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Filling a gap? the “mysteries of light” in the Rosary?

30 November, 1999

In 2002 Pope John Paul II suddenly introduced five new “mysteries of light” to the Rosary. Was it that he recognised that there was “a gap” in the traditional Christian faith statements, like the Apostles’ Creed and used the popular devotion of the Rosary to try to remedy it? Patrick Duffy thinks the Pope’s action gives us food for thought.

In October 2002 Pope John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae to the bishops, clergy and faithful on the Rosary.  He recalled the development of the Rosary from the start of the second millennium and how his predecessors, especially Popes John XXIII and Paul VI had promoted the devotion.

A prayer-summary of the Church’s teaching on Our Lady
The Pope sees the Rosary as a prayer-summary of the Church’s teaching on Our Lady as that was expressed in the final chapter of the Vatican II Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 52-69, which discusses how Mary was present in the mystery of Christ and the Church.

A compendium of the Gospel
The Rosary, the Pope says in the Apostolic Letter, is “a compendium of the Gospel”.  So that it could become so more fully, he proposed to add five “mysteries of light”.  These are inserted following the joyful mysteries which reflect on the Incarnation and the hidden life of Christ and before the sorrowful and glorious mysteries which focus on the sufferings of his Passion and the triumph of his Resurrection.

Reason for introducing the “mysteries of light”
The Pope writes the following paragraph in a somewhat diplomatic tone as his reasoning for introducing a new set of mysteries to this already long-standing devotion:

I believe, however, that to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities, could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ’s public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion. In the course of those mysteries we contemplate important aspects of the person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God. Declared the beloved Son of the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan, Christ is the one who announces the coming of the Kingdom, bears witness to it in his works and proclaims its demands. It is during the years of his public ministry that the mystery of Christ is most evidently a mystery of light: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5).

Significance of the “mysteries of light”
The Pope goes on then to describe in some detail what he sees is the significance of these “mysteries of light”.

Moving on from the infancy and the hidden life in Nazareth to the public life of Jesus, our contemplation brings us to those mysteries which may be called in a special way “mysteries of light”. Certainly the whole mystery of Christ is a mystery of light. He is the “light of the world” (Jn 8:12). Yet this truth emerges in a special way during the years of his public life, when he proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom.

In proposing to the Christian community five significant moments – “luminous” mysteries – during this phase of Christ’s life, I think that the following can be fittingly singled out:

  1. his Baptism in the Jordan;
  2. his self-manifestation at the wedding of Cana;
  3. his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, with his call to conversion, 
  4. his Transfiguration, and finally,
  5. his institution of the Eucharist, as the sacramental expression of the Paschal Mystery.

Each of these mysteries is a revelation of the Kingdom now present in the very person of Jesus.

The Baptism in the Jordan is first of all a mystery of light. Here, as Christ descends into the waters, the innocent one who became “sin” for our sake (cf. 2 Cor 5:21), the heavens open wide and the voice of the Father declares him the beloved Son (cf. Mt 3:17 and parallels), while the Spirit descends on him to invest him with the mission which he is to carry out.

Another mystery of light is the first of the signs, given at Cana (cf. Jn 2:1- 12), when Christ changes water into wine and opens the hearts of the disciples to faith, thanks to the intervention of Mary, the first among believers.

Another mystery of light is the preaching by which Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God, calls to conversion (cf. Mk 1:15) and forgives the sins of all who draw near to him in humble trust (cf. Mk 2:3-13; Lk 7:47- 48).  It is the inauguration of that ministry of mercy which he continues to exercise until the end of the world, particularly through the Sacrament of Reconciliation which he has entrusted to his Church (cf. Jn 20:22-23).

The mystery of light par excellence is the Transfiguration, traditionally believed to have taken place on Mount Tabor. The glory of the Godhead shines forth from the face of Christ as the Father commands the astonished Apostles to “listen to him” (cf. Lk 9:35 and parallels) and to prepare to experience with him the agony of the Passion, so as to come with him to the joy of the Resurrection and a life transfigured by the Holy Spirit.

