Mother of God

Hail Mary Image

Part 10 in our series on the “Hail Mary.”

This week we consider the second name the Church uses to summarize the Biblical teaching on Mary: Mother of God.

Notice that the first name, Holy Mary, describes her in herself (Mary is holy), while the second names her function in relation to Jesus (Mother of God). This continues the pattern from the Scriptural part of the prayer: she is full of grace (in herself) and the Lord is with her (in relation); she is blessed among women (in herself) and the fruit of her womb is blessed (she is in relation).

It is important to appreciate that Mary’s holiness is based on her relationship with Jesus, her function. On the one hand, the God of the Bible equips people for their tasks. If Jesus was going to be “obedient” to someone (as Luke 2:51 says he was obedient to her and Joseph), then it ought to be someone holy. We could call that the “functional,” part of Mary’s job. On the other hand, holiness flows from closeness to Jesus: she is holy because she is the one closest to him.

But we should realize, too, that the Church claims no necessary link. It is not that Jesus would be impossible without a holy mother; in fact, Jesus did not need a mother at all. But we believe he chose to have a mother, and he chose to make her holy. It makes sense; it is beautiful; but good Catholic theology does not impose necessity on God: he didn’t have to do it. Holy Mary and Mother of God assert two choices we believe God made: related, but not necessary.


The title Mother of God comes from the very earliest prayers of the Church. Sub tuum praesidium, “We fly to thy patronage,” is a hymn from around the year 250, written in Egyptian and quickly spread to the Greek and Roman worlds. It reflects the piety of the early Church, and it calls Mary Mother of God, Theotokos in Greek, Dei genetrix in Latin.

The title became more important at the Council of Ephesus, the third great Council of the Church, in 431. In short, the bishop Nestorius had a hard time handling the various doctrines about Jesus. On the one hand, he is truly man. On the other, he is truly God. Some heresies try to diminish one or the other. Nestorius tried to work it out by sort of separating the two. Among other things, he said we should stop calling Mary “Mother of God.” We can call her “mother of Jesus” and “mother of the humanity” . . . but mother of God? What could that mean?

The bishops at the Council of Ephesus responded that, though it is hard to fathom what Mother of God could possibly mean, you cannot deny that it is true. To deny that Mary is Mother of God is to slip in one way or another. Either you say that Jesus her Son isn’t really God; or you say that he isn’t truly human, not truly her son – or, like Nestorius, you say that there’s kind of two Jesus’s, a God Jesus and a man Jesus, that aren’t the same guy.

“Mother of God” is a title that says more about Jesus than about Mary. No, we cannot imagine what it means. But more deeply what it points to is that we can’t really imagine what the Incarnation means. The Church has, especially since 431, asked us to bang our heads against this phrase precisely so that we can appreciate just what a radical claim Christianity makes about Jesus. He is so God-and-man-in-one that, despite our best common sense, we are compelled to call Mary “Mother of God.” Think about that! Now that is God-with-us!


On the other hand, Mother of God is also a fabulous introduction to “pray for us sinners.” In a way, the absurdity of the title also points out the absurdity – but truth – of intercessory prayer. We can ask God for things! That really doesn’t make sense. But he has put himself in our hands. Not, of course, in the sense that we can ask him for what is wrong. Always it is “thy wil be done” – or, in Mary’s words at the Annunciation, “be it done to me according to thy word,” or at the wedding feast at Cana, just telling him what we need, and saying “do whatever he tells you.” Mary models humility.

But she also models the power of real prayer, and the heart of intercessory prayer, which is in closeness to Jesus, and in the condescension of Jesus in making himself subject to us.


How do you experience the reality of God’s presence to us in Jesus? Do you believe he hears our prayers?


Click here for the entire series on the “Hail Mary.”

What to Call It: The Spiritual Life


Today we continue our considerations of what it is this web site is about. Two weeks ago we talked about sanctity. Last week we called it “the interior life.” This week we will call it “the spiritual life.”

In one sense, of course, “the spiritual life” says the same as “the interior life.” We are talking, not about our outside, not just what we do with our bodies, but our inside, our spirit.

But for the Christian, “the spiritual life” is a more powerful term, because we believe that God has a Spirit, the Holy Spirit. In this sense, “the spiritual life” can also be called “life in the Spirit.” This is important. Our “interior” may be where the spiritual life takes place – but it is more important to talk about what happens there, what goes on. Our interior life does not just involve our interior. It involves God’s Spirit, moving in us. It is not too much to say this is Christianity: to believe that God’s Spirit does something for us, that our “interior” is not left on its own.


