Jesus in the Hail Mary

mary-baby-jesus1We might know Jesus better, and pray the Hail Mary better, if we see how his portrait is painted in that prayer.  There are at least six images of Jesus there.


“Full of grace.”  The first word we hear, before we even hear mention of Jesus himself, is grace.  Grace that fills.  Grace that brings happy greetings, and blessings: Ave!

The Hail Mary – and the Angel Gabriel, who speaks these first words – makes a striking choice, putting Mary before Jesus.  Hail Mary!  Not yet Jesus.  Full of grace!  It is as if to say, the one who is coming is good news.  The one we are about to speak of impacts you, for the better.

Imagine turning it the other way: “The Lord is with you.  Full of grace.”  Lucky you.  Perhaps, maybe, we would say, yes, all that “full of grace” means is that the Lord is with you.  You’re lucky – for something outside of you.  But it has no real impact on your inside.

Instead, the Angel says to Mary, and the Hail Mary says to us, hey look, look at the joy that has burst into her heart.  That joy begins with Jesus – it is grace.  But it is a joy we can see in Mary already, before we even get to Jesus.  He really transforms her!  Fills her with his blessings.


“The Lord is with you.”  Now we get to the real portrait.  LORD, of course, is Biblical language for the God of Israel; it’s the way Jews (and Mary and Gabriel are Old Testament people) avoid saying the unspeakable divine name, YHWH.

Again, there’s rhetorical genius in putting this first.  We’re about to see a baby.  At the very least, we will see something present to human beings.  But the first word is: beware!  This is God!  This is infinitely more than you can imagine!  The one who is with you is . . . the LORD!  And everything else, everything about how grace works, and the Christian life, and Christian spirituality, and what it means to be Mary: it is all about our relation to the great I AM before whom Moses removes his sandals.


“The fruit of your womb.”  But the very next image of Jesus is the opposite: after speaking of his divinity, the Hail Mary speaks of his humanity.  Her womb: what heaven cannot contain, has been contained in a small space – the small space of her belly, and the small space, too, of an infant.

Fruit: as if to emphasize that this is not just something “in” her womb, it’s something that comes from her, something proportionate to her, really her child.  After seeing him as God, we now see that he is profoundly human, as well.  He is the great I AM who has become, truly, a poor woman’s child.


“Jesus.”  “You shall call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).  Jesus means savior.

And it is like a culmination of what has come before: anything less than God, the LORD, could not save us.  But the way he chooses to save us is by becoming one of us.  He blesses us (“blessed art thou among woman,” in your humanity) by himself sharing in our blessedness (“and blessed is the fruit of your womb”).

He shines his grace into us – truly into us, truly permeating our humanity – by radiating that grace from his own humanity.  He makes our hearts love by having himself a human heart that loves.  Fills our suffering with divine love by himself making suffering divine.

That is the salvation he brings – that is “Jesus”: man filled with God, the LORD becoming the fruit of Mary’s womb.


“God.”  Then the second half of the prayer asks Mary to pray to God for us.  From this image of Jesus we look heavenward, and ask the Divine to bless, transform, divinize our sinful humanity.

“God” is the only part of this prayer common to all religions.  We all look heavenward and ask for blessings.  But we who know Jesus – the Jesus of the first part of the Hail Mary – look to that God in a new way, beseech his blessings in a new way, beg, indeed, for new blessings, the blessings of Jesus, of God entering into the very heart of man.


“Mother of God.”  The final image of Jesus in the Hail Mary is relational.  Mother of God is a statement first of all about Jesus, not Mary.  It says, not that she is raised above God, but that he has subjected himself to his people.  She cannot make herself mother – only God can make her to be mother.

And yet he has.  “Mother of God” stands for all the fantastic-ness of God daring to put himself in our hands, to come that close to us, to make it so that we can beg to him not just as the divine, but as the one who has become ours.  As an old Marian hymn says, qui pro nobis natus, tulit esse tuus: who, born for us, suffered himself to be (truly) yours.

Let us pray!

Now and at the Hour of Our Death

Hail Mary ImageThe twelfth and final post in our series on the “Hail Mary.”

