Sorrowful Mysteries and the Joy of the Lord.


by Sr Ann Swailes o.p.

Rosary Plaque from the cloisters at St Dominic's Stone
One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear,
and forthwith came there out blood and water.

The liturgical calendar can be confusing for children. Friends who have always been Catholic have told me of their puzzlement when, just a couple of months after Christmas, Lent rolled round, and they were encouraged by parents or catechists to give up sweets or try harder to say their prayers in some kind of solidarity with Jesus in his temptations. Baffling indeed: he’d only been born a few weeks ago; how could a baby do battle with Satan in the wilderness?

In my own case, coming from a culturally Christian but non-churchgoing family, I had a different problem.  I remember feeling deep bewilderment aged seven or so when given chocolate Easter eggs and other goodies which were clearly designed to be celebratory of something; I knew, because I’d been told at my excellent Anglican primary school, that poor Jesus had been cruelly put to death around this time of year, but I couldn’t see much to celebrate in that. My mother explained – with some embarrassment, as I recall – that I must have been daydreaming when the teacher had told us what happened next, that Good Friday was not the end of the story. I was delighted to hear that Jesus rose from the dead, and proceeded to consume my body weight in confectionary with a good conscience, free from any sense of cognitive dissonance.

But perhaps it is not only children for whom this season of the Church’s year is perplexing. There are a range of ways in which Holy Week can make us lose our bearings and play havoc with our thinking and our emotions, whatever our age. For instance, if we are honest, maybe some of us tonight find ourselves experiencing something of more or less the mirror-image of that childhood dilemma of mine. We, after all, do know the end of the story: is there not something slightly out of keeping, something a bit artificial, even something a little morbid, about squandering the sunshine of a lovely spring afternoon and evening commemorating the dimming of a light that we know will shine out again undyingly in just two days’ time?  But, more seriously, some of us may feel a profounder dislocation between where we are in our lives and where it seems the liturgy would have us be in these days, as we accompany the Lord on his journey to, and through death.   What if, right now, there is nothing deathly in our lives, if all is going well for us, if we are serenely, or indeed rumbustiously, happy in our work, our studies, our friendships? Are we somehow being disloyal, insensitive to the Lord’s sufferings and ungrateful for his sacrifice, if the springtime joy and gladness of all this insists on breaking in on our pious reflections today, distracting us from our mournful duty to stand beside the Cross? For that matter, what if all is not going so well for us at the moment; if we are all too aware that April is the cruellest month, burdened by depression or grief or guilt; broken by relationships in ruin, wretchedly nervous about our future or the futures of those we love, the future of a country and a world we love? Will we be being disloyal, will we be bad Catholics, if, come Sunday, despite our best endeavours, we cannot feel the warmth of resurrection sunshine, if our voices crack when we try to sing a song of triumph?

I think one beginning of an answer to all this may lie in the ancient way of prayer which inspires our reflections this evening. The Rosary has sometimes been called Our Lady’s Psalter, and, like the psalms themselves, the mysteries of the Rosary contain every conceivable kind of emotion: the hushed wonder of Mary’s encounter with the archangel of the Annunciation, the exuberance of Easter and Pentecost, and yes between those episodes, the anguish of the Way of the Cross. But, more than this, many of the events on which we are invited to reflect in the rosary are an inextricable mix of emotion, joy and sorrow intimately intertwined. It must have been wonderful to be at the wedding at Cana, on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus. But then come all those confusing, foreboding words: words about an hour that is coming, a departure in Jerusalem, words that point forward to the Passion and death we are commemorating tonight.  And that is surely true to our own experience also. There are times when we laugh so hard that we cry, and times when we force ourselves to laugh in order not to cry, but there are also times when weeping and laughter are simultaneous and inseparable. We are at a family celebration perhaps, and we remember our loved ones gone before us who are not there to share in our celebrations and the tears come. We are supporting - or being supported by -  a dear friend in a time of crisis, and the sense of companionship makes us rejoice, deeply rejoice, sometimes, even in the midst of our shared pain, and at the eye of the storm we find we are at peace. The joyful mysteries of our own lives are sometimes sorrowful too; the deepest sadness can sometimes enclose the most profound consolation.  This evening, as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus from Gethsemane to the Cross, let us listen out for those echoes of joy in the sorrowful mysteries of this last great week of our Lord’s life, and expect to find there balm for our own affliction, gladness for our grief. 