What is the Holy Spirit? Obviously that’s a big question, but we can say a couple things in brief.

First, the Holy Spirit is God. Really God. God works in us. The Holy Spirit is another way of God-with-us – like Jesus.

Second, the Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son. He is the “third person of the Trinity.” But in a good theology of the Trinity, the three are not just Thing One (or God One), Thing Two, and Thing Three, they are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we understand these three by understanding what their names mean.

Father-Son is a relationship. That, really, is the heart of the Trinity. The Son is God like the Father, except that the Father is Father and the Son is Son: the Son receives everything from the Father. Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is a generic name: God is holy, God is a spirit. Holy Spirit, then, names what Father and Son share. St. Thomas says the Holy Spirit is the “bond” between the two, the gift that they exchange, the love of Father and Son. Not Thing One, Thing Two, and Thing Three, but Father, Son, and the bond between them.


In Scripture, St. Paul says it is the Spirit by which we cry out Abba, Father. To have the Spirit is to have the relationship between the Father and the Son. If the Holy Spirit is their relationship, then to have the Holy Spirit is, in some sense, to enter into the relationship: to be a son as the Son is. The Holy Spirit is not an alternate route, not another God, in case you aren’t into the Father and the Son. He is the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit of Sonship.

The Spirit is love. Most basically, what the Spirit does is to fill us with the love of God. It is a love that moves upward, so that we are as in love with the Father, as infinitely grateful to the Father, as is the Son himself, a love that carries us to the heavens. And it is a love that moves outward, so that we driven forward by that love, even to the streets of Calcutta.

The Spirit, says the tradition, is charity. (In Catholic theology, charity, agape in Greek, is divine love, the love of Christ, the love of Father and Son.) To have the Spirit is to have that love. Very simple.


But the Tradition meditates on how that love transforms us. It is not a love that touches one part of us and leaves everything else in place. It is a love that lifts up and transforms every angle of us. Thus, though the Spirit is one, and simple, his work in us is manifold, and complex, as we are complex.

A classic traditional hymn says he is “sevenfold” in his grace. In one sense, seven is just the Scriptural word for “abundant.” The love of God poured into our hearts does . . . lots of things!

But the tradition also meditates on the spirit that Isaiah 11 says rests on the Messiah, the Spirit of Christ: “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and fortitude, a spirit of knowledge and piety and fear of the Lord.”

Perhaps after Christmas we will consider all these aspects of the Spirit of Christ. For now, suffice to say that the Spirit, the transforming love of God, penetrates into every nook and cranny of our being: our thoughts and our affections, positive and negative, practical and contemplative.

That is what a Catholic means by “the spiritual life.”


How do you experience the Holy Spirit in your life?

Pope Francis on Gossip

Pope Francis preaches against gossip a lot. This is a nice example of how, as in yesterday’s meditation on the Sunday readings, we can prepare for Christ’s coming. Below a summary of one such homily, from Vatican Radio.


“There is no such thing as innocent gossip,” Pope Francis tells us in his homily at today’s morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta, according to Vatican Radio.

Francis is reflecting on today’s Gospel (Luke 6:39-42), the one in which Jesus uses the analogy of a “splinter in your brother’s eye” to warn his followers against the hypocrisy of judging others without first judging themselves. “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye,” Jesus says.

In his morning homily, Francis admonishes us to avoid gossip, calling it a “criminal” act that is no different than the act of murder that Cain committed against his brother, Abel.

“It’s not me saying this, it’s the Lord,” the pope says. “And there is no place for nuances. If you speak ill of your brother, you kill your brother. And every time we do this, we are imitating that gesture of Cain, the first murderer in history.”

Francis urges us to refrain from gossiping about another person, instead says we should “go and pray for him! Go and do penance for her! And then, if it is necessary, speak to that person who may be able to seek remedy for the problem.”

“We ask for grace so that we and the entire church may convert from the crime of gossip to love, to humility, to meekness, to docility, to the generosity of love towards our neighbor,” he says.

The 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Who Shall Stand When He Appeareth?

St Dominic with Bible

This reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, November 17, 2013.  For last week’s readings, click here.

MAL 3:19-20a; PS 98:5-6, 7-8, 9; 2 THES 3:7-12; LK 21:5-19

Continuing the end-of-year theme we discussed last week, this Sunday’s readings take a scary turn deeper into the dreadful judgment at the end of the world. Their final teaching, however, is that we should approach this reality of the Christian faith not by stockpiling canned food, but by living simple, upright lives.


