When we hear the word “mystery” we think of something obscure, complicated, hard to understand and, well, mysterious. But, as we have just seen, Christian revelation is not “done in a corner” (Acts 26:26) but given in broad daylight. Jesus sums this up well when he tells the apostles, “What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops” (Matt. 10:27). God is freely revealed to us through the common life, worship, and teaching of the Church: extremely public events in the gospels we’ve all heard about since forever, Bible stories every Sunday School kid knows, sacraments rooted in the common (and crucially important) junctures of human existence such as birth, sin and failure, coming of age, marriage, dedication to God, sharing a meal, or death. Jesus entrusted the whole kit ’n’ caboodle of revelation to the Church in the words “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). It’s all public domain.
The mysteries of the Rosary follow the same pattern. We walk, not just with Jesus, but with Mary, his greatest disciple, through the public events of his great saving life. Why with Mary as well as Jesus? Because that’s the gospel norm. Jesus never wrote a gospel. That wasn’t an oversight on his part. It’s the will of the living God that the gospel always be “according to”: according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Mary—and you. We see Jesus reflected in the Church’s eyes—and Mary is the type of the Church—so that we might learn more perfectly to allow others to see him reflected in our own.
The Mysteries are:
The Joyful Mysteries (Mondays and Saturdays, and Sundays in Advent)
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth
The Circumcision/Presentation in the Temple
The Finding in the Temple
The Luminous Mysteries (Thursdays)
The Baptism of the Lord
The Wedding at Cana
The Proclamation of the Kingdom
The Institution of the Eucharist
The Sorrowful Mysteries (Tuesdays and Fridays, and Sundays in Lent)
The Agony in the Garden
The Scourging at the Pillar
The Crowning with Thorns
Jesus Carrying His Cross
Jesus Dies on the Cross
The Glorious Mysteries (Wednesdays and ordinary Sundays)
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
The Assumption of Mary
The Coronation of Mary in Heaven
The first eighteen mysteries are from the Gospels. The last two have been part of Catholic Tradition from extremely early on. Taken together, they tell a story. But what kind of story?
It’s not a tragedy. Though it taps deep wells of grief, it’s not the story of a great Might-Have-Been with a fatal flaw who destroys himself by pride. Tragedy is our story. It’s the story of Judas. It’s the story of Peter denying Jesus on the night of his arrest. It’s the story of the priests of a Chosen People who condemned the God who chose them. It’s the story of a governor representing a great empire entrusted with the justice of the world who condemned the Author of justice. But it’s not the story of Jesus and Mary.
Is the Rosary then a comedy? After all, it does have a happy ending. Comedy, too, is our story. It’s the story of Sarah, laughing her head off when despite her cynicism the angel’s word comes true and she is pregnant against all odds. It’s the story of Joseph’s brothers, conniving to sell him into slavery and finding that, instead of divine judgment burning them to cinders, they’re united with him just in time to be saved from famine. It’s the story of the Emmaus disciples meeting the Risen Christ on the road and laboriously explaining to him what he knows perfectly well, while he plays dumb for their benefit. It’s our story, the story of the children of Adam who bollixed up the works, but who were rescued by a God who, like a Cosmic Jeeves, turns our best efforts at idiocy into something that works out well. But it’s not the story of Jesus and Mary.
Their story (and, if we live with them, our story) is neither a tragedy nor a comedy. It’s a fairy tale, a eucatastrophe or “good catastrophe.” J. R. R. Tolkien writes:
The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairytale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairytale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
Tolkien ought to know, since as a Catholic and the author of one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, he wrote a tale that bears more than a passing resemblance to the ultimate story. All our stories are hallowed by the ultimate True Story:
I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.
The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
The Rosary takes us on a journey through the eucatastrophe of the gospel via a “living rhythm,” like a heartbeat or a human relationship. It begins, as the gospel itself does, with God making the first move. In the mystery of the Annunciation. Mary (and we) are offered the free gift of the God who seeks to enter our very being. Mary says yes, as we must strive to imitate that Yes. Then comes the next movement in the rhythm. God has come in, now Mary goes out in love to Elizabeth, as we should go with Christ in us to others. After that act of self-giving, Mary again receives from God. The Child Jesus is born at Christmas, shown to the world in humble estate as we should witness to him in our small lives. Next movement: Mary again offers Jesus back in the Circumcision and Presentation at the Temple, as we offer Jesus to the Father in the Mass, hoping our lives will become a reflection of that one great and saving sacrifice. And the last joyful mystery? Mary receives Christ back at that Temple with great promises and warnings of what is to come. It anticipates a far darker moment when Mary will again lose her Son with even greater sorrow, and a far more brilliant moment when she regains him with even greater joy.
The Luminous Mysteries which show us the life of the disciple, insist that we be like Jesus. Our way, like his, begins in death to self in the Baptism at the Jordan. The pattern of self-offering in order to receive from God is repeated, and continues as Mary tells us we must “Do whatever he tells you” as we contemplate the wedding at Cana. As Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom, so we are to do. And as we do, we receive foretastes of heaven, just as the disciples did when they witnessed the Transfiguration. As we follow him, we are to give thanks and to receive his life back in the supreme sacrament of the Eucharist, whose institution is the subject of the last Luminous Mystery.
The Sorrowful Mysteries continue this pattern, focusing on Jesus’ magnificent self-offering to God. Christ pours out his life for us to God, even unto death, just as we are called to brave suffering for Christ in this life. The Sorrowful Mysteries call us to contemplate the main movements of that self-offering and again to explore ways in which we can imitate him. We can see, for instance, the offering, through Christ, of our wills in the Agony in the Garden, of our bodies in the Scourging at the Pillar, and of our intellects in the Crown of Thorns. We contemplate our own stumbling steps and God’s mercy for our failures as we see Jesus himself carrying his cross in the fourth Sorrowful Mystery. Finally, when we reach the depth of his Passion and total self-abandonment to God in the fifth Sorrowful Mystery—his Crucifixion—we are ready to experience, once again and more intensely, God’s return to us in the Resurrection, the first Glorious Mystery.
The rhythm continues with the Ascension of Christ into heaven and its attendant demand for self-denial again (“Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” [John 20:17]) and then the still greater offering of God to us in the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, the third Glorious mystery. Next, according to the ancient faith of the Church, Mary is assumed into heaven (her “Easter” and a foretaste of what we will all experience in heaven). Finally, in another foretaste of what we shall all experience, Mary is crowned Queen of heaven by God, just as we shall receive crowns of glory in her Son (cf. 2 Tim. 4:8).
Many people like to make use of pictures depicting the scenes they are meditating on while they pray. Others like to place themselves mentally in the scene being prayed over. Some use the particular mystery being contemplated as the starting point for trains of thought and prayer informed by Scripture and guided by the Holy Spirit. Others focus on the fruits of contemplating each mystery and ask God that he grant these fruits to them or someone else by his grace. Often it’s good simply to be with our Lord and his Mother in their lives together, remembering that grace has made you a member of that wonderful family and its amazing story. The point is to find whatever way best suits you to focus on these scenes from the lives of Christ and Mary and see how they speak to your life or the lives of those for whom you are praying. Here, for what it’s worth, are some of the things I have pondered as I meditate on the Rosary.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed., C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 82–84.