The First Mystery: The Agony in the Garden

Throughout Lent, those of us who say the Divine Office regularly have been reminded at Morning Prayer every Sunday that, in the words of the prophet Nehemiah, “the joy of the Lord is our strength”.  And now, tonight, as we stand before the mysteries our Lenten prayer and discipline have been preparing us to meet, we are confronted by the image of that Lord whose joy is our strength, and it turns out to be the image of a lonely, frightened man, betrayed by those closest to him, on the eve of a violent and unjust death, begging to be spared what lies ahead of him.  Not much by way of strength in evidence here then, it seems, and, at first sight, not much of joy either.

But for those with ears to hear, there is cause for rejoicing even here, even in this terrible, incomprehensible episode. The sight of God incarnate shivering in the night garden, begging for the human companionship his friends cannot give him, will, if we let it, shatter an idol that has a peculiarly powerful, and peculiarly damaging hold over many of us, and this should make us glad indeed.

The joy of the Lord is our strength: not, notice, the strength of the Lord is our joy. There is nothing in any of the events we are commemorating this week to give comfort to those who hold that might is inevitably right, that strength is intrinsically worthy of celebration. Nor does the story of the first Holy Week lend much weight to the idea that keeping calm and carrying on is a Christian virtue, that the proper response to suffering is stoical indifference, that we are somehow letting the side down if we are weak, and if we cry out in our weakness. We believe that the man kneeling and crying out in lonely prayer in the Garden is God, the God in whose image we are made, so let us look at what kind of God this is. Our God is, of course, almighty, and nowhere is this more evident than in the saving works we celebrate this week, when evil and suffering, death itself will lie dead and defeated at his feet; but here, at the very wellspring of our Easter faith, as he embarks on his Passover from death to life, God, our omnipotent God, reveals his power made perfect in weakness. Jesus kneels among the olive trees of Gethsemane, and prays to his Father to be spared the humiliation of utter powerlessness that will be his in the morning: if it is possible, let this cup of suffering pass me by.

The greatest theological minds in the history of the Church have struggled to say something about this mystery that is not sheerly nonsensical. It is a mystery, and it is no abdication of intellectual responsibility to admit that we cannot understand it. But this much, at least, we can understand. The almighty power of God is not compromised, not tainted, by its being identified with human weakness, even at its most extreme; and there can be no sin in making our own the words of the sinless Word of God when we are overwhelmed with fear, when we lie awake at night dreading what the morning may bring, when we can no longer bear our anguish alone and call on our friends to help us. If, after all, as we believe, Jesus is the perfect image of his heavenly Father, he is so at every moment of his life, and supremely shows himself so in all that he does and suffers in this great week of his Passover. Suffering is no cause for shame, then, and nor is the fear of suffering. It is the idol that we make out of strength and power that tells us to be ashamed of our weakness, not the true God who is love Almighty. We are never more truly in the image of this God than when we cry out with Jesus that the cup might pass us by. Almighty God does not want or expect us to be stronger than he is in his powerlessness. And in the liberation this realisation brings, there is certainly reason to rejoice, tonight and always.


The Second Mystery: Jesus is scourged at the pillar

The gospel account is brief and sparse, its horror lying precisely in the apparently routine quality of what is described, as pain and humiliation is inflicted on yet another Passover trouble-maker, all in a dehumanising day’s work for the human machinery of the occupying powers that be in Jerusalem: “then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged” says St John; “after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” says St Matthew.  Throughout the centuries Christians have reflected on these disturbingly matter of fact fragments of text, and wrestled meanings out of them that have sometimes been shocking, and not always in a good way. It is good, of course, not comfortable but profoundly salutary, to remember that human sin, in which we are all complicit, has brought Jesus to his Passion, natural to want to make amends to him.   But this impulse has sometimes led the followers of Jesus to open doors into some very dark places in the human soul, inflicting pain on themselves, for instance, or encouraging others to do so in the name of piety. Our contemporaries have much to say about the unhealthiness of the Christian attitude to suffering, and their critique is not easily dismissed.  Are we not moralistic killjoys at best, masochists (or worse) at worst? And by placing the Cross at the centre of our religion, still more, perhaps by dwelling not merely on the staggering fact of the death of God but all the lesser evils he endured on his way to Golgotha, does not the Church merit such accusations, glamorising pain in a way that anyone who is even slightly psychologically literate must find very disturbing indeed? There can be, doubtless, a dangerous delight in all of this, but taking pleasure in pain is not the kind of joy that lies at the heart of the sorrowful mysteries. And this is a sorrowful mystery, and we are pledged tonight to find in each of the sorrowful mysteries something over which we can rejoice. What might it be here?