The Hail Mary ends by juxtaposing our present with our end, our “now” with “the hour of our death.” It is helpful to begin our meditation on these words by thinking of the old ladies who are such famous devotees of the rosary – and thinking, particularly, of their annoying habit of whispering their prayers, as if they are actually saying the words of the rosary. Perhaps – is it possible? – those old ladies are wiser than we. Perhaps they have learned to pray the Hail Mary. And perhaps, for them, “the hour of our death” is not such an abstraction as it sometimes is for us who are younger.

At some point in life, the hour of our death becomes an approaching reality, something we can no longer ignore. Today, younger people are often embarrassed by the Tradition’s insistence on thinking about this. Old prayer books, and old religious art, are full of reminders that we will die, prayers for a happy death, meditations on what it means to be truly prepared for our end.

Nowadays we think that is morbid. But it is a real strength of Catholicism that our faith does not abandon us at the hour of our death. We even have a sacrament for it. (Although Vatican II reminded us that you can receive the Anointing of the Sick before you are actually at your dying breath, it remains a sacrament specifically focused on facing death.) And our most cherished prayer reminds us, dozens of times a day, that death is around the corner.

But then, death is part of life. We all face the death of our grandparents, parents, and spouses, and all too many of us – including three of my closest friends, for example – even experience the death of our small children. It is no mercy, no embrace of life, to ignore the hour of our death.


Now, death is not right. We rebel against it because we know we are made for eternity. That instinct is right.

But the Bible tells us death is a punishment, a consequence of sin. Sin, separation from God, is the real tragedy. But punishment is never ultimate; punishment, by definition, is meant to correct us. It is a gift to get us on the right track.

How does death get us on the right track? By reminding us that we are finite. Our projects will end. Our strength will end. Our influence will end. We are not the ultimate!

That is part of the beauty of including the hour of our death in the Hail Mary. The Hail Mary is all about grace, about the work God does for us. We are blessed because He is with us. On the one hand, yes, truly blessed. On the other hand, blessed by him, only by him. We are in need.

So we ask for prayers. We recognize that we are sinners: “pray for us sinners.” And we recognize that in the end, we face an ultimate that we really cannot surmount. We can play make believe with Pelagianism; we can pretend that life comes down to our own moral heroism. But when it comes to death, there is no way around. We must acknowledge that we need a higher power!

This is the gift of death (as it is also the gift of our need for sleep, and the command to keep the Sabbath). Like any punishment, it won’t necessarily work; we can ignore this corrective, and still go wrong. But to ponder death is to learn that we need a strength we do not have.


More than that, though, the Catholic lives life in light of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption and Coronation of Mary. Death is not the last word. Glory is the last word. God affirms life beyond our wildest dreams. Tomorrow we die, but after that, we will eat, drink, and be merry – in some sense – far beyond our wildest hopes. Even these mortal bodies will be filled with the light of the presence of God.

To see heaven, though, we have to see that earth is not the end. To see the glory of God, we have to see that human strength is not the way.

This is as true spiritually as it is bodily. Spiritually, too – indeed, even more than bodily – we need resurrection, we need the power of God beyond death. To ask for help at the hour of our death is to profess that God’s goodness will be there, far surpassing our weakness.


What have you learned from facing death? How do you experience hope in the resurrection and in heaven?

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

Pray for Us Sinners

Hail Mary Image

Part 11 in our series on the “Hail Mary.”

We now reach, in a sense, the punchline of the Hail Mary. What do we ask of Mary? Pray for us! In fact, the veneration of the saints always includes two elements: we look to their example, and we ask them to pray for us. The first, earlier, Biblical half of the Hail Mary looks to her example. But the second half, and the entire prayer, as it now stands, concludes by asking for her prayers.

It is nice that the Hail Mary does not specify what she should pray for: just “pray for us.” On the one hand, there is the opening for us to add our particular desires. For faith, for hope, for love; for this particular need; this particular person. On the other hand, there is the opening for us not to add our particular desires. You know our needs better than we do: pray for us.


