Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary
First Mystery: The Annunciation
In this decade of the Rosary we meditate upon the Mystery of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God, and upon Mary’s part in this wondrous event. The Angel Gabriel is sent from God to announce to her that she is to become the mother of the Messiah, and that this Messiah will be conceived in her by the overshadowing of the Power of God and the working of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel also tells her that the precursor (John) is already within the womb of her cousin Elizabeth. Mary accepts her role in this great mystery with humble joy. Our prayerful response is to unite with Mary in her adoring love.
Second Mystery: The Visitation
In this decade of the Rosary we journey with Mary to a village called Ain Karim where her cousin Elizabeth lives with her husband Zachariah. Elizabeth is six months pregnant, and Mary knows that this child, John, is to have an important role to play in the life of her own divine Son. At the very sound of Mary’s greeting John leaps for joy, and this Joy (the Holy Spirit) is communicated to his mother. Elizabeth recognizes the presence of the divine and the two women praise God exultantly. Mary stays until John is born and then returns home. Our prayerful response is to leap for joy with John, and sing God’s praises with Mary.
Third Mystery: The Birth of Jesus
In this decade of the Rosary we contemplate the divine Child born to Mary the Virgin and laid in a manger. It is an edict of the emperor that brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, but the Scriptures had foretold that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. God has marvelous ways of accomplishing his will. Angels announce the glad tidings to shepherds, and a star leads wise men from afar to worship him and offer him gifts. This is the great King who will rule over the nations. His beginnings, how humble! But he brings the love and mercy to all who receive him. Our prayerful response is one of faith and welcome.
Fourth Mystery: The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple.
Every first-born among the Jewish people belonged in a special way to God and was to be presented to him in the temple on the fortieth day. Then the child was to be redeemed by a lamb. It was the mother who made this presentation, and she was also to present a dove or pigeon for her purification. If she could not afford a lamb, she was to offer a pair of doves or young pigeons. So we see Mary and Joseph making their way to Jerusalem and fulfilling the prescriptions of the Law. Two holy persons, Simeon and Anna, appear on the scene and confess Jesus to be the Light sent by God. Our prayerful response can be to rejoice in this divine Light.
Fifth Mystery: The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple
Every year Mary and Joseph made the trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover. On this occasion when Jesus was twelve years old, he remained behind when all the pilgrims left to return home. His parents sought him sorrowing, and on the third day found him in the midst of the teachers in the temple, listening to them and asking them questions. We are given a glimpse into Jesus’ self-awareness when we hear his words, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In our prayerful response we learn to yield our will as he did, for we are told that he was subject to them during the years of his hidden life.
The First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation
Art and song have centered this scene largely around Mary, and that is as it must be, but it presents the secondary scenario, not the primary, eternal divine scenario, the most important aspect of all, which is the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God. This is not the way St. Luke describes the event. Luke begins his account, “The angel Gabriel was sent from God…” thereby introducing immediately the great protagonist, God. This is the work of God. But how can we even begin to meditate upon such a divine event taking place within the eternal Trinity Itself? St. John helps us in the first lines of his Gospel account when he writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory…the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, full of enduring love”.
The second scenario, the annunciation to Mary, is entirely of God’s design. He does not, as some commentators would infer, “invite” Mary to conceive in her womb and bear a Son. God our Father is not waiting for Mary’s consent. The words to Mary are not “Will you?” but rather “You shall”. Mary’s consent is humble obedience, not chosen but freely given. Mary of Nazareth, the virgin, was not “chosen” (out of all women); rather she was created for this moment. Thus the Church teaches us that Mary was conceived immaculate. She was readied in the eternal decree of God from the first moment of her existence to become the mother of the incarnate Word. And so, as we read in the Liturgy of the Hours, “he whom the entire universe cannot contain encloses himself in the womb of the Virgin”.
St. Luke in his account uses an interesting technique which is also found in other passages of the Gospel. Scholars call it a sandwich construction. He connects the Annunciation story with the preceding story (that of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist) with the phrase “In the sixth month…” i.e., of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Then at the conclusion of Gabriel’s conversation with Mary, he (Gabriel) informs her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, thereby “sandwiching” the news of the Incarnation within the context of the coming of John the Baptist. This is Luke’s way of highlighting the great importance of John as the precursor of the Messiah, foretold in God’s plan by the prophet Malachi (3:23). And Mary understands.
