In Catholic piety the Rosary has a special place as a way of meditating on the mysteries of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. It has been cherished and promoted particularly by the Order of Preachers as a method of contemplating and preaching those mysteries. John Paul II’s decision to add five new mysteries to the Rosary, the so-called mysteries of light, has alerted people to how strange it was before, that in meditating on the important events of the life and work of Jesus one passed from the finding in the temple (recounted in Luke 2) to the agony in the garden. Was there no significant mystery between these two moments, nothing of essential spiritual, theological, revelatory or salvific importance? Thomas Aquinas says in his commentary on the Creed that all the mysteries of Christ are for our instruction. People were encouraged to meditate elsewhere on these other mysteries: healings, miracles, parables, discourses, vocation stories, meals and other encounters, all that Jesus said and did during the time of his conversation among human beings.
But picking out these five new mysteries of light – the baptism of Jesus, the wedding feast of Cana, his proclamation of the kingdom of God and call to conversion, the transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist – gives content to the description of Jesus’ public ministry as a sustained ‘preaching moment’: something is being communicated to people by Someone and the something that is communicated is the Someone who communicates it. It is a matter of deeds and words, as these five mysteries bring out, things said by Jesus the preacher and prophet, things done and undergone by Jesus the sign-maker and artist.
Jesus the preacher is anointed for his ministry at his baptism by John in the river Jordan. This marked the moment when his ministry began. An apostle, Acts 1 tells us, is one who can witness to the events from the baptism of Jesus to his resurrection. This provides the content of the Christian kerygma just as the baptism marks the moment when Jesus himself went public and began to proclaim the Word of God throughout Galilee and the surrounding countryside. The theophany at the baptism is for the Baptist or for those standing by (so Matthew), or it is for Jesus himself (so Mark and Luke), but either way the entry into his ministry involves Jesus in a clearer conviction about his vocation. It may be that one should refer here also to his temptation in the wilderness and to the moment of the Baptist’s arrest. Then Jesus, in his human nature, comes to realise something about himself, that he is to be this representative figure for Israel – the servant of God, a prophet and even the prophet, the anointed one or messiah, the son of man.
The gospels recount in different ways how Jesus appropriated (or revealed) his vocation as a preacher and teacher, as priest, prophet and king. As with many later moments in the public ministry of Jesus, the gospel of John gives a distinctive account of the beginning of that ministry. At the wedding feast of Cana, recounted in John 2, Jesus gave his first sign and the disciples believed in him. His work is underway even though his hour had not yet come. Cana begins the fulfilment of Old Testament promises of the eschatological age, the banquet of fine wine given in abundance, the out-pouring of the Spirit that is bountiful and indiscriminate, the meal offered by wisdom to her devotees (Is 25:6; Joel 3:1-5; Acts 2:13; Prov 9:1-6). But Cana also echoes beforehand the moment of Jesus’s death as John describes it (19:xx-xx): the hour has now come, there is blood and water flowing, there is thirst (now his own rather than that of the people around him), his mother is present and is again addressed as ‘woman’ (the new Eve), and there is glory, the glory first revealed in the sign of Cana, finally and definitively revealed as the glory of the only Son, giving his life on the cross.
The task of preaching is to bring people to see, by faith, this glory. It is a call to conversion, to turn away from sin and believe the good news of Jesus Christ, to have a new mind and be renewed, to turn away from the worship of dead things to a spiritual worship of the living God. The third mystery of light is Christ’s proclamation of the kingdom of God with the call to conversion. It is an invitation to enter into the mystery of Christ’s ministry of preaching. Paul will explain all this at length: those who have been reconciled by Christ become ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:20). They receive grace to announce the good news and to invite to the banquet. No particular moment in the gospel accounts of his ministry is picked out in this third mystery of light, which makes it different from the other nineteen mysteries of the Rosary. It could easily have been the Sermon on the Mount, but instead people are invited to meditate on the entire teaching ministry of Jesus, all that he said and did (Acts 1:1; Lk 1:1-4) in announcing the kingdom.
The glory that is being revealed yet remains hidden, and the transfiguration is often understood as a moment in which the veil of Jesus’ humanity slips and a hidden divinity is revealed. But what happens is just as much a breaking in of the future, when the glory that is to be his as the exalted Son of Man, the glory of his resurrection, is glimpsed beforehand by his chosen disciples. Our preaching moments are for the most part mundane, ordinary and routine but they are also moments of insight, illumination and revelation for someone who is listening. At least they are always these things potentially (and perhaps often the one brought to fresh insight through our preaching is the one who is preaching).
If preaching were just a human message, our ideas and experiences, then we would be telling people what they know, or potentially could know, for themselves. But it is the Word that we preach, of course coming through human channels (earthen vessels at that) and so taking flesh in terms of our ideas and experiences as it takes flesh in terms of the language and accent in which we speak but with a character, depth and significance far beyond the channel through which it is communicated. As Paul says, ‘we preach what Scripture calls “the things no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him”’ (1 Cor 2:9). We speak in words not taught by human wisdom (1 Cor 2:13). But where it happens that someone hears, through our preaching, what St John of the Cross calls ‘the silent music of eternal love’, then it is not we who speak (even though it is) but the Spirit of the heavenly Father speaking through us.
So people are taken up into a process of transfiguration, from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor 3:18), and this is happening particularly as we partake in the daily bread of the Eucharist. The fifth mystery of light is ‘the institution of the Eucharist as the sacramental expression of the paschal mystery’. This too is a strange mystery compared with all the other mysteries of the Rosary. It is not just the last supper, as it might have been, but ‘the institution of a sacramental expression’. People are asked to meditate here on a theological doctrine, the meaning of the last supper in its relation to the death of Jesus, and our remembering of it until He comes.
This final mystery of light now links the joyful mysteries of Christ’s hidden childhood and the luminous mysteries of his public ministry with the sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the paschal event. This is where his public ministry is leading as Luke most clearly teaches in the structure of his gospel. If it is to the paschal mystery, to Jerusalem, that Jesus’ ministry moves it is also to Jerusalem, to the paschal mystery, that Christian preaching points. This is the climax and the heart of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the climax and the heart of Christian preaching: this paschal mystery, sacramentally represented in the Eucharist, which is, as Vatican II describes it, ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’ (Lumen gentium 11).