By Christopher Wells
The great gift and power of the rosary is its laser focus on the “mysteries” — the sacraments — of our faith (see Eph. 5:32), which God would break open before and in us. He seeks to show himself to us entirely, and in so doing to place us in the flesh of his Son. Every feeling, hope, dream, and fear; every love, joy, sacrifice, and sadness: all that we think, do, and say should become God-shaped and -fashioned. The rosary is one devotional aid in the holy work of keeping company with our Lord, that we may become more surely his.
Of course, with or without our consent, God shapes all that he has made according to his purpose in Christ simply as a feature of creation; but he also ties this work to the salvific economy of Christ’s Church, through which “the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities” (Eph. 3:10; cf. 3:9 and 11). This amazing unity of all things in God, from the beginning to the end, is perhaps best described in the introduction to the Letter to the Hebrews, which complements the prologue of John’s gospel: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:1-3). God’s Word, incarnated and written, uses things and signs to re-make us in his truth. In this way, sacraments and Scriptures lead us, both didactically and dramatically, into the transformation of our minds and bodies, so that we may discern and fulfill the will of God (see Rom. 12:1-2).
The first-person plural bespeaks our belonging to the Lord as his members, disciples, and friends, from which grows the society of the Church as a communion across space and time, beginning with historical figures who also serve as types for the faithful. All are called to imitate and venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, John, and countless companions who live with our Lord in the fellowship of the saints. With them, we may address the holy, mighty, immortal Son of the living God, seek his counsel, and ask him to refashion us according to his image. With them, we may witness our Lord’s agony in the garden on the night of his betrayal and his cruel scourging at the pillar the following day, knowing these to be goads that by God’s grace serve as sure and certain, outward and visible, signs for our sanctification.
To keep vigil with our Lord in Gethsemane is to take a step toward overcoming our propensity to slothfulness and self-absorption, so that we may turn and be healed. Conversion ought at least to be a daily discipline, and like all exercise gets easier with practice, as good habits are formed. In a classic Pauline exhortation: “Let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. … Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:6, 16-19).
Lent is a school in repentance, and before we charge off to good works it is meet and right to turn — continually — to God in sorrow for our failings, knowing that we cannot save ourselves. This is always and everywhere true, even for saints. We never pass the class of confession in this life, since we will not graduate from sin. But by small steps our Lord leads us to degrees of holiness, which is his doing, “and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:23). Why else would he take us to the garden, charge us to sit, speak frankly of his despair (“I am deeply grieved, even to death”: Matt. 26:38), and command us repeatedly to stay awake? He saves as he hopes, and redeems as he creates, hating nothing he has made and forgiving the sins of all who are penitent (see Collect for Ash Wednesday, 1979 BCP, p. 217). Moreover, we are teachable, being made as rational creatures. Our Lord fittingly prays, therefore, in the garden as elsewhere (see John 11:42), for our instruction, “to show himself a suppliant of the Father.” That is, “the master of obedience persuades us to the precepts of virtue by his example” (Aquinas, ST III 21, 1 ad 1, quoting Augustine and Ambrose).
For this same reason, our Lord commands us to leave the garden with him (“Get up, let us be going”: Matt. 26:46), so that we may continually perpetuate our memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again. He invites us on the way of his passion, even as he knows we will flee for fear or deny him at the first opportunity. He hopes that we will return, and finally be found standing at the foot of his cross, at the empty tomb, or “as far as Bethany,” looking up into heaven (Luke 24:50). If and as we do — as, that is, we leave everything to follow him — we paradoxically, perhaps, return to the scene of the crime. Taking up our cross as he commands, we embark on our own Via Dolorosa that takes effective shape by his singular sacrifice. We stand in retrospect at the pillar of his torture where he was “wounded for our transgressions” (Isa. 53:5), and we stand in prospect since he is continually crushed for our iniquities in the persons of his members.
This is a deep truth about the identity of the body of Christ. Our Lord’s having been flogged, mocked, and beaten (Matt. 27:26; Luke 22:63) before he was handed over to be crucified prefigures the persecuted Church, made gloriously white with the harvest by her martyrs who, since Stephen, seed evangelization. This also “is God’s doing,” St. Paul explains: “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Phil. 1:28-29; cf. 1 Pet. 2:21). God mysteriously uses Christian suffering to render plausible and persuasive the message of salvation, “the word about the cross … to us who are being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18). We see in Jesus the power and wisdom of God made visible by death. Awoken by grace, we learn to cry Abba! Father! by the “very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17). The form of the gospel, therefore, borne visibly by the Church, always entails “carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” That is, putting a fine point on it, “while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:10-11).
Let this be our prayer for a holy Lent, because it is our call: to rejoice in our sufferings, and so complete in our flesh the afflictions of Christ “for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24; cf. 2 Tim. 2:10).
Lord Jesus, teach me to know and to follow you, to fear you and to love you, and cleanse me from all unrighteousness. Help me to pray unceasingly, and to suffer without fear the cruelties of the wicked. Enlighten my mind, subdue my will, and purify my heart, that I may go forth animated with earnest zeal for your glory. And may your ever-living Word so dwell within my heart, that I may speak with that resistless energy of love that will melt the hearts of sinners to the love of you. Amen.