When we come to the fifth joyful mystery, there are an abundance of themes to meditate upon. There is the fact that Jesus was missing for three days, a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection. There is the recognition even at the age of twelve that the first Person of the Trinity is his Father in a way far superior to Joseph. There is the sanctification of the religion of the Old Testament, as he calls the Temple his Father's House. There is the obedience he offered to Joseph and Mary from that time forward, and the reverence and respect he showed them. But of all the possible themes, I want to focus on one.
I want to focus on how Jesus listened to the scribes.
Often devotion had misread this passage. We want to think of a precocious boy Jesus teaching the elders of the Temple, showing them up in some way, a child prodigy among the mediocre. But this is not the case. The Gospel clearly teaches that Jesus was asking questions, being taught, listening to the teachers, not teaching himself. (Luke 2:46) It is true that the teachers in turn questioned him, and were amazed by his responses. (2:47) But nowhere does the Gospel allow us to imply that Jesus was in some kind of contest, or that he was clearly above it all. Jesus was drinking in the wisdom of his teachers.
But this asks a very important question: could Jesus learn anything? After all, he was himself the all-knowing God. Even of his human mind, we have testimony that he knew everything (John 21:17). Was his "learning" just a farce, then? Was he putting on a show?
Tempted as I am to go into a lengthy discourse about the human knowledge of Jesus, I will refrain. Suffice it to say that yes, the majority of orthodox theologians, especially the Doctors of the Church, have taught that in a certain way our Lord knew all things, even in his human mind. But knowing something, thinking about something, and hearing something already known expressed in a different way by someone else - these are three very different acts. Let us suppose that Jesus was not ignorant of any of the mysteries of God's word. Since he is himself the Word made flesh, this seems apparent. Yet nevertheless he can delight when people draw mysteries of that word to his attention, not that he was previously ignorant of them, but that he was now focusing on them. And he could rejoice in the discourse of a master speaking that word and explaining it. To use an example: I am certain I have heard every musical note and seen every color. Nevertheless, when a master arranges them in a symphony or a painting I am still delighted, not because I am made aware of something new, but because I see the beauty of the expression of a master.
What tender and honorable attention our Lord must have paid to the Jewish masters! He witnessed lovers of his word searching it out, explaining it, discovering analogies for it, and he was moved by their passion for the word. Note please what Jesus did in his Father's house - he didn't preempt the sacrifices, or pray aloof in some corner. Instead he participated in what was basically a Bible study, a feast of the word. He shared in a Christian devotion that goes back centuries among the Jewish people. He meditated on the Scriptures, and watched as the Scriptures transformed his interlocutors. He practiced what many today know of as lectio divina. We too can share this with Jesus. It's not just about knowing the Scriptures, as if they were our multiplication tables. It's about relishing the Scriptures, and listening to the masters (the saints) explain them. This is the devotion that the child Jesus practiced in his Father's house. It is a devotion that we should mimic, even - hopefully! - to the point of being lost in it for days, as he was.
One of the things that often (though not always) sets a committed Christian apart from the merely nominal believer is an experience of the presence of God. During the awe of a beautiful Mass, during the suffering of a loved one's passing, in a lightning stroke during an otherwise quotidian time of prayer - such an experience of God's presence can touch one, transform one forever. Finally one feels that God is real, God is here. I remember in my youth a self-professed atheist telling me she had felt the presence of God in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Many of us have had the experience of holy places, of a church or shrine in which we knew God was present.
And yet, for the person of faith, such an experience, such a claim, can be bewildering. We believe God is everywhere. That means that God is present in my living-room as well as in my church. And God does not have parts, so there could not be more of him somewhere than elsewhere. God is equally present everywhere. What, then, do we make of God's presence?
When I was in seminary, I worked for a year with a pastor of a large suburban parish in central Pennsylvania. He had a school, a huge Mass schedule, and a very diverse community. I asked him once what was the hardest thing about ministering to all those people. His answer surprised me: "Preaching something decent on the big feast days." After almost six years as a priest, I can echo that sentiment. What do you say that is new? This day is important - what will really touch people? And perhaps the day that demands the most out of the preacher is Christmas Day. What can you say that people haven't heard a thousand times before? In our society Christmas is the holiday most fraught with emotion and memories. The mystery of Christ's birth can almost be overwhelmed. How do you fight that - how do you pray in the midst of it? It can be a challenge when we get to the third joyful mystery of the rosary as well - Christ is born! Now what do I think about it?
