A Mystery in Mysteries

Light and Life – Mar-April 2019, Vol 72, No 2 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province

A Mystery in Mysteries

By Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, O.P.

[Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, O.P., entered the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (Western U.S.A.) in 1992 and was ordained in 2000. In 2008, he earned a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. He is Associate Professor of Theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, Berkeley, and is a member of the Core Doctoral Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He is the author of “On the Last Day: The Time of the Resurrection of the Dead according to Thomas Aquinas” (Fribourg, Switzerland: Academic Press Fribourg, 2010).]

In his Apostolic Letter on the Most Holy Rosary (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, October 16, 2002), Pope Saint John Paul II introduced a new set of mysteries to be contemplated while praying the Rosary. The letter drew renewed attention to the mysteries of the life of Christ, both to the traditional schema and to the “Luminous” series recently added. As those praying the Rosary, we have had to reconsider the selection or distribution of mysteries; it is well for us also to ponder the overall meaning and purpose of meditating on mysteries while praying. In the context of the Rosary, what is a “mystery”?” How does a mystery help us pray? Why should we meditate upon the events of the life of Jesus, while praying the Rosary?

To begin to answer such questions, a word about prayer in general is in order. Prayer is more God’s work than ours. Certainly, we do many things in prayer: we offer words, postures, gestures, inward intentions, etc., lifting of our mind and heart to God as expressions of our own devotion toward God. However, our primary attitude in prayer must be receptive and responsive, for “God calls man first.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2567; see also 2558-2566) If we call out to God in prayer, it is because God has first called us to prayer. To pray is first to listen to God, to be attentive to what God has to say to us, to listen to Him, allowing him to show Himself to us and to enlighten us.

How, then, are we to “listen” to God? To consider how to listen to God, we must first reflect upon the many ways God has already spoken to us. As recounted in the Sacred Scriptures, He reveals to us many things: what we are to do, what we are to say to Him in worship, what He has done for us, and, above all, Who He is. He has spoken to us most clearly and completely by sending his Son, Jesus Christ. “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, He spoke to us through a Son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Citing this text, the Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), has taught that Jesus Christ is “both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation” (no. 2), for to see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). Jesus, in his Person, in all that He said and did, is the fullness of revelation, for he “perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth.” (Dei Verbum no. 4) Jesus Christ Himself, in the total fact of his presence, is God’s fullest revelation of Himself. In Christ, revelation is so complete that there is no need for us to wait for any further message from God that is destined for the whole Church or world; so “we now await no further new public revelation” until He comes again (Dei Verbum no. 4).

Thus, the most complete account of what has been revealed by God is Jesus Himself. That is, the best way for us to “listen” to God, is truly to “listen” to this entire life of Jesus, who is the Word spoken to man – the Word made flesh, Who dwelt among us. Meditating in prayer on the life of Christ – and on Mary’s life as proclamation of his – is a most fitting way for us to listen to God, because meditating on Jesus’s life and work is meditation on what God has said to us, both about Who God is and about what He has done for us. Even the very name of his Son, Jesus, tells us this twin mystery: “God saves.”

Now, for us to receive God’s revelation of Himself involves much more than what happens when we learn about other things. Our learning about the things of the world can vary greatly in depth and breadth, from sensing the world around us and hearing reports of very ordinary facts, to learning the most subtle of theories by undertaking an educational program lasting many years. Perhaps the most profound kind of learning in the world happens in our encounters with other persons, particularly with those closest to us: friends, family members, and spouses. We learn about them, we come to know them, and they reveal themselves to us through what they say and how they act. However, we can never claim to know in a complete way even one other person. No matter how close we become to another human being, the full reality of the other person will always remain beyond our comprehensive grasp. If that is true even of coming to understand one other human person in our world, it is much more true of approaching a knowledge of the living God.