The first reading, from the Prophet Malachi, is exquisite – though at first glance it just looks terrifying. “The day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble” – that is, highly flammable dried out dead plants – “and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch.” “That day” – the liturgy has fun just calling it “that day” – sounds pretty frightening.

But then Malachi completes the metaphor, and it is deeper than we expect: “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” On first glance, if we do not attend to the metaphor, we just say, “’that day’ will be good for some people, really bad for others.”

But the key words are “the sun of justice.” On the one hand, “the sun.” Is the sun a good thing or a bad thing? Well, over all, it is a good thing. But see, it is the same sun that burns the dry weeds and brings life to all things. In other words, it is not so much that the wicked and the good will be treated differently. Rather, they will be treated the same – the warmth of the sun will shine on them – and they will receive it differently.

Or, as the prophet Zechariah says, “they will look on him whom they have pierced,” and it will mean different things for different people. For those who hate him – and who have hated the poor ones, with whom he has associated himself – his appearing will be agony. For those who love him, joy.

One might almost say that heaven and hell are not so much two different places as two different ways of experiencing the presence of God. For the damned, heaven itself is hell: an eternity of looking on the one they despise.


But how does Malachi describe the sun? “The sun of justice.” The prophets put this in various ways, but this is nice. When God’s justice appears – the God who is just, and treats people right – it will not so much be God who punishes the wicked, as the wicked who hate his justice. For those who spend their lives treating people wrongly, the final justice of ‘that day’ will be horrible. For those who try to treat people right – and who sometimes suffer for it – that justice will be sheer joy.


Our two New Testament readings are both parts of discussions of ‘that day,’ but they both advise us that the way to prepare for it is just to be good. Second Thessalonians contains some of Paul’s wildest, scariest images of the Last Day: “flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But this Sunday’s reading from Second Thessalonians contains the most humdrum advice of the whole Bible: work, earn the bread you eat, and mind your own business: “we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.” The point is, though the Last Day may be exciting, we don’t prepare for it in exciting ways. No guns, no basements full of bottled water. Justice, charity, peace. Because the key point about what’s coming is not the excitement, but the just, charitable, peaceful God who will appear.


Our gospel reading is from the end of Luke. People are talking about wild excitement at the last day. Jesus says, oh, there will be plenty of excitement – though notice he doesn’t say “at the last day.” Just in general: “There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” As indeed there have been, and will be – and yes, maybe it will get more exciting yet.

But is he saying we should watch carefully so we can figure out when ‘that day’ is coming? No.

Even when there are persecutions – which there have been, and will be again – “you are not to prepare your defense beforehand.” Rather “by your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

In other words: put your head down, trust in God, be good: that is the only way to prepare for the last day.


Does the thought of Jesus’s coming add luster to your ordinary life? How?

Pope Francis on the “culture of waste”

“A widespread utilitarian mentality, the “culture of waste”, which now enslaves the hearts and minds of many, has a very high cost: it requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker. Our response to this mentality is a categorical and unhesitant “yes” to life. “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental – the condition of all the others.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, November 18, 1974 , 11) . Things have a price and are sold, but people have a dignity, worth more than things and they don’t have a price. Many times we find ourselves in situations where we see that which costs less is life. Because of this, attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenseless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life’s most defenseless.

“Each one of us is invited to recognize in the fragile human being the face of the Lord, who, in his human flesh, experienced the indifference and loneliness to which we often condemn the poorest, either in the developing nations, or in the developed societies. Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world. And also each old person – I spoke of the child, let us also speak of the elderly, another point! – each old person, even if infirm or at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the “culture of waste” proposes! They cannot be discarded!”

–Pope Francis, Address to the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and Catholic Gynecologists, Sept. 20, 2013

Holy Mary

Hail Mary Image

Part 9 in our series on the “Hail Mary.”

We now begin our reflections on the second half of the Hail Mary, the Church’s response to the Biblical words in the first half. The first thing we say, to sum up our understanding of Mary, is that she is holy, a saint: “Holy Mary.” But this needs some untangling.


People often say it is hard to relate to Mary because she is holy and we are not. A standard joke imagines the Holy Family doing an evening examination of conscience. “What sins did you commit today?” Jesus: “I can’t think of any.” Mary: “yeah, I think I’m good.” And then poor St. Joseph is the only one who did anything wrong – though he too is this dazzlingly innocent guy, pretty much completely unlike us.

