By Gary Jansen
On a cold Christmas Eve, a 16-year-old girl with silky blond hair and pale blue eyes gave birth to a baby boy. It had been an unexpected pregnancy that culminated in a difficult delivery, but as the new mother cradled her newborn, she realized that her life had changed forever. She was young in years, but as she gazed down at her baby, she felt a great swelling of protectiveness and responsibility toward her son. Women dressed in white attended to the new mother and her newborn until all their immediate needs had been met, after which the child was whisked away so that the mother could rest. Exhausted and feeling equally empty and filled in a way she couldn’t yet quite describe, the young woman looked out the window from her bed. No snow, she thought. No white Christmas. She drifted off to sleep.
She awoke later that night, in the predawn hours of Christmas Day, realized the baby wasn’t near, and got out of bed. She walked down the hall, the hospital quiet, the fluorescent light blinding. Somehow, by instinct, she knew where to go, even though she’d never before been in a place like this.
She stopped at the viewing window. Her eyes searched the rows of glass cribs, each one containing a child swaddled in a receiving blanket, their names written in ink on pink and blue index cards attached to the bassinets. She found her son, felt something leap inside her, and watched him sleep beneath the warm stars of electric light. She touched the window that separated her from her child and swore to protect her boy, to raise him right, to honor God, to do whatever she needed to do to make sure that he was safe. She whispered, “I will always love you,” and as if the boy heard, he stirred for a moment and then became still.
I don’t remember my mom saying those words to me, but I do remember how through the best of times and the worst of times she was unfailingly there to guide and protect me. To make sure that I did my homework and got to school on time. To make certain that I was respectful to God and others. My mother was a deeply religious woman who worked as a housekeeper during the day and at night partnered with my father in doing his upholstering work. I look back now and realize that, especially as our family grew (she gave birth to four daughters, my sisters), she must have been perpetually sleep deprived and stressed. But none of that got through to me then. Through exhaustion and endless hardships, she kept her vow to protect, guide and support her children. Throughout everything, my mother kept a sincere devotion to Jesus, praying to him every night. She also cultivated a deep prayer relationship with the Blessed Mother, whom she relied upon for guidance during dark nights and challenging days.
My mom isn’t much different from billions of other mothers who have fed and cleaned, sacrificed and instructed their own children throughout life. And she’s not much different from Jesus’s mother, except that the Blessed Virgin Mary was born without sin, gave birth to God and is the queen of heaven. Okay, those are big differences, but the similarities are strong, and the importance of motherhood is sacred. This is why devotions to the Virgin Mary are so popular. She’s a mother — a very special mother — but she’s also a human being who suffered the pains of childbirth, protected her child from harm when he was a boy and young man, and had to suffer as a witness to her son’s brutal execution. She was always with him during the big moments of his life, good and bad.
Love for another is always a mystery, existing in unknown places in our hearts. It is this mysterious love that lies at the heart of one of the most popular devotions in Catholicism, the Rosary.
The Rosary is a collection of prayers involving a string of beads that are used to keep track of the numerous Our Fathers and Hail Marys we recite while meditating on certain mysteries of Jesus’ and Mary’s lives. Each set of prayers is called a decade; we pray five decades to complete a full cycle of the devotion.
Now, mysteries engage our senses and our intellect. They challenge us to solve puzzles, to look, listen, and pay attention to people, places, and situations we may normally overlook. Consider the beloved fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. The keen-eyed sleuth’s methodology involved scrutinizing every detail when something had gone afoot. He observed, analyzed, drew connections, used his shrewd acumen and tapped into his intuition to solve one conundrum after another.
Similarly, we are called to be spiritual detectives when we pray the Rosary. This is a devotion that requires observing and interviewing: talking to bystanders and asking participants to tell us what they know about what happened. The difference between Sherlock’s task and ours is that we are not looking for a smoking gun as much as we are asking the primary witness, the Virgin Mary, to reveal to us the secrets of love and mercy that lie behind the life of her son, Jesus.
The Rosary, a contemplative devotion, is a collection of 20 different events in Jesus’s life told to us through his mother, Mary. When we talk about point of view in movies and books, we are essentially talking about who is telling the story; while the Rosary has often, mistakenly, been seen as a prayer cycle to the Blessed Mother, it is actually about sitting in Mary’s presence and having her relate the stories of the most joyful, sorrowful, luminous and glorious moments in her son’s life from her unique point of view as a mom.
I like to think of the Rosary as a scrapbook of an extraordinary life, one that I can look at while sitting side by side with someone who can tell me all about these moments in Jesus’ life. As we explore the mysteries of the Rosary, we are exploring the pages of a scrapbook where we are shown spectacular and meaningful scenes that are very important to Mary. These are her son’s big moments. She lingers over these pages, commemorating these moments with pride, pain and motherly love. If we are to connect heart-to-heart with the Blessed Mother as she sits with us and remembers, we need to know what it is she is sharing with us — namely her love for her son who was born into this world on a cold and holy night.
Gary Jansen is the executive editor of Loyola Press and former executive editor at Penguin Random House, where he edited and published books by New York Times bestselling authors such as Deepak Chopra, Kimberly Snyder, Michael Singer, Greg Kincaid and Pope Benedict XVI. An author of many books, his most recent, a children’s book, “Remember Us with Smiles,” which he co-wrote with his wife Grace, won the 2023 Christopher Award in the Books for Young People category. His next book, “Meditations at Midnight,” is due out in March.