Indeed, because God is infinitely beyond what our finite minds can grasp, whatever we learn of God, even when he reveals himself, remains for us only partly comprehended, because of our limitations. Indirectly, we gain knowledge of Him through creation. Yet we have something more. God has revealed himself to us, time and again, from Adam to Abraham to Moses and the Prophets. In this way, He tells us about Himself. Finally, in the most explicit way possible for us, God revealed himself by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, Who became flesh and dwelt among us: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life— for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it.” (1 John 1:1-2) We have heard the Word and seen the Word made flesh. Still, in Jesus, there remains a depth that will not be exhausted, “the mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3). These “hidden” treasures within the mystery of God are to be pondered in what has been revealed of Christ himself. This is the essence of mystery: it is that which is made known and intelligible, but whose inner essence remains beyond reach. The Latin word “sacrament” names the same reality: what is felt, heard, seen, touched, tasted – but which also remains beyond the capacity of the created spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 512-521) states that Christ’s “whole life” is a mystery of redemption (no. 517). This is the mystery that we allow to penetrate our hearts in the praying of the Rosary.

But if Christ’s whole life is a mystery, why do we meditate on such specific, varying events in the life of Christ when praying the Rosary? Why do we not simply meditate on the life of Christ as a whole? Why should it be important to meditate on certain aspects of the life of Christ?

This brings us to a reflection upon our own humanity and its limitations in the face of mystery. We human beings are not capable of simultaneously thinking about all the things we know. Instead, we consider things a few at a time, grouping some things together, relating to others, making comparisons… and on and on. This is true of anything that we care to ponder in any depth. When the Subject upon which we are meditating is the mystery of Christ Himself, we must, all the more, take our time with the various aspects. We simply cannot take in, at once, all the ways in which our Lord’s life is a pattern for our life, all the implications of our Lord’s saving work for us, or all the wonders of God Himself. Considering and pondering, one after the other, the many ways we have seen the God-made-man act and work among us helps us to digest, spiritually, the food that is his Word – slowly, calmly, so that we can truly be nourished by it. It is no surprise then, that the same Catechism that speaks of the “mystery” of the whole life of Christ will go on to name specific aspects of his life as aspects of that mystery: the blood of his cross, his Incarnation, his obedience, his words, his healings and exorcisms, and his Resurrection (CCC no. 517), speaking also, in various places, about certain stages of the “mysteries” of his life: the Mysteries of his Infancy and Hidden Life, the Mysteries of his Public Life, and of course the Paschal Mystery (see 517-571, passim).

Even the best of us, in our best moments, then, have limitations in what we can contemplate, because our human intellect is limited. But there is a further reason for us to take our time with the mysteries of Christ: none of us is entirely balanced in our life of faith. None of us, at any one time, is in need of precisely the same aspect of the Gospel to the same degree. Some are more attuned to activity, others to contemplation; some are more ready to be joyful in celebrating the wonders of God’s love, while others, in more sorrowful moments, need comfort in the face of pain or loss, and the reminder that, in the Cross, suffering can be redemptive. All of us need forgiveness, but some have more often been victims of others’ sins; still others need to apologize to someone. Given the limitations of each of us, there is a wisdom and balance in the distribution of the mysteries: the Rosary offers a comprehensive and balanced presentation of the life of Christ. The mysteries of the Rosary allow us to focus our attention on this aspect or
that aspect of Christ’s life and work among us. In this way, the Rosary is something like the liturgical year, over the course of which the church celebrates the Annunciation, the Birth of Christ, his Baptism, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and the outpouring of his Spirit at Pentecost, to name only some of the prominent observances. It is this question of balance that led St. John Paul to propose the Luminous Mysteries as a certain “complement” to the form of praying the Rosary that had become generally established with the Church’s approval. The contemplation of this new set of mysteries, he stated, would allow the Rosary “to become more fully a ‘compendium of the Gospel.’” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 19, citing St. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus [2 February 1974], 42). While the mysteries cannot replace the Gospel, they allow its breadth and depth to sink in, partly because they offer a comprehensive view of the whole of Christ’s life and work, one mystery at a time.

So, those meditating in prayer upon the mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary, by the grace of God, are led, step by step, to contemplate the entire Gospel of Christ Himself and to conform their lives to Him, in order to be brought to the eternal life toward which his mysteries point. That is, they are led to “imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise.” In this way, those praying the Rosary “travel” with the Blessed Virgin Mary on a kind of pilgrimage with Christ, Who, being the Truth of God, is also the Way to God, thus bearing in Himself what the mysteries of the Rosary promise: eternal Life.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 14:6

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