It seems like “saint” means “someone I can’t relate to.” And if Mary is Queen of the Saints, holiest of the holy, then she is the ultimate in unrelatable.

The first problem with this view is that it misunderstands how one gets to be a saint. Sometimes people think the Immaculate Conception – the doctrine that Mary was conceived without any stain of original sin – means that she had it easy, and never struggled. We, on the other hand, have to work really hard to be good. To the contrary, the Immaculate Conception means – as we saw in the first half of the Hail Mary – that she is full of grace. The same grace God offers us.

Mary is holy because she always clings to the divine assistance. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception just doubles down on this by pointing out that the first move was God’s: always it is God who makes us holy, and holiness is nothing but holding onto that help.

Pelagianism is the heresy that thinks that, on some level, it all depends on us. It doesn’t. Jesus saves. Jesus saved Mary. (Even before he was born! Just as Jesus saved Abraham centuries before he was born.) Grace saves. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us holy. The reason we point to Mary as the highest of the saints is precisely to make clear that this is always the work of God: always a matter of staying close to Jesus, and always God acting before we do.

How do we relate to Mary? First, by relying on the grace of Jesus Christ.


A second wonderful, relatable thing about Mary’s sanctity: Where does she live it? Mary didn’t do anything even slightly interesting in her life. Well, okay, she was the Mother of Jesus. But her role there is as humdrum as humanly possible: she lived closeness to Jesus by being a wife and mother of an ordinary, working-class family in an extraordinarily uninteresting corner of the Roman Empire.

The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary remind us of this ordinary life. The Luminous Mysteries remind us that Mary listened to Jesus just like we do. The Sorrowful Mysteries show us that Mary suffered, too. Now, one might say it is hard to relate to Mary in that her suffering is so much more profound: none of us will have to go through what she went through. But that only emphasizes: in whatever suffering we face – just like in whatever joy we encounter – we are walking the ordinary path that Mary walked.

Finally, in the Glorious Mysteries, we see that Mary looked beyond the borders of this life, to eternity, and the resurrection. But there, too, Mary’s holiness is ordinary: just like us, the real excitement is something to look forward to beyond this world. Until glory came, she lived in hope – and hope which already possesses is not hope at all.

Mary makes sanctity easier to relate to, because she reminds us that it all comes from Jesus, but that it is lived out in the utterly ordinary circumstances of life in this world.


What then is the holiness we see in Mary?

First, it is love of Jesus – and so the Hail Mary immediately follows “Holy Mary” with “Mother.” Mary is different from us in that she loves him so much more than we do.

Second, it is prayer – for us sinners – which is what we ask of “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” Mary possesses nothing, but she knows how to ask for it from God. That’s another key difference between us and Mary. Finally she prays even for schleps like us: her love of Jesus makes her love all of us. One more key difference between Mary and us.


How do you relate to “Holy Mary”?

Click here for the entire Hail Mary series.

Naming the Spiritual Life: The Interior Life

All-SaintsHaving finished our Friday series on the seven cardinal vices, we will spend the next few Fridays considering different names for the spiritual life. In a sense, this series began last week, with the Feast of All Saints: one name for the spiritual life is sanctity. But in the weeks to come we will consider what we can learn from names such as “the spiritual life,” “life in Christ,” “divine filiation,” “spiritual childhood,” and “living our baptism.” Each of these names describes the same thing, but from different angles. We will better understand each of them, and our own Christian vocation, by considering them one by one.


We begin this week with a title that is in the subtitle of this web page, but might be the most deceptive: “the interior life.” This has somehow become one of the most popular names for the spiritual life among Catholics. In fact, we put it in the title of this web page figuring that, sociologically, people who search for “the interior life” are more interested in theological reflections like these, whereas people who search for “spirituality” tend to prefer things more vague and mushy.

The first thing to realize about this name, in contrast to all the others, is that it is non-relational. “Interior life” says nothing about the Holy Spirit, Jesus, God the Father, the sacraments, or the Church. That is the weakness of this title, and it is considerable.

The strength is that, though it ignores the way these external forces influence us, it points to where they influence us: on the inside. The spiritual life – or, the interior life – is about us, our hearts, who we are.

Maybe part of the reason this title is popular is that it points out that life is not just about the exterior. Personally, the greatest moment in my conversion to Christianity was the night I first read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. I had thought Christianity was principally about following the commandments. What I found in the Sermon on the Mount was a God who cared about my heart. Not just murder, but anger, and hatred. Not just adultery, but lust. Not just charity, but poverty of spirit. The Gospel is, above all, about what goes on in our hearts: our interior life.


