For more than a decade, I have come to treasure praying the rosary in the car at the outset of a drive: five mysteries, according to the day of the week, rotating between Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious. I have yet to incorporate the Luminous Mysteries of John Paul II’s invention, but look forward to doing so. A dear Roman Catholic friend from college introduced me to the practice, and others urged it along, not least another dear friend, a Tanzanian Anglican bishop, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing a flat at the College of the Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa. One sunny day we set out on a day trip to Port Elizabeth and I readily agreed to his suggestion that we pray the rosary, passing the petitions back and forth as our little car wended its way along dramatic mountain roads and cascading hills. I drove while Bishop Maternus Kapinga led us, and I recall our delight — which we discussed afterward — in placing ourselves within the web of common prayer, amplified immeasurably by concrete scriptural figures: the joy, that is, of taking up one’s life again on a given, perhaps lovely day, in the company of another, and taking up together a universal gospel that reaches round the world, crossing chasms of language and culture, and spans time. It is like the dew of Hermon “that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore” (Ps. 133:3, KJV).
As a series of dramatic set pieces, the mysteries of the rosary draw the attention of wayfaring strangers to the historical facts of Incarnation and redemption, without which we hope in vain. But the form of the liturgy makes meaning in use, as we take up the Apostles’ Creed, then successively recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be (and optional Fatima Prayer, “O My Jesus”), capped off by the Salve Regina (“Hail, Holy Queen”) and perhaps the end of the Angelus (“Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord”), which all together make the rosary a personal profession of faith in and petition to God. God has acted powerfully for me, and calls me now to faithful imitation — of Mary, with whom we joyfully begin, as a homely feature of the historical tale, and then her Son, incarnated as a Jewish man; whose sorrowful passion is effective and exemplary; who, when he rises, gloriously inaugurates a pattern of ascent-following-descent that is salvation in the Church.
Herewith I begin a brief commentary that seeks to hold these layers together, in the conviction that all theological language is analogous.
Of course, Christians are called to proclaim the good news: to pluck up our courage and speak — preferably with words, as St. Francis probably actually said, and at any rate our Lord did: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). We are commanded by Christ himself to teach the faith, and to view the whole world as a great classroom of evangelization. In this way, every Christian is in effect an apostolic nuncio, sent to share the ancient message with which we have been entrusted.
A nuncio announces something, and this is what annunciation means, as well: to announce. The angel of the Lord brought tidings unto Mary in his foretelling of Jesus’ birth, which famously begins: “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28, KJV). And the angel goes on to explain that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” and “overshadow you,” yielding a “holy child” who “will be called Son of God” (1:35). Extraordinary news, indeed; in fact, the most extraordinary news in all of history. God will become man.
We rightly begin here, and could dwell at great length on the significance of God’s speaking, both in his own voice and the voice of his creatures. God speaks and the world is made (Gen. 1), and as incarnate “even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mark 4:41). Following the original identification, God’s continual communicating in the Word sets the standard of discipleship, as in the Spirit-breathed faith of the Church codified in the creeds, and in the words given by Jesus to address our Father: layer upon layer of annunciation.
In and through it all, our prayer can only be that we may, by God’s grace, speak faithfully and truly, and so follow the word and way of the Lord. Thy will be done — which will the Lord communicates antecedently, so that it can be discovered and enacted. Here, again, the Church lifts up the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Christian model in her ideal response to the angel’s announcement: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38, KJV). Fiat: Let it be done. Mary’s reply evinces not only courage and amazing faith but also direct simplicity; she speaks clearly. In this respect, we may recall another English descendant of the Latin nuntiare: enunciation. To enunciate is to declare, profess, assert, affirm, proclaim, all of which indicate a decided directing of speech. St. Luke makes clear that the tidings borne to Mary by the angel of the Lord were enunciated in no uncertain terms: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (1:30), and the angel’s annunciation elicits a comparable decisiveness on Mary’s part.
Set within the devotional practice of the rosary, it seems hardly accidental that the Hail Mary is built into the first of the mysteries. It provides a convenient alibi for the devotion, and serves as a prescriptive pedagogy for all that follows, namely, the offering of ourselves to God in humble devotion with and after the example of our sister, the greatest of all disciples. Here, the Church in her wisdom provides an aid to devotion in another — extraordinary saintly — human being, with whom to walk the pilgrim way.
Lastly, Mary marks this way by continual reference to her son, and the familial tie bears reflection: the passing on of faith from generation to generation, even to the point of re-evangelization by the young, as they come of age. This theme will recur in subsequent mysteries, as we walk the way of salvation in the company of natural and adoptive kin. The controlling metaphor works because all are born of women and all have fathers, even when we do not know them, and this was true for Jesus and Mary as well.
O Lord God, help us to hear your voice when you speak — in the Word of Scripture, in the Word made flesh, in the voice of great saints and teachers of the Church, and in and through one another — and form us in love and responsibility. Give us supernatural hearing, and a clear, courageous spirit to answer your call in our lives. O Lord, move our spirits by your grace to understand all that you would have us do, even when it seems frightening. Help us to follow the good example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, teaching us to respond promptly and sincerely to your Spirit. Above all, Lord, fill us with holy expectation in the sure knowledge that you bear good tidings of great joy — much more than we can ask or imagine — having first created and then called us to follow the way of your Son. It is in his name that we pray. Amen.