At first sight, this seems an impossible question. Perhaps of all the sorrowful mysteries this one is the most resistant to our quest for joy. We might, after all, begin to understand why Jesus had to go to Calvary and die for us, and be thankful that he did, but why must he go there this way, with all the humiliating preliminaries of stripping, and flogging, and mockery the gospel records? 

When asked whether it was necessary that Jesus die for us at all, in fact, some of the great Medieval theologians have a rather surprising answer. It all depends, they would say, on what you mean by necessary. Certainly, God could have rescued us from sin and suffering in many other ways than by coming down into the darkness and pain of the world: he is almighty, after all, and this is part of what being omnipotent means.  Moreover, God having come into our world, a single drop of his blood, a single breath, even, would have been enough to save us: Jesus, God incarnate, did not have to die to set us free.  But, in another sense, it was necessary, it did have be this way, the way of the Cross, which leads from the garden of treachery via the pillar of scourging and on to the place of the skull, because this was the best way, and only the best is good enough for God. Why was it the best way? Simply because it was the way of love. When one is in love, it is natural to want to spend time in the beloved’s company, to be where the beloved is. And the garden of betrayal, the pillar where the dark instincts of cruelty are indulged, the road to Calvary itself, are precisely where God’s beloved are to be found, in every time and place. The chronically sick and their loved ones who carry with them the cross of pain and watchfulness; those whose bodies are objectified and violated in distant warzone or in all the places shamefully so much nearer to hand where the vulnerable are made into playthings and then thrown away; all those whose innocence is betrayed and abused by those in whom they put their trust; all these are Christ’s beloved and he wants to be with them where they are.  And so he must be made mock of, he must be spit upon, stripped and scourged because this is what happens to his friends and loved ones.

Jesus did not find pleasure in pain. He hated it, and prayed to be spared it, as we must hate it and pray to be spared it; he healed the sick and bound up the broken-hearted, as we must work to alleviate the suffering of our brothers and sisters.  But he did find joy in being with those beloved of him, infusing his all-powerful compassion into their pain. And he wants to do the same for us.  That is the way of lovers; to want to be nowhere but where the beloved is to be found, however much suffering it brings. As Julian of Norwich hears the Lord say, in a vision she tells us quite explicitly is not for herself alone but for all of us who will accept it:  “it is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that I suffered my passion for you, and if I might suffer more I would suffer more”.  And, in his joy, and in the knowledge of being loved like this, our own hearts too may come to rejoice.

The Third Mystery: Jesus is crowned with thorns.

In her autobiography, the remarkable 20th century English Catholic laywoman, Caryll Houselander tells of a deeply mysterious, and also mysteriously joyful childhood experience, an experience that she tells us lasted for little more than a minute, evades full description and easy explanation, but set the course for the rest of her life as sculptress, artist, poet, mystic, and therapist and spiritual director to those bruised and scarred by their own crucifying experiences of suffering.

The episode took place when Houselander was around ten years old, at the height of the First World War. Most of the sisters at her convent school in Birmingham were either French or Belgian; one, just one, was German. Ostracized by the other sisters on account of her nationality, deprived of news from home, this woman, already pushed to the margins of her community by language difficulties and what Houselander quite frankly describes as her lack of “charm”, descends into an apparently Godforsaken loneliness. One day, Houselander runs across her cleaning the other sisters’ shoes in the scullery, and, as the sister works, believing herself to be alone, the tears stream down her face. Houselander, embarrased as children are by adult weeping, initially looks away horrified. What happens next is best described in her own words:

“At last, with an effort I raised my head, and then I saw the nun was crowned with the crown of thorns.

I shall not attempt to explain this. I am simply telling the thing as I saw it. That bowed head was weighed under the crown of thorns.

I stood for, I suppose, a few seconds, dumbfounded, and then, finding my tongue, I said to her, “I would not cry if I was wearing the crown of thorns like you are.”

She looked at me as if she were startled, and asked, “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know”, I said, and at the time I did not.