The thing that speaks to me today is the poverty of the nativity. St. Jean Vianney once had a priest friend recommend to him that he meditate on the three places where Christ was completely poor: in the Eucharist, on the Cross, and in the crib. In fact it was St. Francis of Assisi, who mystically took Lady Poverty as his bride, who created the first nativity scene. And that truly strikes me. Poverty, suffering, nakedness, vulnerability - these are things the Christian simply cannot escape. If we follow Christ, we must follow him in poverty.
But that is not the end of the story.
One of the struggles that I have often had with the rosary (for I too am a sinner) is my sense of its lack of sense. There seems to be no proportion between the mysteries. Thirty years of Jesus's life sweep by in the five joyful mysteries; three years of his active ministry are pondered in the five luminous mysteries; suddenly, as if at a halt, barely eighteen hours pass in the five sorrowful mysteries; accelerating again, we zoom through untold years and even into eternity in the five glorious mysteries. Why the lack of balance? And then, too, look at the mysteries themselves: something as seemingly banal as finding Jesus in the Temple stands cheek by jowl with the very mystery of the Incarnation - and the examples could be multiplied. Is the wedding at Cana, beautiful as it is, really in the same league as the Resurrection? No, of course not. So what are we to make of this? The question becomes particularly appropriate as we depart from the dizzying heights of the Annunciation and descend to Mary's visit to Elizabeth. I think the only answer that I can offer is this: Scripture itself does the same. The evangelists, writing beneath the prompting of the Holy Spirit, chose to spend far more time on Jesus's suffering and death than on any other part of his mission. They too included the seemingly pedestrian with the magnificent. The rosary's sense of balance is rooted on the proportion of God's word itself. (Once again we see the rosary as an essentially biblical devotion.) And God's word speaks this way for a simple reason: all the aspects of Jesus's life, great and small, contain revelation from God - for he himself is the Word made flesh.
In order to get a sense of the importance and meaning of the Visitation, then, I want to look at the biblical account of it, found in Luke 1:39-56. As I examine it, I discover in this account three movements or moments ripe for reflection: Mary's journey, the response of Elizabeth, and Mary's canticle.
Through the dark and empty reaches of open space flit beings of pure mind and vast intellect. Bodiless, emotionless, deathless, they are creatures truly alien, having been alive for fifteen billion years. Of nearly infinite intelligence compared to us, they penetrate the very laws of reality with their minds, observing the reaction of energy and matter, the collision of atoms, the division of cells, the birth of life. They are able to manipulate the forces of nature with the sheer power of their thought. It has been given to them to be the governors and masters of the universe; supernovas and black holes are their toys. If they should once focus on earth, the power of their presence would be so much that the human mind would see nothing but fire, eyes, wild beasts, or gleaming gold, and hear the sound of roaring trumpets. Should they once turn to God, holiness would leap through their being like a fire through a gas line, and they would become so aflame with love that if we witnessed their holiness directly, we would fall in a swoon and nearly die. They are powerful, sublime, beautiful, and blindingly intelligent. They are as superior to us as we are to sparrows. Our ancestors bowed before them and worshiped them as gods.
We call them angels.
Two thousand years ago, one of these beings was sent by God through an iron age empire to a backwater hamlet known as Nazareth. This being is so powerful that his name means "God is mighty," for his very being is a pure reflection of God's strength. He had been the familiar of prophets and visionaries, the revealer of mysteries. This being of might and mystery, called Gabriel, a prince of the spirits, came before an adolescent woman, did her homage, and cried out, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!" The enormity of this moment cannot be overestimated. It is the beginning of our salvation.
The Salve Regina, or Hail Holy Queen, is the most effusive and poetic prayer of the rosary. This is because it was originally a hymn to our Lady, composed most probably in eleventh century Germany. Quickly it became the practice of religious orders such as the Cistercians and the Dominicans to sing the Salve Regina at the end of their night prayers, known as Compline. The members of these orders would chant the Psalms, as part of their Divine Office (today often called the Liturgy of the Hours). Since for many centuries the majority of the laity were illiterate, they could not pray the Psalms. Instead, they began to recite the Hail Mary one hundred and fifty times, in honor of the one hundred and fifty Psalms. This practice was the origin of the rosary as we know it today. And just as the monks, nuns, and friars would chant the Salve at the end of their daily psalter, so it became the practice of those reciting the rosary to recite the Salve when their prayers were complete.
This prayer is very rich, and deserving of a much fuller treatment that I am capable of providing here. In fact, you can find such a treatment in St. Alphonsus Ligouri's The Glories of Mary, a large portion of which is a commentary on the Hail Holy Queen. Here I simply want to break down the Salve into its four component sentences, and offer some reflections on each one.
