My prayers, as Flannery O’Connor says somewhere, are more dogged than devout and this is especially the case with the rosary. I do not pray it every day, probably because I find it so difficult, but nevertheless I take comfort in the rosary like I take comfort in the Mass: if you show up, you’re there. Similarly, if you say the prayers, you’ve prayed. You can say with some confidence that you have actually prayed the rosary whether or not your effort felt very successful. This approach might arise from strange mixture of laziness and scrupulosity on my part, but I can tell you in the drier areas of the prayer desert the bare-bones structure of the rosary and of the Mass have helped me a great deal.
Well, today was little different except for the fact that I found something in the Joyful Mysteries I had never noticed before.
Recently I have been very stressed out about finding a new place to live. A couple of friends and I have been on the house hunt since the end of May. Unfortunately, the three of us never seem to be in Denver at the same time this summer. I’m in Boston as I write this. Moreover, the housing market in Denver has become extremely competitive in the last few years, and trying to find an affordable place on three teachers’ salaries is no easy task.
I’ve written before as well how the idea of home has been problematic for me in the past few years, and is also problematic, I imagine, for a lot of transient young adults and likely for many of my own students.
So I suppose homes and houses have been on my mind. But I had never noticed before how much the concept of Home, in all of its spiritual complexity, is present in the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary. And that was the gift I received in prayer today.
1 – The Annunciation – Home in Mary
Christian tradition has since ancient times associated Mary with the Church, but also with the Tabernacle of the Lord – that is, the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament. The Ark of the Covenant, you probably know, was the dwelling place of the Lord of Hosts before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And even after the Temple’s construction, completion, and various re-buildings, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies there. And so Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant.
God comes to Mary in this mystery of the rosary to make His home inside of her. Mary’s womb becomes the first home of Jesus, and it is a proper home for Him because of her purity and openness to God. She welcomes Him into her house, so to speak, even though she is afraid. She is the perfect Temple of the Holy Spirit that St. Paul will preach about later (1 Cor 6:19).
And yet John says in his Gospel, of this moment, that “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (Jn 1:14). The Greek word is usually translated “dwelt” – as in “dwelt among us” – but it literally means “to pitch a tent” – which is so much more evocative and moving. A tent is a temporary home. God leaves heaven to become a wanderer with us. As Jesus says later, “Foxes have their holes and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Mt 8:20). He knows what it means, also, to be homeless.
2 – The Visitation – Home in Elizabeth
This is about as homey a mystery as there is, and has always been my favorite mystery of the rosary. Mary leaves her home in Nazareth to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth in a beautiful gesture of love. The journey was actually about 100 miles! Yet I have also always thought that, upon hearing of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, Mary could not help but want to be with the only other woman in the world who would understand what she herself was going through. Their meeting has always been to me the model of true Christian friendship.
And notice, again, the welcoming in this scene. Elizabeth greets Mary with joy and with understanding – she recognizes her at once as “the Mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43). Elizabeth knows who Mary is, and Who it is that is hidden within her. She welcomes Mary and she welcomes Jesus unreservedly because she truly understands who they are. (Is that not what real friendship is?) So this intimate scene is very much about finding that sense of belonging and trust and family that is so essential to being truly at home with someone.
3 – The Nativity – Searching for a Home
Joseph and Mary have to leave their home in Nazareth at a very difficult time. Mary is almost ready to give birth. To make matters worse, when they arrive in Bethlehem -which is supposed to be a sort of home, as is the city of David and the city of Joseph’s ancestry – they find that there is “no room for them at the inn.”
How often do we all feel like there is “no room” for us at our own homes?
And how often do we not make room for others? We are jealous of our space and of our time.
I think the immigrants to our own country, past and present, can find solace in the immigrant family of Nazareth – who, even after finding temporary shelter, had to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of a political ruler.
I kept thinking how stressed out Joseph must have been. Most husbands are when their wives are about to give birth. And he must have been afraid that they would not be able to find a safe place to stay. God provides, of course, but according to tradition He provides them a stable or cave of some sort, which is hardly an ideal location for giving birth, even in ancient times.
I could really relate to this mystery. Searching and searching for a place to live and encountering so many “no’s” – too expensive, too far away, too suspicious of multiple women living in the same house… you name it.
I wonder if perhaps it was hard for Joseph to accept the makeshift home God provided them in Bethlehem. Maybe not – he was a saint and probably trusted God far more than I do – but still I wonder if he was frustrated by having only a manger for Jesus and the company of animals for Mary. And yet the image of the stable, popularized later by St. Francis, has become so important for us later Christians. Joseph and Mary may not have known, at the time, how providential it was for them to suffer this uncertainty and this homelessness, yet for generations afterward the image of them in the stable has been a way for so many people to approach Christ.
Pope Benedict says:
Christmas is an epiphany – the appearing of God and of his great light in a child that is born for us. Born in a stable in Bethlehem, not in the palaces of kings. In 1223, when Saint Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas in Greccio with an ox and an ass and a manger full of hay, a new dimension of the mystery of Christmas came to light. Saint Francis of Assisi called Christmas “the feast of feasts” – above all other feasts – and he celebrated it with “unutterable devotion” (2 Celano 199; Fonti Francescane, 787). […] [T]hrough [Francis] and the character of his faith, something new took place: Francis discovered Jesus’ humanity in an entirely new depth. This human existence of God became most visible to him at the moment when God’s Son, born of the Virgin Mary, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. (Pope Benedict, Christmas Eve 2011 Homily)
Christ’s homelessness makes God accessible to us, because deep down we know that we all are homeless. We are all wanderers in a strange land. None of us want to stay forever in our stables, our caves. We want, like the Prodigal Son, to go Home.
I think this post has gone on long enough, so I will finish writing about the fourth and fifth mysteries later.