A final mystery of light is the institution of the Eucharist, in which Christ offers his body and blood as food under the signs of bread and wine, and testifies “to the end” his love for humanity (Jn 13:1), for whose salvation he will offer himself in sacrifice.

In these mysteries, apart from the miracle at Cana, the presence of Mary remains in the background.  The Gospels make only the briefest reference to her occasional presence at one moment or other during the preaching of Jesus (cf. Mk 3:31-5; Jn 2:12), and they give no indication that she was present at the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. 

Yet the role she assumed at Cana in some way accompanies Christ throughout his ministry. The revelation made directly by the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan and echoed by John the Baptist is placed upon Mary’s lips at Cana, and it becomes the great maternal counsel which Mary addresses to the Church of every age: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).  This counsel is a fitting introduction to the words and signs of Christ’s public ministry and it forms the Marian foundation of all the “mysteries of light”. (paragraph 21)

A suggested new time arrangement
In this paragraph (38), the Pope suggests the following as a way of distributing the four groups of mysteries over the week following the addition of the “mysteries of light”. 

According to current practice, Monday and Thursday are dedicated to the “joyful mysteries”, Tuesday and Friday to the “sorrowful mysteries”, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday to the “glorious mysteries”. Where might the “mysteries of light” be inserted? If we consider that the “glorious mysteries” are said on both Saturday and Sunday, and that Saturday has always had a special Marian flavour, the second weekly meditation on the “joyful mysteries”, mysteries in which Mary’s presence is especially pronounced, could be moved to Saturday. Thursday would then be free for meditating on the “mysteries of light”.

Filling a gap in the expression of our faith?
The insertion of the “mysteries of light” certainly seem to answer a felt need among all the Christian Churches about presenting the totality of the Christian message.

There had been a recognition for some time that, not only the Rosary, but even the Creeds, those statements of the faith that go back to the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople and even to the Apostles themselves, left some gaps.  While both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are highly regarded as faithful narratives of the Christian faith, there was a recognition that they tend to highlight the “baby” and the “cross” elements of the faith, while passing over Jesus’ adulthood and the more revolutionary aspects of his teaching.

One expression of this gap is that made by Rev Dr Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, in an article in The Guardian on Christmas Eve 2004.

“the Nicene religion of the baby and the cross gives us Christianity without the politics. The Posh and Becks nativity scene is the perfect tableau into which to place this Nicene baby, for like the much-lauded celebrity, this Christ is there to be gazed upon and adored – but not to be heard or heeded.  In a similar vein, modern evangelical choruses offer wave upon wave of praise to the name of Jesus, but offer little political or economic content to trouble his adoring fans.”

Fraser puts the blame for this Nicene“ideology” on the Emperor Constantine.  Before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312 AD), he had a vision of the cross in the sky telling him “in this sign shall you conquer”.  He won the battle against his rival Maxentius and subsequently converted to Christianity.  Church and Empire from then on became closely entwined.

Less than a century later, the Church under St Augustine had developed the novel theory of a just war.  Previous to this, soldiers could not be baptised unless they agreed to lay down their arms, but now the Church’s originally pacifist message bedcomes  “trimmed to the needs of the imperial war machine.”  And so today we have President George W. Bush, ignoring the Christian teaching of forgiving enemies and turning the other cheek, like many Christian Popes and emperors of the Middle Ages, pressing this ideology into military service.

It is worth thinking about.

Certainly, Pope John Paul’s adding the “mysteries of light” to the Rosary will help focus the attention of the faithful on the mysteries of Jesus’ adult life.  It also focuses on his proclamation of the kingdom of God where the poor have first place and Jesus teaches us to love our enemies.

For the full text of this Apostolic Letter see:


For the full text of Fraser’s article, see:

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