The Second Joyful Mystery: The Visitation
As noted before, Mary understands Gabriel’s information concerning Elizabeth. She knows that this is not simply a bit of family news. She intuits the importance of what was told her. She knows that this is part of the Mystery, and she must connect with it. Certainly she will help Elizabeth at this special time, but this is not her primary reason for going to her.
The scene is usually depicted as a young woman greeting or embracing a very old wrinkled woman. Actually, Elizabeth could not have been ancient, because her husband, Zachariah, was still functioning as priest. According to the Law of Moses the priests and other Levites could only fulfill their roles from ages twenty-five to fifty, and we can presume that ordinarily a man would be at least a few or several years older than his wife.
In celebrating the Visitation, the Church focuses upon Elizabeth’s greeting (the beginning of which forms part of our prayer, the Hail Mary: “Blest are you among women, and blest is the fruit of your womb!”) and Mary’s response, the Magnificat. But St. Luke’s interest at this point is in the infant John. John leaps for joy in his mother’s womb, and this divine Joy (the Holy Spirit) is communicated to his mother. We are caught here in the sacredness of the moment: what a mystery! The baby John, not even fully formed, is so sensitive to the presence of the Divine that his spontaneous, wordless response is a leap of joy. If we were to try to capture that leap in a single word, it would be a “You!! You!! You!! You!!” – the purest prayer, apart from the prayer of Jesus Himself, that we hear in all of Scripture: totally oblivious of self, just pure adoring love. We may often unite ourselves with that prayer of the baby John, for the Communion of Saints allows us to share these wonderful things.
Scholars are in agreement that the three canticles in Luke’s Infancy Narrative (the Magnificat, Benedictus and Nunc Dimittis) are products of the liturgical hymnody of the early Church. But Luke inserts the beautiful Hymn of Mary, the Magnificat, here and immediately moves on to describe the events surrounding the birth, circumcision and naming of John the Baptist, leaving us with the charged question, “What will this child be?!” Again we are faced with the preponderant importance of John. John is the precursor of the Messiah foretold by the prophet Malachi. Of him Jesus would later assert that he was indeed Elijah, and they did with him whatever they pleased. John goes before Jesus in conception, in birth, into the desert, into mission, and ultimately into martyrdom.
Luke concludes this section of the Narrative with the simple statement that “Mary stayed with her for about three months and then returned home”.
The Third Joyful Mystery: The Birth of Jesus
This is perhaps the most celebrated of all the Mysteries of the Rosary. The popular imagination has inevitably distorted many of the details of the story, but Luke’s untouched account is the most beautiful one of all. He begins by situating the narrative in its historical context with its ruling powers and their worldwide domination. Caesar Augustus has ordered a census of the whole world. So Joseph takes Mary, and together they make their way to Bethlehem, since Joseph is of the house and lineage of David.
The first distortion is that the couple arrives in Bethlehem just in the nick of time. It is the middle of the night and Mary is going into labor already. Joseph goes from house to house knocking on doors, being rudely refused at one after another, while Mary sits in a doorway or is doubled over in pain while sitting on the donkey. None of these details fits Luke’s picture, although a wide-spread traditional devotion known as the Posadas has fixed this type of scenario in the minds and imaginations of people and whole cultures all over the world.
But Luke simply states that “while they were there the days of her confinement were completed”. This could very well mean that Mary and Joseph were in town for a few or several days before the birth of the Infant. And given what we know of the eastern hospitality of the time, it is unlikely that a woman in Mary’s condition would be left without shelter. Obviously the town is crowded with people (many of Joseph’s own relatives) who have come for the same reason that brought Mary and Joseph, and that not only the inn but the homes as well were full to capacity. We are left to presume that accommodations were made for them in some type of shed or sheepfold, which could have been a cave.
Another distortion would have the ground covered with snow. The Infant is depicted unclothed, shivering on a bed of straw while Mary and Joseph are warmly wrapped in their cloaks, serenely kneeling in adoration as though posing for the picture. But Luke has the shepherds watching their flocks out in the meadow. Clearly, the animals could not be grazing if the ground were covered with snow.
