The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 57, No 5, Sept-Oct 2004

Theology for the Laity


By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

The Feast of the Holy Rosary

Over centuries, profits from trade made Venice a center of art and culture. But with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Christians no longer dominated the valuable Mediterranean trade routes to the east. Four generations of Venetian merchants tried to maintain neutral relations with both Christian and Moslem forces, but they grew frightened when the strategic port of Rhodes fell to the Turks in 1522.

Fifty years later (in 1570), when the Turks demanded the surrender of Cyprus, the Venetians appealed to Pope Pius V, who assembled a multinational naval expedition that engaged the Turks at Lepanto, near the Bay of Corinth, on October 7, 1571.

Christians were greatly outnumbered in this encounter. They commanded only 214 boats and 80,000 troops. The Turkish force totaled 120,000 troops, about 225 galleys, and an additional 50 smaller boats. The battle occurred at a time of transition in naval warfare, and Lepanto stands as the last great naval engagement in ships powered by oars. Every schoolchild knows how the battle ended. The weather, which favored the Turks at dawn, changed, and Christian forces were able to overwhelm their enemy. 9,000 Christians died in the battle, but 12,000 were released from slavery in Turkish galleys. Turkish losses were far greater. Even by modern standards, these are amazing statistics for a single battle, fought within a single day.

Pius V, a Dominican, prayed the rosary throughout the battle and attributed the victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. Hence the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, October 7, is so dear to Dominicans and their friends. But the Pontiffís were not the only prayers addressed that day to the Mother of God. The Christian troops are said to have prayed the rosary throughout the night before the battle, and some sources say that the rhythmic repetition of the prayer thoroughly frightened and demoralized the Turkish host.

Modern sensibility may question the propriety of finding Godís hand in such a bloody undertaking - and for no better reason than to protect commercial interests - but those who fought at Lepanto had no doubt that God accomplished remarkable results from these less than promising beginnings. The Church does the same thing, taking the anniversary of a bloody victory and transforming it - not by concentrating on the battle, but by focusing on the prayers that won the battle.

These prayers continue to take the fallen stuff of our lives and transform it into something noble and fine. In the Rosary we have the opportunity to contemplate all the human events we are familiar with - birth, death, friendship, deceit, joy, sorrow, defeat, victory, and triumph - and to sanctify them by identifying our experience of these events with the experience of the same events in the lives of our Savior and his Mother.

The Mysteries of Light, Part I

We do not need to be physicists to appreciate the wonder of light. It makes things bright, and it makes them warm - no wonder Our Savior is called the "Light of the World," and no wonder that we welcome his birth when the world is at its darkest and coldest - at least in the Northern Hemisphere.

Light has another property that we sometimes forget: it makes things safe. We have only to attempt to negotiate familiar territory during a power failure to realize the immense difference light makes in our perception and ability to master our world.

What better title, then, than "Mysteries of Light" to describe the additional Mysteries the Holy Father introduced in October, 2002, to inaugurate a special Year of the Rosary. These events in the life of our Savior, taken directly from the Scripture, expand the traditional fifteen decades of the Rosary, and invite us to consider particular moments and ways in which Christ brightened, warmed, and made our lives safe by sharing his Light and Life with us.

The First Mystery: The Baptism of the Lord

We are appropriately humbled by the magnitude of the Incarnation, but what the primitive Church found even more sublime than Christís birth into our flesh were the epiphanies or manifestations of Christís divinity through our flesh. The most famous of these, of course, is the revelation of Christís majesty to the wise men when they made their pilgrimage to Bethlehem and laid their gifts at the feet of the newborn king.

We encounter a second epiphany when the gospel tells us Jesus presented himself to be baptized and Godís voice announced "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased" (Mt. 3:17). We can become spoiled by our familiarity with the gospel story, so we may not be shocked by these accounts of the worldís early encounters with Jesus. But the gospel is a story about us, so each of these epiphanies is an invitation to feel new surprise and a renewed sense of awe as we discover that although the Jesus in our midst looks very ordinary, he is no mere mortal.

There are three very important messages in the mystery of Jesusí baptism by John in the Jordan. The first is that Jesus looks so familiar we can easily miss Him. God tells the prophet Isaiah, "Here is my servant... He shall bring forth justice for the nations [but] not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street" (Is. 42:2). Unlike the public figures we may be familiar with, Jesus has very little to say for himself, so we must be very alert to recognize Him when He comes into our lives.

The second thing we must realize is that the flesh which makes the Incarnate Word so indistinguishable from the rest of us is capable of some astonishing feats. Again, God speaks to the prophet Isaiah, "I have called you for the victory of justice... [I] have set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon those who live in darkness" (Is. 2:6-7).

