The Mysteries of Light

The rosary is a very old Catholic tradition, which is prayed by many of the faithful. It is a very powerful life changing prayer and is often recited on a daily basis. The rosary beads are familiar to many people, even non-Catholics, but many do not know about the power of the prayer, nor do they know the mysteries of the rosary. The point and purpose of the rosary is not to recite rote prayers but to repeat prayers you know by heart as you meditate upon scenes of Christ’s life pertaining to a particular mystery. A ‘mystery’ in this context being an important Biblical event that may not be fully understood.

The rosary beads are a circular arrangement of five strands of 10 beads (or decade); each connected by a lone bead. Each of the five strands represents one mystery of a set of mysteries. There are five mysteries in each set and there were until recently three sets of mysteries -- the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries.

On October 16, 2002 Pope John Paul ll published his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariiae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary). In his letter the Holy Father proposed a new set of mysteries, called the ‘Luminous Mysteries’. The ‘Mysteries of Light’ is an equally correct and thoroughly proper English translation of the Latin ‘mysterii lucis’ and is used by many English speaking Catholics. The Holy Father suggested that the new mysteries would supplement the existing three sets in the rosary. His announcement was followed immediately by a number of commentaries, some praising him for his action and others denouncing him for meddling with tradition.

One of the most insightful articles was an editorial by Peggy Noonan published, of all places, in the Wall Street Journal on October 18. She commented, “The new mysteries seem like something that had originally been there but had somehow been lost to time.” Indeed, the Luminous Mysteries fill the gap between the Joyous Mysteries where Christ enters the world and the Sorrowful Mysteries where Christ is crucified. The Luminous Mysteries encompass Christ’s ministry and teachings. The new mysteries also serve to introduce an appropriate set of mysteries for the liturgical season of Ordinary Time that highlights the public ministry of Christ.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Catholic Family News unjustly denounced the Pope for tampering with what has been a long time tradition. The rosary, however, is not a part of Apostolic Tradition that cannot be changed. It is a man-made tradition that began with the Dominicans and has changed over the years. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic monks in the 12th century would use the beads, or stones, to recite the Psalms as part of their rule of life. To simplify this for those monks who could not read, 150 Our Fathers were substituted to correspond to the number of Psalms. Later, as the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary spread, the Hail Mary prayer was inserted into the prayer tradition. In 1483, the Hail Mary was modified to include the name of Jesus and the second part -- “ Holy Mary, Mother of God....”. During the 15th and 16th centuries many other variations of the rosary came into being and still exist to this day. Another Dominican, Pope St. Pius V (1566-1572) ‘standardized’ the form we now use.

A wide variety of traditions have been attached to the rosary. In the United States the rosary usually begins with the Apostles Creed, while in many other parts of the world the rosary begins with Psalm 70. Since the apparitions at Fatima in 1917 the prayer that Our Lady taught the children, Oh My Jesus… has been added after the concluding Gloria of each decade. Most Catholics end the rosary with the prayer Hail Holy Queen; others add a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel or other prayers.

One of the important changes that did occur during the development of the rosary was its division into five decades with each decade preceded by the announcement of the mystery to be meditated upon during that decade. In his apostolic letter, the Holy Father emphasizes the importance of the announcement of the mystery before each decade (perhaps using a suitable icon to portray it) so that attention may be focused upon God rather than upon ourselves. He also suggests that it be helpful to follow the announcement of the mystery with the proclamation of a related biblical passage. In this way, the Holy Father hopes to introduce better reflection upon Scripture into the rosary’s methodology. After the proclamation of the Word it is fitting to pause and focus one’s attention on the mystery concerned before moving on to the vocal prayers and meditation.

What are these related biblical passages? We have all read of the new mysteries, but not many articles relate to the biblical passages or present an icon to give you a visual image while reciting the prayers.

The first of the five Luminous Mysteries proposed by the Holy Father is Christ’s Baptism. Recommended reading is Matthew 3:13-17. After reading the Scriptures it is easy to visualize in your mind Jesus coming to John at the Jordan, John hesitating to baptize Jesus, then the baptism. Visualize seeing Jesus coming out of the water and the heavens opening for him and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove upon Him. And a voice coming from the heavens saying: ”This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” What a powerful image to have in your mind as you pray the decade of Hail Marys.

The second of the five Luminous Mysteries is the Wedding at Cana. Recommended reading is John 2:1-11. Again, these verses paint a vivid image of Christ, His disciples and His mother at the wedding, the interaction of Christ and His mother, the first miracle, the steward pouring the wine, and the guests’ reaction. Once again they are powerful images to keep in your mind as you pray.

The third of the five Luminous Mysteries is the Proclamation of the Kingdom. Recommended reading is Matthew 5, 6 and 7. There is much to contemplate in these chapters, but it is basically the Sermon on the Mount. “When He saw the crowds, He went to the mountain, and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him. He began to teach them, saying ...” This is an especially beautiful image to have in your mind and on which to meditate as you pray the next decade. It would be helpful to reread these chapters in Matthew to reflect upon the Beatitudes, the prayers and other teachings.

The fourth of the five Luminous Mysteries is the Transfiguration. Recommended reading is Luke 9:28-36. These events occur several days after the first announcement to the disciples of the coming passion, death and resurrection. Jesus took Peter, John and James and went to the mountain to pray. On the mountain the appearance of Jesus changed, His clothing became dazzling white and Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke to Him. They entered a cloud and only Jesus remained, then a voice said, “This is my chosen son, listen to Him.” Now talk of images -- this is a powerful one. Wouldn’t you listen if you were there? Are you listening?

The fifth of the five Luminous Mysteries is the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Recommended reading is Mark 14:22-24. This is the most familiar of all to us and is reenacted during every Mass. The image is also well engraved in our minds even to those who are not Catholic. In these very few words there is almost too much to contemplate here. Most importantly, this transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus is the most mystical of the mysteries and most important to Catholics.

To fit the new set of mysteries into the weekly cycle of reciting the rosary, the Holy Father proposes moving the Joyful Mystery now recited on Thursday to Saturday (the day dedicated to Mary), and reciting the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday (the day the Church commemorates the Last Supper at which the most Holy Eucharist was first celebrated).

For more information on the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariiae check the Vatican and Catholic Answers web sites.

Jim Fritz





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