The Rosary & Mary’s Jewish Prayer Life

When I ponder what it means for Mary to be the mother of God incarnate, one of the most astounding aspects is the role she played in shaping Jesus’s human prayer. Yes, in the heights of His soul Jesus beheld the Father as clearly as the angels in heaven; but as a child, “He learns the formulas of prayer from his mother. . .He learns to pray in the words and rhythms of the prayer of his people” (CCC 2599).  When Jesus entrusted the Church to Mary at the Cross (Jn. 19:26-27; Rev. 12:17), He extended her motherhood to His entire Mystical Body. She became, in an utterly unique way (next to her Son, of course), the Church’s great instructor in prayer. I think we see this most especially in the Rosary, and the way it mirrors the prayer times Mary and Jesus shared as devout Jews.

As faithful Jews, Jesus and Mary stopped three times each day to pray together.  They recited Israel’s creed, the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. . . .” (Deut. 6:4–9, 11:13–21; Num. 15:37–41). They also prayed the Eighteen Benedictions, a beautiful, comprehensive tapestry of praise and petition. And between those times of prayer, as Mary went about the business of the day, she pondered the words of the Torah and the Prophets that she had heard in the synagogue and discussed with Jesus and Joseph. Through her meditation the Holy Spirit planted the words of Scripture so deeply in Mary’s heart that they naturally permeated her spontaneous prayer (see 1 Sam. 2:1-8 and Lk. 1:46-55) Most importantly, Mary’s heart was fixed upon her Son’s every word and action, contemplating the divine condescension to which she was exposed on a daily basis and how the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David were all reaching their fulfillment in Jesus. Mary’s prayer, so intimately united to the prayer of her Son, is the most beautiful imaginable – and that is what the Holy Spirit wants to give you and me in the Rosary!

You see, in the New Covenant, the magnificent prayer of God’s people has been brought to new heights. Jesus commanded His disciples to pray the Our Father. Its seven petitions encapsulate all others – the Eighteen Benedictions included (CCC 2767). And when it is prayed slowly, with the proper awe and love expressed in the words, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” it can encapsulate all blessing and thanksgiving as well. Further, the revelation of God’s oneness constantly confessed by the Jewish people in the Shema, has been completed by Jesus’ revelation of the Trinity and our confession of it in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and our making the Sign of the Cross (the Creed in miniature) each time we prayer. All of this, and more, is present when we pray the Rosary.

We also join Mary’s contemplation of her Son – contemplating Him in the light of Scripture. We invoke her intercession, softly praying the words of Scripture (the Hail MaryLk. 1:28, 42-43), as we mediate upon the mysteries of her and Jesus’ lives, narrated in the gospels. As we think and rethink the evangelists’ inspired words, the Holy Spirit blesses us with deeper understanding of their significance and calls us, as He did Mary, to ever more profound discipleship. We complete our meditation on each mystery with the Glory Be – even more Scripture (Lk. 2:14; Matt. 28:19; Rev. 1:8). It’s such an amazing reflection of our Lady’s prayer life!

Pope St. John Paul II called Mary’s meditation, “the ‘rosary’ which she recited uninterruptedly throughout her earthly life;” and he invited us to join her: “With the Rosary, the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 11; 1). Is it any wonder that when our Blessed Mother has been sent to earth – as at Lourdes and Fatima – she beseeches us to pray the Rosary? It is one of the most important ways she nourishes and instructs the children entrusted to her by Jesus, at the Cross. It is one of the main ways she cooperates with the Holy Spirit to mother the Body as she did our Head!

This article was adapted from Shane Kapler’s book, Through, With, and In Him: The Prayer Life of Jesus and How to Make It Our Own (Angelico Press, 2014).

image: Jurand / Shutterstock.com

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  • BillinJax

    Does anyone doubt Mary’s complete understanding of Jesus and his mission?
    She knew what the Spirit had asked her to do and she accepted because it was
    her desire to do the Will of God at all times. Those 30 years spent in a divine
    love arrangement with Jesus at her side had to be the ultimate bonding
    experience. Their lives and thoughts became one in union with the Father which
    is evidenced in their interactions recorded in the gospels.
    “Mother, (not to worry) did you not know that I must be about my Fathers
    business”? “Son, they have no wine!” “What would YOU have me do?” “Do whatever
    HE tells you!” “Woman, behold your son; John, behold your mother”. Though
    little of their discourse is recorded in scripture there is no doubt they
    shared an infinite consciousness of their divine and eternal union and the
    Father’s plan for them throughout eternity.

    Awareness, knowledge, and trust were so evident in Mary’s conversations
    with our Lord. She knew who he was and why he had come. It would be totally
    unreasonable to imagine that Mary and Jesus spent all those years together
    without discourse regarding his being, his mission, and his destiny. She was
    the active and ordained “co-participant” in all of it like any mother only more
    so because of it’s divine origin and purpose as foretold by the annunciation
    angel.

