This is the third installment in our series on the Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary. Today we look at the Sorrowful Mysteries, those Mysteries which help us to meditate upon the suffering that Jesus underwent for our salvation.
The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary are probably those with which we are most familiar. These mysteries are all centered around the Passion and death of Jesus – something that we hear about in great detail quite often, and meditate on at every Mass. In the Nicene Creed we recall that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” During the Institution Narrative, the priest commonly brings to mind that Jesus was “betrayed and suffered willingly” for our sins, offering Himself as a scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb. The holiest week of the Church’s year commemorates these events, and one of the most successful movies of the last 15 years depicted these mysteries in excruciatingly realistic detail.
It is difficult, in some ways, in light of all of the above, to approach the Sorrowful Mysteries with a due sense of newness, and an appropriate sense of urgency. When it is something with which we are so familiar, it can be hard to see it with new eyes. As in the earlier installments in this series, we will try to meditate on the Mysteries largely by trying to place ourselves there, and experience the Mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ. In this way we hope to reach new insights and new devotional inspiration.
The Sorrowful Mysteries, the recollection of Jesus Christ’s suffering and death, can perhaps best be summarized in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “We turn to the Lord, who knows our suffering and longs to give us his comfort and peace. Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured” (Isaiah 53:4A). Jesus Christ, the unblemished lamb (cf. Exodus 12:5), pure and undefiled and untainted, willingly offered Himself as a sacrificial victim, suffering in our stead that which is our due. This is the love of Jesus Christ, the love of God our Father, written large, on an unimaginable scale.
The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden
When it comes to the suffering of Jesus Christ, His Passion and Death, whatever we say does not do it justice. His suffering is truly unfathomable, and certainly unimaginable. It started in earnest after the Last Supper, when He went to the Mount of Olives to pray, followed by His disciples.
Jesus knew what was about to befall Him. He had prophesied throughout His ministry that He would be betrayed, that He would be lifted up on a cross, that He was surely to die. As the moment draws nearer, here in what were to be His final hours, the gravity of the situation comes into clearer focus – and its inescapability, inevitability, grows clear. After advising His disciples to “pray that you may not undergo the test” (Luke 22:40), Jesus goes off by Himself to pray, and earnestly requests of His Father that He may not undergo the test. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:41-42).
Perhaps the most commonly identified takeaway from this pericope is the fact that Jesus, the Logos Himself, asked to be spared the trials that He was about to face. In the face of pain, agony, and under the weight of the sins of the whole world, Jesus earnestly prayed that He might be spared. Who among us can honestly say that we have not done the same? Perhaps even today? Perhaps even on a daily basis? In light of this, we must always remember the second part of Jesus’ petition: “Still, not my will but yours be done.” We must trust in the will of God, that no matter what trials we face, regardless of the pain we might encounter, if we conform our wills with that of God, we are on the right path.
The Second Sorrowful Mystery: The Scourging at the Pillar
After Jesus’ arrest, He is brought to trial, and deemed guilty. In spite of Pontius Pilate’s objections to the whole proceedings, and Pilate’s wife’s insistence that Jesus be spared, Pilate defers to the leaders of the local community, who condemn Jesus to death. His sentence is crucifixion, generally understood to be one of the worst and most painful methods of execution, an excruciating, humiliating death. Before such a horrendous end, however, Jesus is to be beaten and scourged.
The so-called “scourging at the pillar” should help us bring to mind the gratuity of the whole endeavor of Jesus’ Passion. Before a man is made to carry His cross through town and up a hill to his place of execution, He is first beaten, cut, scarred, and whipped; many dramatizations of the life of Jesus depict the scourging as so brutal that it makes Him virtually unable to walk. The Stations of the Cross have Jesus falling three separate times on the journey, likely due to the brutal scourging He received prior.
And how would we react if we were there, witnessing the scourging? Knowing what we know now, that He is the Son of God, taking this punishment for our transgressions, Himself a pure victim, could we stand idly by and watch Him suffer? If we knew that He was suffering for us, having done nothing wrong Himself, how would that affect how we feel about the whole endeavor? How does it affect our reaction to the scourging of the Body of Christ on a daily basis today?
The Third Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning with Thorns
After beating Jesus senseless, the soldiers thought it was time to humiliate and mock Him for good measure. “They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him. Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!'”(Matthew 27:28-29).
Just think of it: these soldiers were so intent on humiliating Jesus further, making Him look like a fool, that they certainly must have hurt themselves in the process. Handling the thorns from which they fashioned the crown, not to mention the fashioning itself, would have seriously injured the soldiers’ hands. Their commitment to humiliating Jesus as much as possible seemed to outweigh any concerns they may have had about their own safety.
The irony of this scene is remarkable. The soldiers intend to humiliate Jesus, and mock Him and His followers; but what they in reality do is bring to the forefront Jesus’ identity as King of Kings. They unwittingly utilize the very public context of the crucifixion as a platform from which to proclaim the glory of the King – the glory of the King which comes from sacrificing Himself for His people.
The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery: The Carrying of the Cross
Jesus’ carrying of the cross is such a profound mystery, ripe for reflection and meditation, that it has yielded one of the most powerful devotionals in the Catholic Church, the Stations of the Cross. Most of us are familiar with the Stations of the Cross, even if we can’t recall all 14 stations by name. For some of us, reading the biblical accounts of the via crucis can be jarring, as many of the details present in the Stations are not explicit (or even implicit) in the biblical accounts.
When we are praying the Holy Rosary, meditating on the events of the life of Jesus Christ, one important thing to do is to place ourselves there, imagine that we are standing at the side of the road as Jesus walks by. When He consoles the women, we are there; when He falls, we are there; when HE has His cross taken up by Simon the Cyrenian, we are there. Simon is a stand-in for all of us. He is not simply some holy man who helped someone carry their cross to their execution. He is a man who left everything behind in that moment, and literally took up Jesus’ cross and followed Him: just as we are called to do by Jesus Himself.
The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion
Here is the culmination. Picture yourself standing on Calvary, as near to the crosses as possible. There are three men hanging from crosses. You stand at the foot of the one in the middle, looking up, trying to see into the face of the man hanging there accused. In the middle of the afternoon, this man dies. The sign above His head had said, in multiple languages, reads “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Upon His death, darkness comes over the land, the earth shakes and splits, and the curtain in the Temple is torn in two.
Clearly this is a man of some import. Clearly, here is a man whose death has had a profound effect on all of creation around Him. They scourged Him, they beat Him, they crowned Him with thorns; they walked Him to the hill, they forced Him to carry His cross the whole time, and when they arrived at the Hill they drove nails into His feet and hands and hung him up to suffocate. And when He died, even the earth itself cried out in anguish. It must have terrified all those who were present at the time; terrified them, confused them, and in general astonished them. Perhaps the Holy Spirit spoke to their hearts and helped them to understand what was happening. I can confidently say that I would have been utterly terrified, and hopefully would have had the presence of mind to pray for understanding and safety. Darkness had entered the world; was there any sign that the world would come out of it?
God did not end the story of His Son there, and neither can we. Next month we will reflect and meditate upon the Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary, and the culmination of the Paschal Mystery.