Intercession emphasizes the power of God. To ask God for something is to recognize that he can do what I cannot.

But this is even further emphasized by asking someone else to pray for us. The deepest temptation of the spiritual life is Pelagianism – the Pride that thinks everything begins with me, not with God. The danger is, we can think this even with our prayers. “Lord, please help me to be strong in this situation” so easily slides into “Me! I can do it!” We so easily turn our gaze from him to ourselves, and can even turn our prayer into self-affirmation.

To ask someone else to pray for us, to add a further intermediary between ourselves and God, is to realize that it is not all about me. There really is a God, there really is a spiritual world beyond myself. I realize that my prayers are not the beginning of all spiritual strength, that I draw strength from outside of myself. That my prayers, in fact, are pretty weak – but he is strong.

To ask Mary to pray for us is simply to realize that we need help. We need help, above all, from God. But we need help in even asking for help, because we are so tempted to rely on ourselves.


But in addition to being a recognition of God’s power, intercession is also a recognition of communion.

Communion, first, with God. We realize that all strength comes from our closeness to God. Even to ask God for things ourselves is to acknowledge that strength comes through friendship with God.

But then to ask others to pray for us is, again, to intensify the point. You don’t ask people to pray for you if they don’t pray. You ask people who do pray, people who know God. And so you realize that it is all founded in that relationship.

All the more so when we ask Mary to pray for us. Such a juxtaposition: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. No, I am not close to God. I am only close enough to know that I am far off, close enough to know I am a sinner, and to ask someone holier to pray for me. The primary one I ask to pray for me is the one who is most holy, full of grace, but also just plain closest to Jesus: Mother of God. Mary is a good intercessor, because she is the one closest to the mystery of God-with-us, the one who knows him most personally.

There is a real doctrinal point here. Strength through relationship – but relationship through the Incarnation, through Jesus. Not some vague God in the sky, but the God who lived in a house in Nazareth. Of course the person we ask to pray or us is Mary! (St. Joseph, too.)


Finally, intercession also emphasizes communion among people. We can only ask someone to pray for us if we know them, and we can only hope they will pray for us if they know us. God wants us to have this closeness with one another. “Where two or three are gathered.” “Lay down your life for your friend.” “Love your neighbor.” “Behold, your mother!” Closeness with one another is essential to our closeness with God.

Mary loves us: loves us because Jesus loves us, loves us because she lives in the mystery of his love. And we too should love Mary, for the same reasons. Friendship with God and friendship with one another are inseparable.

What a beautiful way to express that friendship: to ask for prayers, and to trust that she will pray for us!


What does the intercession of the saints mean to you? How do you experience Mary as your mother?

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

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.”

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.

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”.

“The Fruit of Thy Womb”

Hail Mary Image

Part 7 in our weekly series on the “Hail Mary.”

Last week we considered Elizabeth’s words to Mary: “blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” but we only considered the blessing part: we bless Jesus.

This week let us consider the remarkable way she describes Jesus: the fruit of Mary’s womb.


We can be a bit flippant about these expressions. “Oh, that’s just how they talked.” A parallel example is the line in Genesis, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore” (Genesis 4:1). Most of the time we just shrug our shoulders and say, “oh, that’s just their quaint way of saying, ‘had sex’.” But in John Paul’s biblical meditations on “the theology of the body,” he stops to consider why they talk that way. Why call it “knowing”? Language carries insights – especially biblical language. We should think about the words that Scripture uses to describe things. Adam did not just have sex with his wife. He “knew” her more deeply. (John Paul emphasizes that he knew her as one capable of conceiving: a new element of who she is. Most sex does not include this kind of knowing.)

Similarly, rather than dismiss “fruit of thy womb” as just a quaint way of saying “baby,” we should consider why St. Elizabeth, in the prophetic state of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41), used this expression. The Hail Mary, in fact, is an encouragement to meditate on these words: not to skip over them, but to ponder them, over and over, day after day. “Fruit of her womb”?