Now, one danger is that we can create too much of a separation between the interior and the exterior. Modern philosophy, especially since Kant, drives a huge wedge between “facts” and “values,” between the objective world and the subjective world, between “out there” and “in here.”

There may be nothing more important in philosophy than overcoming this divide. In fact, the human heart is all about “out there.” Our eyes see things, our minds know things – out there. We desire things, and our choices are about doing real things. The most important thing to know about the human heart, the human interior, is that we are profoundly related to the world around us.

Another way this plays out is that sometimes there is a division created between spirituality (the interior life) and morality (the exterior life). But morality matters precisely because it is where spirituality is lived. What does it mean to love unless we act? That is where the Sermon on the Mount comes full circle. Brands of Christianity (mostly Protestant) that say that our actions don’t matter ultimately end up saying our hearts don’t matter. Faith without works is also faith without love. There is no spirituality disconnected from morality.


That said, the name “interior life” points to the immense transcendence of the human person. The eyes see a mountain; the heart sees the beauty of God. As children we were taught to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – but that isn’t true. Words can never hurt my body, but they can hurt my heart. Real suffering is never just physical; what makes suffering profound is the meaning we see in it. Different words applied to the same physical pain mark all the difference between comfort and someone trying to grind us down. Our interior perceives things our exterior never could.

So too in our actions. We mustn’t make too great a separation between our actions and our intentions – intentions are expressed in actions. Nonetheless, the same action can express vastly different intentions. It is in our interior that we decide whether to be silent out of reverence or contempt; to apologize out of conniving or humility; to praise God or to withdraw into ourselves.


What do you discover in your interior?

The 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Life through Death

St Dominic with Bible

This reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, November 10, 2013.  For last week’s reflection, click here.

2 MC 7: 1-2, 9-14; PS 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15; 2 THES 2:16-3:5; LK 20: 27-38

As the world outside grows cold and dark and dies, the Church’s liturgical year comes to a close by calling us to think about the end of this world, and the beginning of the next. The theme of the end of the world marks the end of the liturgical year, two weeks from this Sunday, as well as the end of Jesus’s preaching in the Gospels, and is also one of the themes of the beginning of the new year with Advent. But at the end of Advent, in the bleak midwinter, when half-spent is the night, comes the rebirth of Christmas. So too it is in the passing away of this age that we find the rebirth of the world in love.


This Sunday’s first reading, from Second Maccabees, puts a fine point on it with the theme of martyrdom. The third brother “suffered their cruel sport. He put out his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely held out his hands, as he spoke these noble words: It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again.”

The paradox is beautiful. This is real contempt for the world: a willingness to die, to have his tongue and hands chopped off. But the source of this contempt is in the love of God. God, compared to whom everything else seems like rubbish. But for the Maccabbean brothers, it isn’t rubbish. They are willing to lose their hands precisely because they know they are gifts from God.

With the Creator, all the logic gets turned inside out – because he is the source of every good gift. To lose everything for God is to regain it all again. With God, contempt for the world turns into love for the world.

So too the first brother says, “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” Love of ancestors is a powerful kind of love for this world. A love so great it is worth dying for.


Jesus takes us deeper into both themes in the Gospel. Taking up the theme of love of ancestors, Jesus says that Moses was discovering the God of his ancestors, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses rediscovers his ancestors – rediscovers his own history, his own nationality, his own family – by finding them in the one who transcends history: “for to him all are alive.” We more truly discover this world when we find it in God.

Perhaps this is the way to look at Jesus’s encounter with the Sadducees, in the first part of Sunday’s Gospel. On the one hand, this is just a trick. The Sadducees were trying to show that the very idea of a resurrection is ridiculous. On one level, Jesus is just showing them that they are ridiculous, because they are thinking about heaven in a too materialistic way.


But on another level, Jesus is taking up again the theme of rediscovering earth in heaven. The Sadducees had tried to trick him by talking about marriage: “at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?” Jesus responds that in heaven there is no more marriage – but his answer is profound.

“They can no longer die . . . and they are the children of God.” What is marriage? Among other things, it is the passage from one generation to another: we leave behind our parents, and become parents ourselves. (That’s how the Sadducees talked about it – and it is a beautiful Biblical insight.) But heaven is the place where generations no longer pass by: where we are all the children of God’s one family. The old way of family is lost – because it is discovered more profoundly. The love of this world passes away – only to be found more abundantly.


