A message from Father Nick 53

“He became as we are…”

            We are preparing once again to commemorate Our Lord’s passion and death. This is the time when statues in our churches were routinely covered and signs of his glory were hidden. It always seemed strange that even crucifixes were veiled during Passiontide, but that was because the earliest crucifixes were decorated images of Christ in majesty. It was the decoration not the suffering that was being concealed.

Of course, Our Lord’s victory over death is a permanent truth, but one feature of the so-called “Middle Ages” was a kind of humanism that showed itself in deep compassion. Depictions of the crucified Jesus became ever more realistic. And an emotional interest in the human details of his life led to new ways of devotion. The Stations of the Cross emerged from this time, as did another form of prayer which is still much loved and practised.

As the liturgist Joseph Jungmann puts it, the eleventh century marks the period when veneration of Our Lady, rather latent hitherto, “erupted” in a multiplicity of forms. The Salve Regina (Hail holy Queen) has been traced to a bishop who died in 1098, and litanies like the Litany of Loreto became extremely popular. One new form of devotion developed in interaction with the Bible’s Book of Psalms and came to be known as the “Rosary”.

Psalms provide the basis for the Church’s daily prayer (the Office which is sung and said throughout the world). As listed in the Bible, there are one hundred and fifty psalms, which were divided by the Irish monks into three sets of fifty. The origins of the rosary seem to lie in providing a substitute for those who could not read or who had no access to those psalms. At first the Pater Noster was used and its fifty-fold repetition required some kind of counting device. Around the year 1140 mention is made for the first time in the West of a string for counting prayers – in this instance a string of pearls.

A second step occurred in the thirteenth century when the Angel’s greeting to Mary (“Hail Mary”) was combined with that of Elizabeth (“Blessed art thou among women…”) [The prayer we know was not yet complete, but in 1226 the General Chapter of the Dominican Order prescribed that the lay-brother members, whenever they recited the customary Our Father, should add to it the Hail Mary. Each set of fifty psalms would become five decades of Hail Marys.]

This was yet to be connected with salvation history, and a further embellishment led to the insertion of New Testament “mysteries”. These were recalled after each Ave Maria, and the holy name of Jesus was added. “The addition ‘Pray for us sinners’…was made by the Carthusians about the year 1350; it took a long time to assert itself, receiving its definitive form along with the complete text of the Hail Mary in 1568 in the Breviary of Pius V.”

One telling indication of the rosary’s vitality is the recent addition of a new set of mysteries. It had been noticed that the three existing sets (Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious) did not include reference to Jesus’ ministry. In 2002 five “Luminous” mysteries were added to correct that balance, and the story of the rosary continued…