This is the second part of a series that will explore the Mysteries of the Rosary throughout October. These posts are longer than usual, but only because the riches contained in each Mystery deserve such great attention. We hope you can join us as we explore the depths of the Luminous Mysteries.
The Baptism of Christ
Why did John go to the Jordan River in the desert—to the lowest point on earth—to baptize, and why did so many follow him there?
In the Old Testament, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River, and Jesus is the Joshua of the New Testament. Jesus is the one who will lead the New Israel into the Promise Land, and he begins at the Jordan River where the first Joshua led the Israelites out of bondage. When Jesus and John meet at the Jordan, they are reliving history.
Wearing a garment of camel hair and a leather girdle around his waist, and eating only locusts and wild honey, John the Baptist proclaims, “Prepare the Way of the Lord” (see Is 40:3). To the Israelites of the first century, these words hearkened back to Israel’s days of exile in the desert when God promised through Isaiah that he will console Israel. The testimony of John the Baptist meant Israel’s day of consolation was coming, the prophecies about the Messiah will soon be fulfilled.
With what he is wearing, what he is saying, and where he is saying it, John is playing the role of Elijah. In the first century, it was believed that Elijah will come before the Messiah (Mal 4:5, or NAB 3:24) and restore the tribes of Israel. Elijah went up into heaven in a chariot of fire at the Jordan River dressed the same way.
“I must decrease and he must increase,” John proclaimed, and this is exactly what happened between Elijah and Elisha. After Elijah gives Elisha a double portion of his anointing and ascends to heaven, Elisha performs miracles parallel to those performed by Jesus. He transforms vessels of oil (2 Kgs 4:1-7), he raises a dead child to life (2 Kgs 4:32-34), he multiplies loaves to feed a multitude (2 Kgs 4:38-44), and Naaman is cured of leprosy by dipping himself in the Jordan seven times as Elisha told him (2 Kgs 5). What is also interesting to note is that the Church says the cure of Naaman prefigures of the sacrament of baptism.
And wait, there’s more. In Matthew 3:13-15, Jesus is fulfilling everything and becoming Israel, identifying with Israel completely. Not only is he coming to earth as a baby, but he goes to the lowest point on earth and submits himself to a baptism of repentance.
We have a lot of convergence in the wilderness. Joshua’s crossing the Jordan, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah saying God will allure you and speak tenderly to you in the wilderness, the anointing of Jesus as king in complete identity as Israel fulfilling all righteousness, and after his baptism—just as Israel came out of the waters of the Red Sea and wandered forty years in the wilderness—Jesus comes out of the waters of the Jordan to be tempted for forty days in the desert.
The Wedding Feast at Cana
Whenever I picture the Wedding Feast at Cana, I envision a young Frank Sinatra as the wedding singer… crooning out “The Best is Yet to Come,” in almost prophetic vibrato, moments before the original wine supply would run dry.
There is so much packed into this short narrative spanning only twelve verses. It was “the third day” (Jn 2:1) of the wedding feast, barely halfway through the normal week-long celebration. Then there’s Jesus’ seemingly odd address of “woman” to his mother (Jn 2:4) and her admonition to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).
The Holy Spirit breathes almost conspicuous detail about the ”six stone jars” holding “twenty to thirty gallons” of water “for Jewish rites of purification” (Jn 2:6) as well as the fact that they were filled “to the brim” (Jn 2:7). These details speak to far more than eye-witness testimony. As the Holy Spirit does throughout the Gospel of John, there is both a simple and sacramental level of understanding at play here, if only we have the eyes and ears to receive what God is offering in this wedding reception.
Not only does a “third day” miracle announce Jesus’ earthly ministry but a third day miracle (resurrection) will culminate it, as well. Jesus’ proclamation of “woman” to the Blessed Mother, too, though seemingly “brash” is another invitation to take a deeper look at the episode. For just as the first woman, “Eve” was revealed and joined on the day of matrimony to Adam, the new Adam (Jesus) and new Eve would have their identities “unveiled” during this wedding feast, as well.
