The Holy Rosary is often mistaken for mere vain repetition, racking up points by saying as many “Hail Marys” as possible. This could not be further from the truth. The Rosary is a way of meditating on the mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ, seen through the lens and guided by the hand of His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This is the first in a series of reflections on the mysteries of the rosary, with each installment focusing on five of the 20 decades. The Joyful Mysteries cover the earliest events in the life of Our Blessed Lord, from the Incarnation through His childhood years.
The First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation
The first mystery is certainly one of the most shocking, if we consider the full import of what occurred when the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary of Nazareth who gave her assent to God’s request that she conceive and bear His Son. In the history of salvation, the story of God and His people, His beloved children, this is an event without precedent.
There is a potential danger in the way we think about the Annunciation. So often, it is all too easy to view this event as the announcement of the impending coming of the Lord. The Angel appeared to Mary, and she agreed to conceive and bear the Son of God – not at some undetermined date in the future, but there and then. This is the mystery of the coming of God, of God with us – not God soon-to-be-with-us.
October is not only the month dedicated to the Rosary, it is also Respect Life month. When viewed through this lens, it becomes even more apparent that this first mystery of the Rosary is a profoundly important event, and perhaps even the most important event in all of human history. At the Annunciation, when Mary gave her fiat and she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the Son of God was conceived in her womb. As we understand that life begins at conception, the Annunciation is truly the celebration of the Incarnation. God Became Man. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave (cf. Philippians 2:7), and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (cf. John 1:14). Without this seminal event, nothing that followed could have done so. This is the celebration of the Incarnation of the Lord, the humbling of the Creator of all things, entering His own creation, and becoming that which He created in His own image and likeness. The life and salvific work of Jesus was possible because of this moment, because of Mary’s declaration, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
The Second Joyful Mystery: The Visitation
The Visitation can perhaps be seen as the great mystery of John the Baptist, and even as the first prophetic proclamation by the last great prophet of Israel.
Some time after Mary had conceived of the Son of God, she traveled to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Now, we should remember that in the Semitic languages of Jesus’ time, there were not specific delineations for differing degrees of cousin; someone’s second cousin twice removed would still be called “cousin.” So we cannot say for sure how closely related Mary and Elizabeth were, but this is not what is important (in fact, some translations of the Bible render the word simply as “relative”). What is important is that they are family, and what is more important is the reaction that is elicited by the approach of Mary to her cousin’s home.
The angel Gabriel had also announced to Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, thought to be barren in her old age, had conceived a son, and that this showed that nothing is impossible with God (cf. Luke 1:36). The conception of Elizabeth’s son had been quite an ordeal. Her husband, Zechariah, did not believe that this was possible, and was struck mute by the angel of the Lord, Gabriel. Elizabeth was, indeed, as we know, with child, and this child would become one of the first to proclaim the coming of the Son of God.
Mary entered the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah, and greeted her relative. At the greeting, something profound happened. The child in Elizabeth’s womb, who would later be named John and known as the Baptizer, leaped for joy (cf. Luke 1:41). The implication, and the understanding of this passage that has come down to us over the centuries, is that John was aware of the approach of Mary, and of the blessed child in her womb. So overcome with joy was he that he could not contain it, and leaped and danced. At this, “Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1: 40-41). By the reaction of her own child, the last great prophet of Israel, Elizabeth knew of the coming of the Lord, and she praised and gave thanks to God.
We are truly called to follow the example of Elizabeth and John. Our Blessed Mother calls out to us with constancy, and “the moment the sound of [her] greeting reach[es our] ears,” we should leap for joy, and worship the Lord.
The Third Joyful Mystery: The Nativity of Our Lord
The Mystery of the Nativity may well be the hardest for us to meditate on. This is ironic, as it must also be the most ubiquitous in our minds. The birth of Jesus Christ is the event by which all of subsequent human history has been measured. Time itself is calculated in relation to this event; the suffix “A.D.” stands for Anno Domini, or “In the Year of the Lord,” and simply refers to the number of years since the birth of Jesus Christ. Because the Christmas story is so well-known to us, it is all too easy to gloss over, to say “Oh, I know this one already. It is great,” and think nothing further of it. But perhaps if we delve deeper into it, we will discover mysteries and beauties that had not yet occurred to us.
Let us recall that, in the Garden of Eden, God walked with Adam and Eve. However, since that time no one had seen His face. He met with Moses, but showed him only His back; He sent His messengers, the angels, as emissaries; He dwelt with Israel in the Ark of the Covenant, and in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, but was not to be seen by human eyes. Now, God had become man, and countless individuals looked upon His face in Jesus of Nazareth. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was walking the earth, eating and drinking and living with His fellow men. His fellow men. God had chosen to commune with His Creation in a truly unique way, far different from any way He had before.
This is so much more than a stable, a few animals, some shepherds, and a glowing baby. This is the indwelling of the Lord, now here among us, Emmanuel.
The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple
“When the days were completed for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22). It may seem counter-intuitive to us, but Jesus, the Son of God, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was brought to the Temple to be presented and consecrated to God. This shows that Mary and Joseph were devout Jews, strictly adhering to the Law of Moses, attempting to fulfill God’s commands as best they could. Luke tells us that “it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord’” (Luke 2:23).
Why did Mary and Joseph find it necessary to present Jesus in the Temple? They did not follow the law blindly, certainly, merely to check the box that says they did so. Rather, this was a profound gesture displaying their intentions to follow through with their promise to God, to raise the child as a child of Israel, to fulfill their calling to watch over and care for the Son of God, and to help guide him into the work to which He was called.
When we present our children for the Sacrament of Baptism today, we are fulfilling a similar calling. We pray that the parents and godparents, and all others involved in raising the child, be given the grace to bring the child up in a Christian home and to live a fully Christian life. The parents may be the most devout Catholics anywhere, but the grace of God is needed to help them and the child fulfill this calling.
The Fifth Joyful Mystery: The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple
For those of us who are parents, the fear of something happening to our children is probably the worst fear imaginable. There is something profound that happens when you become a parent, even under the most normal circumstances, whereby your children become the most precious and important part of your life, and you would do anything to keep them from hurt or danger. We can only imagine what Joseph and Mary must have felt when their Son went missing.
Jesus was missing for days, as the family was travelling in a large group, and it was assumed that He was somewhere in the caravan with relatives or friends. Joseph and Mary spent the day looking for Him, and ultimately came to the realization that He had been left behind. Returning to Jerusalem, they found Him in the temple after three days, conversing with the great teachers there. Ultimately, Joseph and Mary were right – Jesus was with relatives and friends. When questioned by Joseph and Mary, Jesus responded “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)?
Perhaps we can see this as an example for us to follow. When we go astray in our lives, when we feel lost or disoriented or like we are in unfamiliar territory, we must always return to the house of our Father. In some ways, we can recognize in this event the father of the prodigal son, whose door is always open, calling his children home to him. Jesus says that he “must” be in His Father’s house, and it is this imperative that we should recall, and of which we should always be mindful.
The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary detail the earliest events in the life of Jesus of which we have information handed down to us. Next month, I will reflect upon the so-called Luminous Mysteries, or Mysteries of Light, instituted by Pope St. John Paul II, which focus on some of the major events during the public ministry of Jesus.