The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden
The first sorrowful mystery is the one in which Jesus most clearly manifests his humanity. He know what's coming, and he's just plain scared. There are plenty of times in the Gospels when Jesus prays, but he's always been confident before. This time he does what we do -- he begs God to take this horrible choice away from him. This is waiting, yes, but not passive, dull waiting. He's waiting to be confronted with a moral choice, one in which the right answer is clear. The cup is not just the Passion as we usually think of it -- the grotesque physical suffering, the loneliness of desertion, the mockery and humiliation. The cup is also making the choice that will set the entire Passion in motion, the choice to "allow it for now" (Matt. 3:15).
But Jesus isn't just thinking of himself. The cup is also Judas's betrayal, and Jesus begs the Father to spare him that -- not because of the consequences, but because of the pain of seeing a friend betray him, and because of the effect it will have on Judas himself. Jesus has accepted the necessity of the Passion, but he pleads that it might come about some other way than having one of his trusted friends hand him over. The false kiss stings more than the whips.
Jesus, in the garden, is just like us. He is scared like us. His heart breaks over betrayal and lost friendships, just like ours do. He became like us in all things but sin, and that means being scared to death and sick with grief like us. Jesus isn't remote from our sufferings. He knows. And that makes him the perfect model of fortitude, of strength in weakness. "Power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). That isn't just comforting drivel for us failures. That's Jesus, in the garden, sweating blood from sheer terror, and choosing the cup anyway.
The Second Sorrowful Mystery: The Scourging at the Pillar
The Scourging at the Pillar is the hardest of all the mysteries to contemplate directly because it's so viscerally brutal. The sheer cruel bloodiness of it, the immensity of suffering, is almost incomprehensible. I find that I can best meditate on it in its Marian aspect -- standing outside the praetorium with Mary, hearing the sounds of the flogging, unable to do anything but suffer with her as she suffers with Jesus. Everyone has experienced the helplessness of watching a loved one suffer without being able to alleviate any of the pain. The feeling of impotence, of being entirely other and unable to take away or at least share some of the pain, can be almost worse than the original suffering.
Bl. Elisabeth Leseur speaks of the value, and the usefulness of suffering, either physical or spiritual, directly or on account of others:
The stoics used to say, 'Suffering is nothing,' and they were not telling the truth. But, more enlightened, we Christians say, 'Suffering is everything.' Suffering asks for and gets everything; because of suffering God consents to accomplishing all things; suffering helps the gentle Jesus to save the world. At times, when I feel overwhelmed by the immensity of my desires for those I love, by the importance of what I want to obtain for them, I turn toward suffering. I ask suffering to serve as the intermediary between God and them. Suffering is the complete form of prayer, the only infallible form of action.The pain we feel on contemplating the Scourging is our offering of love to Christ, our way of participating in this mystery with Mary.
The Third Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning With Thorns
A number of years ago, I said something to someone. I thought I was telling a few home truths, drawing on my great wisdom to set someone straight (thus proving that a little education can be a dangerous thing). Not long ago, this memory bobbed to the surface, and sharp slivers of shame and remorse bit at me. How could I have behaved so cruelly? How could I have been so wantonly unkind? I was so disgusted with myself that I had to confess this ancient sin, but the recollection still pricks.
Jesus never sinned, so he never felt the shame of remembered sin, the bitter bite of stale vice. But with the crown of thorns, he takes on the stabbing pain of our guilt. He knows, physically, the way sin gets into our minds and wounds us even long after the fact. He buries our worst memories in his own head. The soldiers wove his crown of thorns; we weave our own. But Jesus gladly removes our piercing crowns and wears them for our sake.
The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery: Jesus Carries His Cross
Not only was Jesus forced to carry his own cross, but he had no choice about where to carry it. Every step of his way was determined by guards prodding him and the crowd bounding him. He had no chance to make a break for it. The only place he could go with the cross was Calvary.
Sometimes our path in life has been determined for us, whether through our own choices or the choices of others. Sometimes earlier sins set us on a course from which we can't deviate later, even long after the sin has been repented. Sometimes the sins of other people force our lives into a different mold than we would have chosen. When we bear our heavy cross down a road not of our choosing, Jesus is with us every step of the way, carrying our burden and his own to the inevitable ending of the Crucifixion -- and the Resurrection.
The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery: Jesus Dies on the Cross
Bl. Teresa of Calcutta was called a fraud and hypocrite by some because instead of using donations to establish big hospitals or fund general health care, she clung to her mission to care for the dying, to bring health to souls, not bodies. She understood the crucial importance of the decisive moments at the end of life, that the transition from life to death is the pivotal point of our existence.
The last mystery of the rosary skips past the nails and the words and gets right to the heart of Christ's life on earth: his death. Unlike us, he chose the precise moment of his death. "No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again" (John 10:18). First he said, "It is finished," and then, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." He could commend his spirit to the Father in utter confidence because he had so perfectly understood and lived the will of the Father that he could allow himself to die as soon as he had finished completing it.
For the rest of us, the Father's will for our death is a mystery sometimes unfathomable in its delay or its swiftness, which is why we strive to care for our souls, and, like Bl. Teresa, the souls of others, so that at the moment of death, each person can say with Jesus, "It is finished."