St. Thomas has an almost quaint meditation on the word “fruit.” The fruit of a plant is two things. First, it is the culmination, the perfection. An apple tree grows and matures – until it can bear fruit. That’s the whole purpose of its existence. The word “flourishing” is similarly beautiful: something is literally flourishing when it is in flower. That is the sign of a healthy, adult plant.

So too Jesus is the flourishing of Mary, her perfection, her culmination. This is what she was made for. This is the flourishing of humanity: to bring Jesus into the world. Mary has born fruit!

But second – and even more quaint, almost – St. Thomas points out that fruit is sweet. The same can be said of flowers. Modern science can sometimes get us into an over functional account of these things: The fruit is sweet so that birds will eat it, and poop out the seeds. But let us not miss the gratuitousness of a plum, or a rose: just plain wonderful, sweet.

So too the fruit of Mary’s womb. Not just a product, a fruit. Jesus is sweet!

In fact, one of the tradition’s favorite hymns, maybe written by St. Bernard, is Jesu Dulcis Memoria: “Jesus, sweet to the memory | giving true joy to hearts | but even sweeter your presence | beyond honey and all else.” We should think of Jesus this way: sweeter than honey, the perfect fruit.


That is the deepest theology of Jesus: he is the one we enjoy. But there is another theological angle on “fruit of thy womb.” It is a statement about Christology.

In a couple weeks we will discuss the most proper theological statement of the truth. “Mother of God” is the perfect culmination of the Christological debates: Jesus is truly God, he is truly man (and thus son of Mary), and there is but one Jesus, not one “part” who is son of Mary, and another who is son of God.

But even finer are the biblical anticipations of this title in Elizabeth’s prophetic words to Mary: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). Anyone familiar with the Old Testament – and Elizabeth is the wife of a priest – knows that “Lord,” Adonai, is the word devout Jews used in place of the unspeakable name YHWH. “The Mother of my Lord” means “the Mother of YHWH.” This says even more than the later theological title, “Mother of God.” Luke 1 uses “Lord” to mean YHWH no fewer than fifteen times.

But in “fruit of thy womb,” Elizabeth encourages us to go deeper. To contemplate the depth of the connection between YHWH and Mary. As in all Marian spirituality, the point is not to exalt Mary. The point is to meditate on how close God has come to us. YHWH himself has not only lain in Mary’s womb, but become the fruit of that womb. Sweeter than honey.


How do you appreciate the closeness of God in Jesus? How do you savor his sweetness?

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

And Blessed is . . . Jesus

Hail Mary Image

Part 6 in our series on the “Hail Mary”.

I am late on this week’s post because we had a baby Saturday morning. Welcome, Catherine Rose!


“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Elizabeth’s words make a parallel between the way Mary – and we – are blessed and the way Jesus is blessed. He shares his blessings with us. Our blessing is no less nor more than his. It flows from his blessings, and then returns back to him.


This too can be called the very heart of the Hail Mary, and the heart of the Gospel: to say, “Blessed is Jesus.” We pray this through all the mysteries of the Rosary: Blessed is Jesus, announced to Mary, and incarnate in her womb; visiting through Mary the visitor; born in poverty; presented by Joseph and Mary; found in the temple. Blessed is Jesus in agony, scourged, crowned with thorns, carrying the cross, crucified and dead and buried. Blessed is Jesus sending the Holy Spirit, carrying his mother to heaven, crowning Mary. Blessed is Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom, transfigured, giving us the Eucharist.

This is, in fact, one of the traditional methods that St. Louis de Montfort recommends to make our rosaries bear real spiritual fruit: to add after the name of Jesus a very brief description of the mystery we are praying, “Jesus, baptized in the Jordan.” If we do nothing else in the rosary but bless Jesus in each of the mysteries, we will have drunk deeply.

And of course we can add other words. Blessed be Jesus my faith, my hope, my love. Blessed be Jesus in this trial, in this small victory, on this happy day, as I begin my work. Or just blessed be Jesus, whenever we can pray.

This is the heart of the Hail Mary. And, conversely, to surround this blessing of Jesus with the Hail Mary is to enter more deeply into it. Because above all, we pray, Blessed be Jesus, who brings joy (Ave!) to Mary, who fills her with grace, who is with her. Blessed is Jesus who makes her holy, who is her child. Blessed is Jesus to whom Mary prays for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Blessed be Jesus!