A closer look, too, at St. John’s first chapter reveals something even more interesting. St. John begins with almost a recapitulation of the creation narrative (signaled by “in the beginning,”), ushering us back to Genesis and “day one” in John 1:1. As the chapter goes on, note the intentional and creative use of the phrase, “the next day”; it sets up more than a pattern, but a sacramental arrow, if you will. Note “the next day” that appears in verses 29, 35, and 43 and the subsequent use of “the third day” in John 2:1. St. John is offering us a divinely inspired equation here as we see “day one” (Jn 1:1), “day two” (Jn 1:29), “day three” (Jn 1:35), “day four” (Jn 1:43), and with “the third day” coming in John 2:1, the miracle at the wedding feast is not only taking place on day three but also “day seven,” ushering in a “new creation week!”
This was not merely an earthly wedding feast, but the invitation to the heavenly banquet – the eternal union between Christ, the bridegroom, and his Church!
Note, too, the stone water jars used for ceremonial washing, hearken us back to the first plague with Moses as recounted in Exodus 7, where “all the water in the land of Egypt … even in the stone jars” was turned to blood by the mighty hand of God. Just as water was transformed to blood in Exodus and water to wine at Cana, so at every Mass the wine is transformed to blood through Christ’s sacramental priesthood.
Imagine how the Blessed Virgin Mary, who most assuredly had great reverence and deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, must have had her immaculate heart beating with joy as this episode unfolded before her. Knowing how she constantly “pondered all things in her heart,” her contemplative spirit must have been quietly singing praises to her God not only for his fidelity but for her Son’s humility as Jesus acquiesced to his Blessed Mother’s request.
To think that this beautiful exchange between mother and son took place prior to all else Jesus would say and do, only reaffirms the beautiful love between them and foreshadowed the sacrifices both would make for the Kingdom. This mystery is a prophetic foreshadowing and assurance that, indeed, the best was yet to come.
The Proclamation of the Kingdom
At the heart of Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom is the Beatitudes, which describe and reflect perfectly the image of Christ. The Beatitudes are not just a string of pithy, clever sayings that are nice to remember as rules for life. They flow into and build on each other, starting with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and moving on from there.
The first beatitude is saying if we are to walk with God we have to walk in humility. St. Thomas Aquinas said there is no virtue without humility; because pride is the root of all sin, and the opposite of pride is humility. This is the beginning of holiness, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives us the new law. Humility is recognizing that on my own I cannot attain what I am created for, union with God. Humility is where we empty ourselves to make room for the life of Christ.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
It is those who are humble who understand their brokenness, that they mourn. Once a person walks in humility and mourns their own brokenness, they are comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Those who are meek are actually strong. It means you have your strength controlled. A meek person can be taught. They have a good assessment of where they are. Meekness is when God makes us strong, and we submit our strength to him. God entrusts his kingdom to the meek.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”
Those who are meek can be trusted with much and they have a hunger and thirst for more. God is the one who has created this hunger in our souls, and he will satisfy us. St. Augustine said, “God thirsts that you might thirst for him.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
The response of those who have been satisfied with the righteousness of God is to become merciful. This is one truth building upon another. Unmerciful people do not normally walk in the previous Beatitudes, but merciful people are eager to forgive because they know they have been shown mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”
In the process our hearts are purified. This is our destiny, the beatific vision. Purity of heart is the capacity for truth. Pure in heart refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness in charity, chastity, love of truth and orthodoxy of truth (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2518). Notice that this is getting deeper and deeper.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
When we become perfect instruments of God we are sons and daughters of God, his peace is extended through us.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
In the Old Testament there was reward for obedience. God gave us what we wanted: worldly goods. But now Jesus is inviting us to something much greater. What he really wanted is for us to trust him. Now, in the New Testament, he wants us to have complete union with him. He wants us to want the giver rather than the gift. He wants us to participate in his suffering, so we can say with St. Paul “I rejoice in my suffering for your sake” because the reward for suffering with and for Christ is God himself.
It was the last day of the great Feast of Tabernacles. For seven days they celebrated, camping out in lean-tos made of branches and leaves. The make-shift shelters were to commemorate and thank God for his provision when their ancestors wandered the wilderness living in tents centuries ago (Lev 23:33-43).
Four enormous menorahs, gigantic replicas of the tabernacle lamp stand with their golden almond branches and little oil pots at the tips (Ex 25:31-40), were lit in the Temple. The annual Illumination was meant to remind the people of the spectacular pillar of fire that guided Israel for the forty long years of their wilderness journey (Ex 40:34-38).