What does it mean? Perhaps simply that when, at our baptism, we are anointed with oil, the gesture of the priest means what it says. What Caryll Houselander was privileged to see for a moment in that convent scullery is true, invisibly, of all of us at all times. At our baptism, we are anointed with oil as Kings are anointed, because, in our baptism we are made members of the body of Christ the King. But, of course, as Jesus himself will tell Pilate:  his Kingship is not as the world gives, not as the world imagines. This is the King whose throne is the cross and whose crown, worn for love of us, is woven of thorns. And he invites us – all of us, not just the strong, or the beautiful or the successful, not just those who in the eyes of the world are possessed of regal dignity, but all of us, without exception, to that Kingship with him. All of us, but perhaps especially those who, in their suffering are most obviously, in the lovely words of Dominican preacher Bede Jarrett,  wearing the livery of Christ, wearing, if you will, Christ’s uniform, with the crown of thorns as its heraldic badge. Those who do not seem to belong; the ones who have not quite mastered the language the rest of us take for granted, the fish out of water, those who are different, those who are, or who fear that they are, an embarrassment to those whose company they crave, those, who, like the poor Bavarian nun polishing her shoes have, or fear that they have, no charm. Jesus, thorn-crowned on the Cross, had no comeliness or beauty that we should desire him; he was so disfigured that he scarcely looked human. And yet, as the old hymn tells us, he was the Lord of life, earth, sky and sea, King of love on Calvary. And we, all of us, whatever our scars of body, heart or mind, are one with him. In that, there is endless cause for rejoicing.

 The Fourth Mystery: The Way of the Cross

Among all the figures encountered by the Lord on his way to Calvary, there is perhaps one in whom joy flashes out particularly brightly; the woman who, according to tradition, offered Jesus respite from his suffering by a simple act of motherly tenderness in wiping his sweating and blood-stained face. It seems that we do not know who this woman is. The gospels are silent about her, and we know next to nothing about her from any source, but pious convention calls her Veronica, her very name bespeaking hope and promise; Veronica, the one who bears the true likeness, the vero icon. And, after all, the restoration of this true likeness, the likeness of the true God in all of us is the very reason why Christ came among us, the very reason he undertakes his way of the Cross and his exodus through death, the reason, then that we are here tonight.

In the ancient church, Veronica was identified with another woman who pushed her way towards Jesus through the crowds, in the springtime of his ministry. It was held that Veronica was the woman healed by Jesus as he was on his way to raise the young daughter of Jairus from death, the woman whom pain and weariness and social isolation had driven to penury as she spent all she had on useless attempts to stem the seemingly everlasting bleeding that dominated and constricted her life.

There is a breathtakingly lovely parallelism in the two incidents, and, if the woman healed of the issue of blood really did become Veronica, she surely could not have been unaware of the symmetry. Then, on that day when the violence of her need drove her to it, she grasped at the fabric Jesus wore; now, on the first Good Friday, she offers him, with shattering gentleness, a cloth with which to comfort him in his distress. He had dried up the blood which drained from her, exhausting her and bringing her shame; she wipes the blood from his face, moved by compassion, surely, for his degradation as much as for his physical suffering.

That Veronica may have been one whom Jesus had touched in this way suggests beautifully the connection between compassion and gratitude; not that there is some dutiful calculation to be made between God’s gifts to us and the price we put on them, as though we owe just this much service to our fellow men and women in return for what God has done for us, and no more.  But in the scene of Veronica shoving her way through to the front of the crowd surrounding Jesus en route to his execution, we see compassion energised by gratitude. We see her doing this thing because she can’t not do it, can’t not be for Jesus what he has been for her, standing beside him in his need as he came to be with her, savingly, in hers. And the sign of her salvation is that she can do this, that she can minister God’s compassion to God himself and thereby become most truly and clearly his image.

There are many Veronicas in our world today, many ways of being Veronica, and you don’t have to go far to find them, but then, nor do you have to go far to find Jesus walking his way of the cross in the sufferings of all the members of his body the Church. I think of the members of our SVP conference who go by night into the streets of Cambridge, giving soup and sandwiches to the homeless, but also offering them the tender and sometimes costly touch of companionship. I think of an elderly man refusing to allow his own fear and grief to prevent him from ministering consolation to his wife of decades as she confronts the passion of dementia. Those experiences of  confession in which pronouncing the word of absolution is akin to wiping the face of one labouring under the cross; experiences which I strongly suspect are occasions of gratitude as much for priest as for penitent.

So, who is Veronica? It seems, after all, that it is not strictly accurate, not strictly the whole story, to say that we do not know. We certainly cannot be under any illusion that she is merely a figment of the pious imagination.  We all know Veronica. We are all called to be Veronica. And in that, too, there is joy as well as suffering, joy inextricably entwined with suffering, because there, too, there is love.