In his letter on the Rosary, Pope John Paul II wrote: “The centre of gravity in the Hail Mary, the hinge as it were which joins its two parts, is the name of Jesus. Sometimes, in hurried recitation, this centre of gravity can be overlooked, and with it the connection to the mystery of Christ being contemplated. Yet it is precisely the emphasis given to the name of Jesus and to his mystery that is the sign of a meaningful and fruitful recitation of the Rosary.”

Let us carefully invoke his holy name, and so discover the riches of the Hail Mary.


Blessed is Jesus: this is the content of heaven. “I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:1-3). “And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna, to the Son of David: Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9). “And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, and the beasts and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing” (Revelation 5:11-12).

“Holy,” “Glory,” “Blessed,” “Hosanna,” “Worthy.” There really is nothing else in heaven to prepare for than to bless Jesus. In heaven we will do nothing but bless him forever. Praying the Hail Mary well – praying “Blessed is Jesus,” with the words that surround and emphasize that central affirmation – is practice for heaven.

It is worth considering how the rest of our lives prepare for heaven precisely insofar as they participate in this blessing. The Commandments mark out things completely inconsistent with blessing Jesus. But really to bless him is to be patient and kind; not to be envious, or puffed up; not to seek our own, but to rejoice in the good (1 Corinthians 13). To bless Jesus in all things.


How do you bless Jesus, in your prayer and in your work?

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

“Among Women”

Hail Mary ImagePart 5 in our series on the “Hail Mary”.

This week’s meditation on the Hail Mary is about vocation. Mary is not generically blessed: she is blessed among women.

St. Elizabeth’s words pair this statement with a description of Jesus as “the fruit of your womb.” In English (though not Greek or Latin) you could think of the word woman as coming from “womb” (like a man, but with a womb!), and the womb is the most womanly part of woman.

In fact, this pair spells out what we saw in the first pair. Mary is full of grace because the Lord is with her – but the Lord is with her as fruit of her womb, and she is with him, and full of grace, precisely as woman. Mary makes it so concrete: she lives in union with Jesus not through abstraction, but through her vocation as his mother. She carries him, births him, nurses him, cooks and cleans and mothers for him, bosses him around at Cana, and experiences his ministry, his cross, his resurrection, and his ascension – and even Pentecost, and her own arrival in heaven – precisely as his mother. Her vocation colors everything about her relation to him.


It colors, too, her relation with her neighbor. Beautiful that the one who calls her “blessed among women” is her woman friend – and, indeed, her relative, descended from a common womb – Elizabeth. Together they are doing women’s work, preparing for their babies. She relates to Elizabeth not as an abstract individual, but as a woman – and, in addition to her gender, also in a family, in a place, in a historical period, in a language, etc. They are not abstractions, they are people, and it is there, in their human particularity, that God’s grace comes to meet them.

Nor does Mary’s femininity shut her off, as if “among women” means that she doesn’t get to be around men. Luke adds the nice little detail that she “entered Zechariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:40): Zechariah is around too!

More importantly, Mary has Joseph. There are various things to love about St. Joseph, but one of the finest – Marie-Dominique Philippe’s The Mystery of Joseph explores this in all its Scriptural richness, but it also plays a prominent role, for example, in Leo XIII’s encyclical on St. Joseph Quamquam pluries – is that Joseph is Mary’s husband. Mary and Joseph are not abstractions, they are a man and a woman, making a home together. Together they marvel at the things that are said of Jesus (Luke 2:33), together they seek for him (2:44-46), Mary speaks for his feelings, “your father and I have sought you sorrowing” (2:48). They were engaged to be married, and Joseph trembled to take her to himself, and trembled to lose her. They built a home together, eating dinner, knowing their neighbors, and establishing customs: “his parents went to Jerusalem every year for the passover” (Luke 2:41).

And later Jesus will give Mary to John to be his mother (John 19:26-27), and she will gather with the apostles as “mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14).

