust in the Word of God, but we could not make it without the help of God’s grace in us. That is why theologians call faith an “infused” theological virtue. This means that it is a divine-human act, an act of cooperation with God, and as such it is founded on the union of divine and human natures in Christ.

The disciples do not at first recognize Jesus, because the resurrected body is (in a sense) not the same as the one that died. For “there are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another…. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15: 40, 44). It is still a body, not a spirit, and it is still the body of Christ, and bears his wounds, but it is changed, and its appearance is no longer at the mercy of our earthly sight but – like all that is spiritual – invisible unless deliberately revealed.

The Ascension [for Hope, and the desire for heaven]
Hope measures the distance between what we grasp obscurely in faith and what we possess securely, when in the beatific vision love becomes our eternal life. Paul expresses this hope when he says that God has “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6), as though we had already ascended simply by receiving him in the sacraments.

He ascends by his own power, not by a chariot as Elijah ascended, and he goes to “where he was before” (John 6:63). For as Jesus told Nicodemus, “no one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man” (John 3:13). He is the way, and he is also the destination. Where he was before is with God in the mystery of the Trinity.

In his divine nature he had never left the Father’s side, but he ascends now in his human body. Through that body, which is connected to all human life and its cosmic environment, the whole world is drawn into resurrection. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev. 21:1). So “God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

Pentecost [for Love, and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit]
The opposite of Babel – tongues divided, but tongues like fire, uniting the new community in a single witness, and speaking to all who would listen, in every language. Peter leads the apostles in speaking of Jesus, and the signs to come, and the possibility of salvation for those who call on the Lord’s name. His words are like fire, and about 3000 are baptized that day.

Each set of mysteries represents a turn of the spiral, so that just as the first and second Glorious Mysteries correspond to the first and second Sorrowful (the rising from death to the acceptance of death in Gethsemane, and the flagellation of the flesh to its glorification in the Ascension), and the others may be read in this way too, so the third Mystery, the crowning of the Church with tongues of flame, corresponds to the Crowning with Thorns, and the eloquence of the disciples at Pentecost to the silence of Jesus before his accusers.

The Holy Spirit descends on the Apostles from heaven, seven weeks after Easter Sunday and ten days after Ascension Thursday. This Christian festival corresponds to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, fifty days after the Exodus, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Now the law that is given to man is the Holy Spirit of love.

The Spirit is from the Father and from the Son. Jesus has breathed it forth and returned it to the Father on the Cross (John 19:30), and received it back in the Resurrection, only to breathe it upon them when he conveys the power to forgive sins (John 20:22). Now it comes from heaven, where he is with the Father. As in the Nativity, what was hidden in Mary has now come to the view of the whole world, and the many nations bear witness to the new light (the wise men, the crowds).

The Assumption [for devotion to Mary and the grace of a good death]
Mary follows Jesus, who takes her up to be with him in heaven, above all the angels, when the time comes for her to die. Her destiny is that of the archetypal Christian soul, and her escape from the limitations of time and death represents the final victory of Christ, who made the Cross a bridge to heaven and the tomb a portal to life.

For us who must die, there is a period of waiting in the separation of body and soul, until the general resurrection when all matter will be transformed. But for Mary there can be no period when her body is touched by corruption, for all possibility of stain has been removed by the grace that flows down from the Cross into time and space. By the power of the Father, she is the entire source of the human nature of the Son, and so her body cannot be separated from his. The human nature he assumes and redeems in his Person is present first in her.

Our love for Mary is one with our love for beauty and goodness, of interior peace and measured wisdom, of flowers and mountains and green valleys and the deep ocean, of stars and the happiest moments of human life, the kindness of friends and the love of family and the bliss of lovers. Nothing of our earthly life will be lost, because Mary treasures all things in her immaculate heart.

The Coronation [for the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary]
God became man so that man could become God, according to the Church Fathers. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).  The goal of our earthly existence is to become “like him”, by becoming full of grace, full of the Holy Spirit. When we look at Mary, we see the dignity in which our soul and body, our own person, is called to share.

The world is saved by Jesus Christ in Mary. Once raised to heaven she is crowned Queen, because in heaven “to serve is to reign” (John Paul II). In her our human nature is revealed as the highest work of God’s art. A human person has become the face that creation turns towards the Face of God. Being illuminated by his light she is clothed with the sun, and the angels themselves form the diamonds in her crown. The moon on which she stands is the old earth, the memories that constitute her past.

Balthasar says (in The Threefold Garland), that God himself “is the crown that descends upon all that she is”. He is the eternal circuit of love into which we are drawn. Then each “will finally know who he is in reality, and consequently each will at this time be able to make of himself a fully authentic and unique gift. And this self-giving will be common to all, so that we will not only plunge eternally into God’s ever newer depths, but also into the inexhaustible depths of our fellow creatures, both angels and men.”



Recommended Further Reading

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Threefold Garland: The World’s Salvation in Mary’s Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982)

John D. Miller, Beads and Prayers: The Rosary in History and Devotion ( London : Burns & Oates, 2002)

Ruth Rees, The Rosary in Space and Time ( Leominster and Chicago : Gracewing and Liturgical training Publications, 2004)