The Fifth Mystery: The Crucifixion

At the beginning of this evening we sang “When I survey the wondrous Cross”, perhaps the best known and best loved, of all English Passiontide hymns.  It is so familiar indeed, that perhaps we rarely stop to consider the oddity of that first line, but it is odd, to say the least.   Of course, the one who hung on the Cross is wondrous, with a wonder beyond human words, the fairest of the children of men and the image of the invisible God. But the Cross itself? How can anyone talk of a barbaric means of execution as “wondrous”? And yet, what the author of our hymn glances at in passing 18th century respectability is spelled out much more insistently, much more wildly,  elsewhere in the long tradition of literary reflection on the Passion, in, for instance the great and enigmatic Anglo-Saxon poem, the Dream of the Rood. There, the poet invites us to gaze with him at a shimmering midnight vision of a bejewelled tree, covered with gold, wound round with light and surrounded by prostrate angels, a tree streaming with blood which, miraculously endowed with speech, proclaims itself to be the Cross of Christ. It is spelled out too in innumerable paintings, sculptures and musical evocations of the crucifixion. The chorales of the St Matthew Passion, the Crucifix normally visible above our altar are surely wondrous, beautiful things. But how can this be? How can we portray the Cross as wondrous, as beautiful? Julian of Norwich calls the cross hideous and dreadful, and we can surely agree with her about that. But she also says that it is lovely and sweet. How is that anything other than perverse? On the other hand, are we really prepared to say that all the artists of the Passion throughout the history of the Church are purveyors of lies?

Bafflement with the notion of the wondrous cross springs perhaps at least in part from an inability to believe that suffering can co-exist with human dignity. In itself, that is a generous instinct, paying a kind of backhanded compliment to the Christian teaching that we are made in the divine image and likeness: after all, how can it be right that a godlike creature should be reduced to inarticulate animal whimpering or groaning? But such a stance can tip all too easily over into a desire to tidy away all human vulnerability, to sanitize all those moments, like the moment of birth and the moment of death, when we cannot deceive ourselves into thinking that we are in control, leading, ultimately, to a kind of cult of the perfect and the powerful.  Paradoxically, it can seem to tell those who suffer that their pain and powerlessness dehumanises them: surely, it must be in the strongest, the cleverest, the most beautiful that we see the image of the all-powerful, all-knowing and all lovely God most fully displayed, and the further one is from that image, the further from being fully human. Thus an additional burden is laid upon those who are already perhaps immobilised by their pain as their life is evacuated, apparently, of meaning and purpose.

Yet the gospel says something different. It tells us, uncompromisingly, that we see the perfect image of God in a man transfixed in agony on a cross, where, the theologians of old loved to tell us, Jesus gives birth to the Church.  The pains of crucifixion, then, are the birth pangs of the body of Christ into which we are baptized, so that henceforth, his sufferings are our sufferings, but also, extraordinarily, ours are his: part of the suffering that redeemed the world.

And this is doubly consoling.  If our own pain is taken up into the pain of Jesus, even when it seems to humiliate and defeat us, we can still be assured that we have the dignity of sons and daughters of God, cooperating with Jesus for the salvation of the world he loves.  And in comforting others in their distress, we are actually walking with Jesus himself on his way to Golgotha.

But there’s another kind of mistake we Christians can make about suffering, surely much rarer, thank God, than some of our contemporaries suspect, but perhaps more damaging than they could know. Precisely because the suffering Christian is endowed with such immense dignity by the cross of Christ, some have indeed thought that Christians should seek suffering for its own sake, that suffering should be embraced rather than shunned, that the more we suffer, the better Christians we shall be, because the more closely we shall resemble Jesus in his Passion.   If ever we are tempted to this – and it is a dark and a terrible temptation – we need to identify the source of light with which the Cross shines, the source of its beauty. And that is nothing other than the radiance of Easter morning, when we shall come to share the joy for the sake of which Jesus endured his Cross.


If the story of Jesus had ended on Good Friday, as I feared in my childhood anxiety about the impropriety of Easter Eggs, it would be odd to the point of perversity to claim that there was anything wondrous about the Cross; any joy to be found in these sorrowful mysteries.   Yet another brutal judicial murder, one more mangled body thrown away as collateral damage in a murky political power struggle, is not beautiful, not wondrous, not joyful: simply obscenely routine. But we know there is more to be said than this, because we know who this is who hangs between two thieves. We know that it is God himself who hangs there, who has stepped down into our world with all its sorrows, not in order to glorify our affliction, but in order to lift us with him into the bliss of heaven.  And once we allow that truth to penetrate us, our hearts will be full of a joy, and a beauty that no one can take from us, because it will be the eternal beauty and the timeless joy of Christ himself.

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