Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Sorrowful Mysteries


Lorenzo Lotto, Madonna of the Rosary 
Italian, ca. 1539
Cigoli, Church of San Nicolo
This painting shows Mary giving the Rosary to
St. Dominic, who is accompanied by other saints.
Above the Virgin and Child are medallions
depicting the traditional fifteen Mysteries
of the Rosary.  The Sorrowful Mysteries are the
five scenes in the middle of the group.

Some years ago, when Mel Gibson's film “The Passion of the Christ” was released, I noticed a striking difference between the reactions of Protestant and Catholic friends and co-workers.  Whereas the Catholics among them found the violence of the depiction of Christ’s Passion to be upsetting but basically what was expected, some Protestants found the same violence deeply shocking.  More than once I heard an acquaintance say in effect “I never realized what it meant”. 

Thinking about this difference I came to the conclusion that it resulted from a difference between the ways Catholics and Protestants have looked at the events of His life between the entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. 

Catholics and some related Protestant groups, such as Anglicans/Episcopalians and Lutherans, call this period Holy Week and follow its multiple movements with similar intensity.  For Catholics at least, it involves not only two distinct readings of the Passion (on Palm Sunday from one of the Synoptic Gospels, on Good Friday from the Gospel of John), but also such liturgical actions as the stripping of the altars following the Holy Thursday Mass and the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.  Those Protestant groups that are traditionally more radical in their rejection of “Popish” ways, Baptists for example, tend to skip over this week entirely and appear to arrive at Easter without ever having contemplated the means by which Jesus died in order to rise.

But, there is more to these distinctions than just the contemplation of the events the Passion during one week each year.  There is, for instance, the obvious difference in the form of the Cross displayed by Catholics and Protestants:  between the Catholic crucifix, the cross with the body of the Savior, and the Protestant plain cross.  Catholics also have a series of devotional practices that, when used, can bring these same events to mind over and over, all year long.  Among them are the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross.

The word “Rosary” refers both to the form of prayer and to the string of beads on which the prayers it consists of are counted.  Most people know that the Rosary  bead chain consists of groups of ten Hail Marys, punctuated by the Our Father and the Glory Be.  These groups of ten are called “decades”, from the Latin word for ten.  Each “decade” consists of one Our Father, the ten Hail Marys and one Glory Be.  The Rosary bead chain consists of five such "decades". 

There are twenty “Mysteries” (at least since the institution of the “Luminous Mysteries” by Pope John Paul II, prior to that there were fifteen) in a full Rosary prayer.  The “Mysteries” focus on five New Testament events, offering five focal points for the minds of those who are praying. 
  • The Joyful Mysteries focus on the events of the Birth and Childhood of Christ (the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Birth of Jesus, The Flight into Egypt and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple at Age 12). 
  • The Luminous Mysteries focus on events from the adult life of Jesus prior to the Passion (the Baptism of Jesus, the Wedding at Cana, the Proclamation of the Kingdom, the Transfiguration of Jesus, the Institution of the Eucharist). 
  • The Glorious Mysteries focus on the Resurrection and events following it (The Resurrection, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven). 
  • The Sorrowful Mysteries, which we will begin examining today, focus on the events of the Passion of Jesus (the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross and the Crucifixion). 
The Rosary is a form of prayer that is very flexible.  One can pray one decade at a time, or five decades at a time, or even all twenty decades at one session.  The recitation is traditionally spread over several days, with the Joyful Mysteries being recited on Mondays and Saturdays, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesdays and Fridays, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursdays and the Glorious Mysteries on Sundays and Wednesdays.

In 2011 I looked at the works of Giotto in the Arena Chapel as they reflected the events of Holy Week.  Last year I looked at several images of Jesus that can be seen as meditations on the Passion.  This year I will look at the events of the Passion as reflected by the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary.

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