  • Shane Kapler

    BillinJax,

    I am deeply touched by your exhuberent love for our Blessed Mother. In answer to the question you began your comment with – I do believe there are a number of orthodox Catholic saints (such as Pope St. John Paul II) and theologians (such as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus) who would describe Mary as being on a pilgrimage of faith throughout her life. Neither they nor I read Luke’s account of the Finding in the Temple in quite the way you described above (“Mother, [not to worry] …).

    If we look at the scene again, I don’t think it perfectly coalesces with your proposition that “they shared an infinite consciousness of their divine and eternal union and the Father’s plan for them throughout eternity.” Luke wrote, “his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.’ And he said to them, ‘How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:48-51, RSV-CE).

    Chapter 3 of “Mary: The Church at the Source,” is Cardinal Ratzinger’s (then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) commentary on John Paul II’s encyclical, “Redemptoris Mater”. Ratzinger wrote, “The Pope vigorously underlines the Evangelist’s affirmation that ‘they did not understand’ what he meant (Lk 2:48-50; RM, no 17). Even in the midst of the closest intimacy the mystery remains a mystery, and even Mary touches it only in faith. But precisely thus she remains truly in contact with this new self-revelation of God, that is, with the Incarnation” (p.50).

    In the next paragraph Cardinal Ratzinger continued, “The Pope’s meditation on Mary’s faith reaches its apex and its summation in his interpretation of Mary’s standing under the Cross … [U]nder the Cross, the word of promise that has been given to her … seems to be definitively proved wrong. Faith enters into its utmost kenosis. It is in total darkness. But precisely in this way faith is perfect participation in Jesus’ expropriation (Phil 2:5-8)” (p.50-51).

    Now, yes – I completely agree that Jesus and Mary did discuss spiritual matters, as I said in the above article. But I also think that Jesus left certain matters to Mary’s contemplation and for the Spirit to unfold to her, making her the model of contemplation for Church. Saints and holy theologians seem comfortable with such a view, so while it may not be the understanding you have arrived at, I trust you can see where this other formulation is equally orthodox.

  • BillinJax

    Shane,

    Thanks for the kind words and your quotes from Scripture and
    the Popes.
    You have the right to be satisfied with Luke’s account and your
    understanding from that view if you wish just as millions of other “Christians” to this day also believe, according to Luke, that Jesus had “brothers” who were obviously Mary’s children.
    I’m no theologian, mystic, or even a really good Catholic;
    just a convert who found his home in the Church over 60 years ago as a young man of twenty looking for truth and trying to understand his purpose in life.But I have paid attention over the years to all the numerous sermons, lectures, retreats, missions, and discussions in bible study classes which grace has provided for me and it has allowed me to realize you can find quite a spectrum of equally authentic, shall we say, visions of Biblical events.
    I have encountered Luke 2:48 before at COL with much the same view as you have tried to share with me. So I will humbly give you my view as I offered to their readers.
    A slightly different concept:
    (Here is a portion of a priests article in COL regarding finding Jesus in the Temple)
    “Did she understand everything that was happening? The answer is a clear and emphatic no. In the Gospel for Mass on Sunday’s Feast of
    the Holy Family, when Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple after three days of a frantic search and Jesus said, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house,” St. Luke tells us very clearly that Mary “did not understand Jesus’ words. Even though she didn’t foresee these events or even understand them when they occurred, however, she responded to them with faith.”
    (My response)
    May I offer a slightly different concept on this for our readers?