"Hail, Holy Queen, our life, our sweetness, and our hope!" We turn to Mary and address her by four titles. I want to save my reflections on Mary's queenship for the last mystery of the rosary, so let me look at the other three. When we call Mary our life, what do we mean? Certainly she is not our life the way that her Son is; we must always be careful to remember that their is an infinite gap between Mary and her Son, the way that there is between any creature and God. Often our Protestant brothers and sisters get nervous when we seem to confuse Mary's role and power with that of Jesus, and rightly so. Mary is our life because we love her, because she inspires us, because she enlivens us, not because she is the source of our life. She is our sweetness because we rejoice in the beauty of her virtue and humility and gentleness. She is our hope because she faithfully prays for us, because she cares for us and loves us, because she will not abandon us. Most of all, she is our life, our sweetness, and our hope because she once gave us her Son, and leads us to Jesus now. And it is Jesus who is our life and the source of our life; Jesus who is the wellspring of all delight and sweetness; Jesus who is both our reason for hope and the object of our hope. Like John the Baptist, Mary is so great because she points to one greater than herself.
Perhaps the prayer in the rosary which is simultaneously the most beautiful and the most enigmatic is the doxology, or the "Glory be." ("Doxology" is derived from the Greek for "words of glory.") What exactly does this prayer mean? What are we praying for? What is glory anyway?
In a massively influential work known as The Glory of the Lord, the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar discusses glory in terms of beauty. To give a terribly inadequate summary, glory is the aspect of God that attracts our aesthetic sense, that lifts us up to contemplation. More traditionally, glory is connected to praise and fame. But if that praise is to be true praise, and not mere flattery, it must be based on the perception of a true attribute of the one praised. To be perceived, those attributes have to be manifested, they have to be displayed. And so, in one real way, we can say that God's glory is an outward manifestation of all of his perfections, of his power, wisdom, goodness, love, and justice. This seems to fit in well with the biblical picture of glory, where God's glory is shown, seen, demonstrated. In one of the most touching passages of the Old Testament, we have Moses crying out to God.
Moses said, "I beg you, show me your glory." And God said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live." And the LORD said, "Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen." [...] And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." And Moses made haste to bow his head toward the earth, and worshipped. (Exodus 33:18-23; 34:5-8)
When we come to the Hail Mary, we come to a very different prayer than the two previously discussed. It is of a different nature. The Apostles' Creed and the Our Father are prayers that are given to us, the one as the rule of our faith, handed down by the Apostles and their successors, the other as the rule of our petitions and desires, handed on by the Lord. In fact, when one becomes a Christian as an adult, passing through the catechumenate to baptism, one participates in the ancient practice of traditio and reditio. The Creed and the Lord's Prayer are handed over ( traditio) to the catechumen during Lent so that he or she might learn them, and the catechumen returns them (reditio) by professing the Creed and praying the Lord's Prayer. They are gifts given to us from an authority higher than us, treasures that we must preserve, a part of our official liturgical prayer.
The Hail Mary comes from a very different place. It has no place in any official liturgy of the Church. Rather, it comes from the humble and affectionate private prayers of the faithful. It is a prayer that developed over time, changing more and more as generations of Catholics sought to speak more fittingly to their mother. The Hail Mary is a personal prayer, a devotional prayer, a prayer that arises from the heart, not a prayer that descends from heaven. It is, moreover, a prayer directed to Mary, not an act of worship, but rather a request of another human being. It is the request of a child to his or her mother, a request for help, for consolation, for prayers. Like children who sit with their parents in the pews, watching their parents worship, asking their mother what is going on, and what it all means, when we pray the rosary we sit with Mary, watching the life of her divine Son, praying with her, worshiping him, and asking her what it all means.
"Lord, teach us to pray." (Luke 11:1) This request comes from Jesus's disciples after they have observed him praying. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is often depicted at prayer, and he must have prayed often for it to be so noted. And his disciples must have been moved by watching him pray, and the devotion with which he prayed. Lord, teach us to pray! One of the things I hear often in my ministry is that people want to know how to pray, and feel that they do not pray well. St. Paul declares, "We do not know how to pray as we ought." (Rom. 8:26) Which one of us could not approach Jesus with that same petition - Lord, teach us to pray! Is there anything more natural to the Christian life than prayer? And yet, is there anything with which we struggle more? Who dares to say they know how to pray? And yet we muddle through, doing our best. As we pray the rosary, as we pray any prayer, perhaps we should start with that basic prayer of Jesus's disciples - Lord, teach us to pray! And we know how Jesus answered that request - with the Our Father.