With Mary!! And Joseph!! what does one do when one is delirious with joy?! How does the heart’s cry contain itself in words, or worship itself find outlet in song or in gesture?! What matter a manger or a shed or animal smells, or even angels or shepherds or wise men from Sheba?! Christus natus est nobis, Alleluia! Can one imagine joy in God? He is Himself all joy. As has been well said, “The beauty of God is the primordial source of all joy”. And what greater beauty than that of this divine child, very God, come to our broken world to save us?! May our hearts simply Melt Away with love!
The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple
This mystery of the Rosary has us in Jerusalem. Forty days have passed since the birth of Jesus, and according to the Law of Moses, he must be taken to the temple to be presented to the Lord. It is the mother who makes this presentation, and she must bring to the temple, along with her child, a year-old lamb for a holocaust in thanksgiving for her child, and a turtle dove or a young pigeon for her purification. If she cannot afford a lamb, she must bring a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. At this point Mary and Joseph are not able to afford a lamb, but as we know, Jesus himself is the Lamb of God, and “his hour has not yet come”. And so she presents a pair of turtle doves for young pigeons.
Think of how the eyes of a young mother shine with love and joy as she presents her first-born child to its father. How much more must Mary’s eyes have shone with unspeakable joy, gratitude and adoring love as she presented this holy Child to his Heavenly Father!
The church’s celebration of this event features the theme of Light, because the old man, Simeon, drawn to the temple by the Holy Spirit, recognizes the Child as God’s gift of salvation for all the people, “a Light to reveal you to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel”.
There is an old woman who also appears on the scene: Anna, a prophetess. She bears all the marks of “the Archetypal Carmelite”. She comes from the land of Asher, where Mount Carmel lends its beauty and its tradition of Elijah and the “sons of the prophets”. She has assimilated well the spirit of Elijah, for we are told that she was constantly in the temple, worshiping day and night in prayer and fasting. She also, along with Simeon, recognizes the child and prophecies, i.e., speaks about him to all who look forward to the salvation of Israel. St. Luke does something very interesting here. He removes Simeon from the scene, for now he “can be dismissed in peace”, having seen the promised One of the Lord. But Anna is not dismissed. She remains on forever as the prayerful presence of prophecy in the Church.
Obviously the presentation of Jesus in the temple takes place before the coming of the Magi, for as we know, the Holy Family had to flee into Egypt as soon as the wise men had left. As an alternative meditation one can simply move from the contemplation of Jesus’s presentation into a reflection upon the Magi event. One of the links connecting these final Mysteries is the theme of finding. The shepherds find the child lying in the manger, the Magi find the Child with his mother, and Mary and Joseph find the Child in the temple. The infancy narratives of Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospel accounts move quickly, but in our prayer we may linger and ponder at length. Every line of the Gospel is supremely rich in grace for us.
The Fifth Joyful Mystery: The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple
This Mystery puts us in the context of the “hidden life” of Jesus. It gives us a glimpse into his self-understanding and the sense of urgency which defined his inner self-awareness. The years spent in the home at Nazareth with Mary and Joseph can be a rich field for our meditation. The journey to the Jerusalem temple was made many more times before Jesus began his active ministry. One can wonder what that was like, and whether the teachers recognized and watched him as he grew into manhood and finally began to be seen as a threat to their authority.
But meanwhile, Luke tells us, Jesus was “subject” to his parents in a life of quiet work as ordinary as a life of any of his neighbors and relatives. Pope Paul VI in a homily given at Nazareth during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964, said, “How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth!” He went on to single out three of the many great lessons that we can learn from the Holy Family: Silence – learning to quiet the mind against the “cacophony” of worldly strife and turbulence; Family Life – love and sharing, the perfect setting for the rearing of children. Work – demanding yet redeeming, so worthy of respect.
But Jesus’s response to his mother on the occasion of his remaining in the temple also projects us forward to other moments and other responses to other interlocutors later in his life: “I have a baptism
wherewith I am to be baptized, and what anguish I feel until it be accomplished!”; “My soul is troubled now; what shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But it was for this that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”; “How I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer!” For now, however, Jesus is still a boy. His parents have sought him in great sorrow and distress, and now, through her tearful reproach, the mother’s heart embraces him in unspeakable relief and joy. St. Luke concludes his account of this incident by telling us that Jesus went down with them to Nazareth and was subject to them. It is as though he were saying that at the age of twelve years, Jesus consented to being a twelve-year old. His Bar-Mitzvah would confirm him in patience, in reverence, in service – and ready him for the great Sacrifice for which he had come.