    It is surprising to me that Luke would write that Mary did not understand the word of God coming forth from the mouth of Christ, her only son for the previous twelve years. Something we must understand is that biblical text has been translated from several languages over the years and also that the meaning of the words were often difficult to match existing words in newly updated translations. For instance, we know Jesus had no little brothers yet we clearly see and read the lines (in Luke’s gospel mind you)
    referring to his brothers being in the crowd with him.
    It is not inconceivable that from all we are taught and was revealed to us from Mary’s Immaculate Conception to the recorded events of the
    angelic Annunciation and the Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary and Joseph and through the Visitation with Elizabeth acknowledging Mary as the mother of our Lord on to the miraculous virgin birth of Christ revealed before and in the presence of a host of angels, shepherds,
    and the three kings followed by the angelic messenger’s required flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to save the child from Herod’s slaughter of the innocence, the significance of Mary’s pregnancy and the arrival of Jesus had surely created in the mind and heart of Mary and Joseph that they and their divine child were far more than a normal Jewish family and he needed to be cherished and protected like no other in history. They were obviously quite aware of their family uniqueness and understood they had to remain unnoticed
    yet normal until their unique and gifted son was in a position to be able to fulfill his promised kingship and salvation as foretold in the very beginning by the Annunciation Angel.
    Yes, as stated, Mary responded with great faith alright and
    quite possibly as the mother chosen by God to raise and protect him throughout his childhood and beyond never ever considered Jesus to be an ordinary child or that she was never to converse with him regarding their uniqueness or his mission and how and why he came to be. Denying this could only lead one to deny the whole concept of the purpose and meaning of all the above including the Immaculate Conception. I would submit that no one, no one spent more time
    living, loving and communicating with our Lord on earth than his blessed mother.
    Mary may have been in disbelief that her child had taken it upon himself to begin his ministry as designed by his Father at such an early age. Could it not be that what Mary did not “understand” was why her beloved son had taken it upon himself to depart from them unannounced and begin his mission before manhood? That explains his words to her, “Mother, didn’t you (already) know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And after found and confronted by his grieving and frightened mother did Jesus not immediately “obey” and return home with her? His mother may simply have reasoned with her child to wait until he could stand man to man with the men of the temple and that they would be more apt to listen with proper respect to an
    adult Jew with such great knowledge and wisdom. Mary, Queen of Heaven, as God intended, however was part an parcel of all that
    Jesus was and came to be yet amazed and surprised as any mortal may be at the power of God in the presence of her family, but not without knowledge and understand of his destiny from the very beginning which scripture states she dutifully “kept in her Immaculate heart”. Mary has been proven to have many “secrets” in her heart which are hers to reveal to us at the discretion of her spouse, the Holy Spirit. I will put my “faith and trust” in them and thank any Pope or theologian to speak as the Spirit moves them..

    Peace and Blessing to you.

  • noelfitz

    Like many article here in CE this is excellent, but challenging. Many points are raised that could be discussed in greater detail.

    The resemblances between the prayer of Hannah and the Magnificat are significant in their own right.

    Did Mary say prayers which differ from current Jewish prayers? Do we know in detail what Jewish prayers were like prior to 70 AD?

    The rosary only began over 1000 years from the time of Christ. Did Christians prior to this have different insights from present-day Catholics?.

    The Jewish prayers referenced in this article refer to the exodus very much, is this significant?

    Finally it is of interest to consider the Didache, the earliest non-canonical Christian writing, where one reads:

    (4:2) Nor should you pray like the hypocrites (= Jews). Instead, “pray like this,” just as the Lord commanded in his Gospel:

    Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done
    on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt, as we also forgive our debtors; and do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one; for your is the power and the glory forever.

    (4:3) Pray like this three times a day.

  • Linda

    The 18 Benedictions are post-Temple (though some of the wording might be taken from the Tanach) and include a curse against the “Nazarim” — the followers of Jesus — asking that they “instantly perish” and be “blotted from the book of the living”. I don’t think Our Lord and Lady prayed that.

  • Shane Kapler

    Linda, you are bringing up things that I deal with in detail in “Through, With, and In Him”. Here’s a short response though:

    The Jewish practice of praying three times a day dates to at least two centuries before the birth of Christ. The Eighteen Benedictions took on their final, fixed form after the destruction of the Temple – as did the Jewish canon of Scripture. The consensus, however, is that Eighteen Benedictions pre-date the destruction of the Temple. The curse against Christians only came after that time, a modification of the already-existing benediction asking the LORD to deal with heretics.

    As I noted in the article above, the Catechism (2767) references the early Christian practice (recorded in the Didache – written at the end of the first century) of praying the Our Father three times a day “in place of the ‘Eighteen Benedictions’ customary in Jewish piety.” The Catechism is reflecting the accepted scholarly belief that the Eighteen Benedictions were well-established in Jewish piety prior to the fall of the Temple.

  • Shane Kapler

    Noel,

    It’s wonderful that you bring up the Didache, because this quote is something I loved discussing in the book. The Our Father – the perfect prayer, prayed three times a day – was the fulfillment of the Eighteen Benedictions. That’s exactly what the Catechism of the Catholic Church claims (you can follow the link in the article above to paragraph 2767).

    Were Mary’s prayers different from the Jewish prayers said today? Yes and no. The Eighteen Benedictions for instance, didn’t take on the fixed wording they have today until after the fall of the Temple and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism. (The same can be said of the Jewish canon of Scripture.) Prior to their wording becoming fixed, the theme of each benediction was set, but the wording was left to the one praying. A rough analogy from today might be the praying of the 20 mysteries of the Rosary – the identity of each Mystery is set, but the details that are meditated upon by an individual are left entirely to his or her discretion.

    So far as the significance of the Scriptural verses that make up the Shema stemming from the time of the Exodus … the only point I have taken from that is the antiquity of the Shema. Did you have an idea percolating?

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