The third thing we must realize is that if Jesus looks so much like us, then we must look a great deal like him. There are as many individual vocations as there are individuals in our midst, but our common vocation as Christians is to live up to the nobility of this flesh we share with Christ. The Spirit may not have descended as a dove at our baptism, but the effect was the same. Our baptism is an act of God initiated in history to make us Godís children, anointed to be a covenant, a light, and the instruments of justice and liberation.

The birth of Jesus - like any of our births - is the beginning of a long process of growth and development. At the Annunciation the angel tells Mary, "The child you are to bear shall be called the Son of God" (Lk. 1:32). The future tense of that "shall" does not mean that Jesus will suddenly become something he wasnít before. It means that his right to the title "Son of God" is something that will become clearer as the gospel story unfolds.

At Jesusí Baptism Godís voice confirms what the angel promised Mary, and it calls us to respond to the mighty acts God initiated when the spirit descended at our baptism. In one of his orations St. Gregory of Nazianzen urges us, "Christ is illumined, let us shine forth with him...." And he continues, "be cleansed so that you may be like lights for the world... and stand as perfect lights beside that great Light, and learn the mystery of the illumination of heaven...."

The Second Mystery: The Wedding at Cana

St. John the Evangelist relates the events at Cana in a mere eleven verses, much less than a single page. But these verses contain a wealth of instruction for the Christian willing to learn. St. John introduces the story of the wedding at Cana by telling us - even before he mentions that Jesus and his disciples were among the guests - that "the mother of Jesus was there" (Jn. 2:1). This gives a hint of the part Mary will play in the drama that unfolds, but it tells us a great deal more.

The title "the mother of Jesus" occurs only twice in St. John: here, and where we encounter her again at the foot of Christís cross (Jn. 19:25). At Cana the mother of Jesus is concerned for the reputation of a newlywed couple who will be disgraced if they fail to provide adequate hospitality for their guests. At Calvary she becomes the new Eve, concerned for the welfare of everyone Jesus entrusts to her when he bids her "behold your son" in the evangelist who stands for us.

Cana marks the beginning of Jesusí public ministry, Calvary its conclusion. The wedding feast reminds us of the Kingdom, which Christ often compares to a banquet; on the cross Jesus completes the sacrifice that gains us entry to that everlasting feast. Maryís remark to Jesus at Cana ushers in his work among us, and her presence at the cross witnesses its triumphal conclusion. Mary is present at all the important moments in Jesusí life, and because so little of her personality intrudes in the gospel story, we are called to find ourselves wherever we encounter her.

Mary tells the servants to "do whatever he tells you," and they fill the water jars to the brim. St. John calls us to identify ourselves with those servants, doing the bidding of Christ at the invitation of his Mother. When our Holy Father visited Ireland in 1979, he prayed to Mary,

St. Bernard takes the desire to do Christís will one step further, identifying in the six water jars "the six observances which the holy Fathers laid down for the purification of the hearts of the faithful." The first is chastity, the second abstinence, the third hard personal work so that we may not live by the sweat of anotherís brow, but by our own. Bernard identifies the fourth jar with prayer vigils by which we may hope to purchase back some of the time we have wasted. The fifth jar is silence, the safeguard of religion, and the sixth discipline, through which we learn to live not by our own will but by the will of another.

The water jars, St. John tells us, held between twenty and thirty gallons, thus yielding between one hundred twenty and one hundred eighty gallons of exquisite wine. The volume and quality of the wine at Cana demonstrate both our Saviorís magnificence and his munificence. Of the former St. Thomas teaches, "It belongs to magnificence to do something great" (Summa, II-II, 134.2); the latter is the generous spirit that moves an individual to perform such noble, external works.

Two final thoughts should occupy us as we meditate upon this mystery. The first is Christís sanctification of marriage, the second the larger significance of this sign for the entire world. St. Cyril remarks,

The old admonition before marriage reminded a couple that the vows they were about to profess were "most sacred and most serious" because marriage gives mankind "a share in the greatest work of creation, the continuation of the human race." Christ blessed fruitful human love at Cana, and made it a sign of his divine sacrificial love for the Church.

Underlying everything else at Cana is Christís affirmation of the goodness of creation. Changing water into wine relieved an anxious host and his bride, but it is also a sign of what Christ has done for us by taking on our flesh, transforming the dull water of our everyday existence into something extraordinary and of immense value.

Back to Light & Life Page | Way Back to Rosary Center Home Page