How do we live this here and now? By relying totally on God, and living totally for God.

The reading from St. Paul reflects a kind of contempt for this world: “that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith.” He asks that God might “guard you from the evil one.” When it comes to this world, Paul is no romantic.

And yet that allows him to give his life for this world: “that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified.” He is not checked out. No, because he believes in God, he can pour out his life for this world.


How do you express contempt for this world? And how does that help you rediscover the goodness of this world?

Gregory of Nazianzen on Jesus as the One Way to God

In a mysterious passage in Exodus 33, God tells Moses than no one can see God directly, but if he will hide in the rocks, God will let him see his back. St. Gregory Nazianzen uses this image to describe how, in all our prayer, we always see God through the humanity of Jesus:

“What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself.

“And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself—to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us.

“And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception.

“In this way then shall you talk about God; even were you a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; even were you caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, and had heard unspeakable words; even were you raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity.

“For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.”

–Gregory of Nazianzen, Theological Oration 2.3

Hail Mary: The Second Part

Hail Mary ImagePart 8 in our weekly series on the “Hail Mary.”

We now turn to the second half of the Hail Mary. Here we take a turn, in a number of ways.

First, it is a turn from the Bible to the Church’s response. The first half of the Hail Mary is the words of the Angel to Mary, and then the words of Elizabeth to Mary. The second half is how we respond to these Scripture verses.

These words were added later, beginning around the year 1500, after the first part of the Hail Mary had been in use for centuries. It is interesting, on the one hand, to imagine devotion to just the first half of the Hail Mary: meditating over and over again on these fine, central words from Scripture: about Jesus (Hail – joy; the Lord is with thee; blessed is Jesus) and about Mary’s relation to Jesus (full of grace; blessed art thou among women; the fruit of thy womb).

It is interesting, too, to think about the Church’s response. First the direct descriptions “Holy Mary” and “Mother of God,” and then the personal request, “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” The Church does respond to Scripture. In some sense, the Church is a response to Scripture: summarizing what it says, and begging for its fruits. We do this privately, in our personal prayers. But we do it too communally: this kind of common response defines our life together as the Church. The Hail Mary is a prayer we all pray together.


Along with the move from Scripture to the Church’s response, there is also a move from Salutation to Petition. The first half doesn’t ask for anything. In fact, the early Protestants complained that the older form of the Hail Mary was no prayer at all. It just quotes two Scriptural addresses to Mary. (I don’t understand why they thought this was a problem.)

But the second half is a request: pray for us.

We will consider that phrase directly in a couple weeks. But first notice how this move works. Our requests are made in the context of doctrine. Many of the Church’s prayers work this way: first we say something about God, then we ask him for something in light of that.

One aspect of this is rooting our requests in personal relationship. A professor friend just told a story: a student walked into her office, and before she even said hello, she demanded, “where’s the stapler?” No personal relationship. But in our relationship with God, the relationship comes first. We contemplate him, and only in that context do we ask for things. We love the giver more than the gift.

Another aspect is rooting our requests in faith. Until we know who God is and what he is about, we don’t know what to ask for. Our petitions look different when we begin by considering the joy of the Gospel, God’s transforming grace, his presence with us, the blessings of his entering into our human life: the themes of the first half of the Hail Mary. Now we have an idea what to pray for.


Of course, at first glance it seems odd to do all this in relationship to Mary. Why not just talk directly to God, directly about God, and then directly ask God for things? Why address Mary, and talk about Mary, and ask Mary to pray for us?

But in light of what we have said, perhaps the answer becomes apparent. Because God is a God of personal relationship, and personal transformation. We don’t know who God is until we see what he does, what grace means, what his blessings are, how close he comes to us.

Mary is not important on her own. She is important precisely because she does not stand on her own. She stands so close to Jesus – and our address to her in the Hail Mary is so completely bound up with Jesus – that she reveals more deeply who this Incarnate God is, and what he has come to do.


Finally, consider two ways we can pray the Hail Mary, depending on which part we give primacy to.

Leaning more on the first part, we can pray it as a doctrinal statement, a statement about God – including the statement that intercessory prayer works. That sounds cold. But try thinking, “this is what I believe in: Hail Mary . . . .” or, “this is my hope: Hail Mary . . .” or “this is what I love: Hail Mary.”

Or, leaning on the second part, we can just think of the whole thing as begging for help. Not a bad thing to do.

What have you learned from the Hail Mary? How do you use it to ask for help?

Click here for the entire series on the “Hail Mary”.