All night long the menorahs would have been glowing from the Temple with extraordinary brilliance over the entire city as praises echoed: “In you is the fountain of life, and in your light shall we see light (Ps 36:10).”
On this eighth day of the feast, Peter, James, and John pick their way through the shale behind Jesus up the twisty switchback path to the top of Mt. Tabor. Did they know the mountain’s name means bed of light? Could they have imagined the thrilled fear that Light would inspire?
The Gospel Accounts
The details related for us of this astounding event are contained in the Gospels of the three evangelists who weren’t actually present, while two of the three privileged witnesses, Peter and John, simply allude to it (2 Pet 1:16-19; John 1:14), perhaps because it was too sublime for words.
The effect of the Transfiguration of Christ was a complete spiritual shift for the three disciples who witnessed it. We know because Jesus’ whole tone with them changed.
Luke says Jesus, Moses and Elijah discussed Jesus’ “departure,” a word translated from “exodus” that marks Jesus as the new and greater Moses, as the Scriptures repeatedly designate him. But unlike Moses whose face shone so brightly from Mt. Sinai it had to be veiled (Ex 34), Jesus’ whole “figure” was “changed” into blinding light.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the Transfiguration between Peter’s profession of faith and one of Jesus’ predictions of his death, almost as though after Peter professes his belief in Jesus’ Identity, Jesus can finally reveal some of what it means for him to be “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
What Does the Transfiguration Mean?
We tend to look at the Transfiguration from the disciples’ perspective because it is they who tell the story, but it seems important that Jesus experienced some of what will take place at his death and resurrection, too. He has a sort of “out of body” experience in which a bright light leads to a meeting with two of those who preceded him in death.
After Jesus’ Transfiguration, he is more communicative, plainspoken, and firm with the disciples about his mission to draw all men to the Father and the suffering it will entail, for him and them.
Perhaps after the experience Jesus, also, is even more dedicated to his Father’s will, realizing both by foreknowledge and now by experience that his suffering and death will give way to a glorious new life and light.
Isn’t the Transfiguration, then, a type of resurrection? Isn’t it a Trinitarian foretaste of heaven and a reminder that having persevered by grace in my own striving to fulfill my purpose and vocation, I will share in the glory of Jesus’ Transfiguration, with all its light, reunion, praise, holiness and love in him? Isn’t my own prayer on the mountain and labor at the foot of it meant to bring it about? Could this be why he left us the account?
Surely, now, we can understand with the disciples the profundity of all Jesus meant when he stood the very next day and stated for you, for me, for all to hear, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
Institution of the Eucharist
Taken, blessed, broken, and shared. It was a formula the disciples had seen before, when Jesus fed the multitudes. It was the formula again during the Passover meal that Thursday night, but its effects would prove eternal.
As the sun set that fateful night, the Sanhedrin no doubt thought they had hatched the perfect plan. Securing Jesus’ arrest through the paid betrayal of one of the Lord’s closest followers, the Jewish leaders must have thought they’d be rid of this trouble-making Rabbi once and for all. Little did they know that while they plotted Jesus’ demise that just hundreds of yards away in an upper room, God was hatching his own plan to ensure Christ’s presence among us eternally.
This was no ordinary Passover meal. The ritual may have looked similar but Christ’s words would breathe new meaning and usher in the New Covenant. As Christ washed the feet of the Apostle we were given a new vision of what servant leadership necessitates. As the Lord instituted the Eucharist we were given an invitation to intimacy the likes of which the world had never known and could never top. In that eucharistic institution, too, we were given a new sacramental priesthood through which God’s children could regularly receive his divine mercy and taste salvation.
The elements are the same. The actions and words are the same. Not just in the Gospel episodes, but also in every single Mass—every liturgy from then until now, and from now until the end of time. They signify more than we comprehend, because it’s not only the bread and wine upon the altar that are being taken and blessed, broken and shared, but we ourselves, the mystical body of Christ, that are being changed, as well.
Simple elements: bread and wine—completely humble in form. Wheat ground down into flour. Crushed grapes left to sit in a barrel until they change their composition. It’s these humble things that the God of the universe uses to speak the language of his covenant, to bring his presence in a uniquely profound way into the world. It’s in this action of God’s Spirit, active in the priesthood, that we as Catholics are given our greatest gift—the gift of Holy Eucharist. It takes the Pascal Mystery of Jesus’ Passion, death and resurrection, and makes it continually present to us.