How does the Our Father answer the disciple's request? Is Jesus handing on a special set of words, which somehow have mystical power of themselves? Is the Our Father a magic rite, the one key formula to actually praying? If so, does it even work if we say it in English? Why not better the Greek of the Gospels, or even a reconstruction in the Aramaic that Jesus spoke? Will that make the prayer more efficacious? Is it really a matter of words? Why then do we pray the psalms, or the rosary, or the Mass, if the only words Jesus wants us to use are the words of the Our Father? Have we ignored the lessons of prayer from the Master of prayer?
And yet, anyone who has ever prayed the words of the Our Father (and yes, I have done it in the Koine Greek of the Gospels, though not in Aramaic) knows that the words have no power of themselves. How easy it is for the words of that first of prayers to become mere meaningless babble. And this is exactly what Jesus excludes before teaching the Our Father, according to Matthew. We must not think that by heaping up words we will somehow influence God. Prayer is not magic. It is not a matter of the right words. Something else is needed.
Often I have heard this objection to the rosary: it is exactly the babbling, the heaping up of words, which Jesus condemns in the Gospel. And this is often true! But it can be true of any prayer. Any act of our devotion can become meaningless, can become babble, even the Lord's Prayer itself. If we think that our litanies or our rosaries or our speaking in tongues or our simple personal prayers have effect because of the words, we are mistaken. We must strive so to pray that our minds are in harmony with our voices, as St. Benedict teaches. (RB 19:7) Even if we get distracted, even if we lose our place in the words, it is the intention of the heart with which began to pray that is of the utmost importance. Prayer is a matter of the mind and heart more than a matter of the tongue. So, then, what was the Lord teaching us in teaching us the Our Father?
As St. Thomas says, "Prayer is the interpreter of desire." (ST II-II Q. 83 a. 9 ad 2) The words of the Lord's Prayer teach us what should be the desires of our hearts. And these desires should break forth into prayer, which interprets those desires and clothes them with words. "Hallowed be thy Name" - may be your Name be glorified! "Thy kingdom come" - bring about your reign in us and in the world! "Give us this day our daily bread" - Lord, I have various earthly needs; give me what I need to survive and thrive that I might do your will. "Deliver us from evil" - for we cannot save ourselves. The words of the Our Father teach us what things we must desire from God, and in what order we must desire them: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these will be added to you as well." (Matt. 6:33)
And so we pray the Our Father for the things we should desire; Jesus taught the Our Father to teach us what we should desire, and in what order. And those desires must be the desires of our hearts, whether the words of our lips are "Our Father," "Hail Mary," or whatever else. That is why the Our Fathers are the pillars of the rosary. Every other prayer points to them, and we should be praying for the same things even when our lips use other words. We return again and again to what we must desire. This alone saves the rosary from babble, and makes it true prayer. And only when we desire what the Lord has taught us to desire, and with the level of priority that he has set out for us in this prayer, have we truly learned to pray.
One last note: of all the parts of the Our Father, Jesus singles out one: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Jesus teaches us that God's forgiveness of our sins is tied to our forgiveness of those who have sinned against us (Matt 6:14-15). Jesus had already taught us that before offering sacrifice to God we must be reconciled to our brother (Matt. 5:23-24). We cannot have peace with God if we do not strive to be at peace with others. Often the rosary is depicted as an action of proud spiritual isolationism, a matter of my own individual devotion to God. And yet the very pillars of the repetitions of the Lord's Prayer direct us outward to others, to forgive others, and to seek the forgiveness of others. We must also bind up the wounds of sin, the ugly realities of hunger and sickness and loneliness and despair, of injustice and poverty and ignorance and oppression. We seek God's mercy; God has demanded that we show mercy to others. The rosary, then, not only directs us to God. It forces us, perhaps against our inclinations, to go out to others, to show God's mercy to others, to desire for others also those things that we desire for ourselves, and so both to serve others and to pray for them. The rosary must drive us to service, not isolate us in selfishness. Then, too, we will have learned to pray from the Lord.
"I believe in one God,..." Though it is optional, most people begin their rosary with that ancient summary of faith known as the Apostles' Creed. And I think this is right and good. Because the Creed is a summary of the whole Catholic faith, of the whole teaching of the Apostles. And it is important that we recognize that the rosary is an act of faith. The Creed summarizes the entirety of our beliefs in twelve articles. So also the rosary zooms in, as it were, on the heart of the Creed, and summarizes the life of Jesus in twenty mysteries. When we profess the Creed, we hear again the teachings of our Savior that his disciples first heard and passed on to us. When we pray the rosary, we watch again with Mary as our Lord lives out that teaching in his deeds. As St. Luke tells us, we focus on the things Jesus has done and taught (Acts 1:1). We meditate on his deeds in the rosary, and on the core of his teaching in the Creed.