In all of these things Mary is profoundly woman, profoundly in relationship, profoundly personal. There is no abstraction in the life of grace. Grace graces our life, in all its particularity.


Is this limiting? Well, yes and no. To speak of Mary in terms of her womb is to reduce her to biology. And, indeed, Jesus is careful to say there is more to us than just our biological acts: “rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28) But Mary keeps the word of God in her vocation. Her biology – “the womb that bore him, the breasts he sucked” (Luke 11:27) – becomes the place of her encounter with Jesus.

We are limited by our vocations. We cannot meet Jesus anywhere else than where we are. Those limitations are very real: so many things I can’t do – and so many things I must do! But the wonder of the Incarnation is that God, who created this particularity in the first place, then took it on himself when he walked in a particular body in a particular time and place, comes to meet us right where we are. Sometimes that seems unimportant: Mary is “just” a woman, not a priest like Zechariah. But it is God who makes the little things matter.


By the way: did it ever occur to you that Mary had a funny accent? “They that stood by said again to Peter, Surely you are one of them: for you are a Galilean, your way of speaking gives you away!” (Mark 14:70; cf. Luke 22:59 and Acts 2:7) They will know that we are Christians by our funny accents.

Click here for the rest of the “Hail Mary” series.

Blessed art thou

Hail Mary ImagePart 4 in our series on the “Hail Mary”.

The Hail Mary is full of pairs, reflecting back and forth on one another. After the greeting, “Hail! Rejoice!” comes the pair, “full of grace” and “the Lord is with you.” We saw in the last few weeks that these two things state two sides of the same coin, the inside and the outside, something about Mary, something about Jesus, or perhaps, what Jesus does in Mary, and where Mary stands with Jesus. (But which is which?)

Later we will have “Holy Mary” and “Mother of God”: two sides of the same coin. Then the contrasts “Holy Mary” and “us sinners,” “mother of God” and “pray for us,” “pray for us” and “us sinners,” “now” and “at the hour of our death,” “mother” and “death.” All mirrors reflecting back on one another, coins with two sides. The action of God and its reflection in us.


This week we begin another such pair: “Blessed are you” and “Blessed is he.” (This one, too, is complicated, also including the parallel “among women” and “the fruit of your womb.”) The statement, of course, is from Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel. Luke goes out of his way to tell us this is an inspired saying: “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she spoke out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” (What a splendid detail: “with a loud voice”! In the Greek it’s actually “a big sound”! She was excited, like the babe, leaping in her womb!)

There are actually two words for “blessed” in the Greek. Here, it’s eulogeo, which literally means, “spoken well of.” But we also have makarios, which means “happy,” supremely happy. The Beatitudes are makarios, and in the story of the Visitation, Elizabeth goes on to say, “blessed – makarios, happy – is she who believed” and in the Magnificat, Mary will respond, “all generations will call me blessed: makarios.” But actually, in Mary’s words, we see the connection between the two: how do they speak well of her, eulogeo? By calling her the supremely happy one, makarios!

And the flip side is that eulogeo, “spoken well of,” also goes two ways: we speak well of her because she is happy. But she is happy because God has spoken well of her: he has given her is “blessing.” God’s word makes it happen. Mary is the one God has given his good word, therefore the supremely happy one, therefore the one we speak well of.


The parallel with Jesus is really mind-boggling: but, like other parts of the Hail Mary, it has a claim to be the very Gospel itself. Think of the incongruity of the parallel: Mary is blessed, Jesus is blessed. Now . . . Jesus is God. He is THE blessed one. His blessedness, you would think, is beyond what anyone else can claim, incommunicable. But Elizabeth – or, the Holy Spirit in Elizabeth – claims that Mary is, in a sense, the same. Blessed as Jesus is blessed.

That’s how the early Church formulated the Gospel: “God became man so that man could become God”: a favorite saying of the Fathers. And “sons in the Son.” Or as St. Paul says, “You know the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus didn’t just come to tell us about God, or to fix it up so that we don’t have any more problems with God. He came to share his own blessedness. Mary is the first fruits.

This is why, too, the earliest Christians focused on what they called the proto-Evangelium, the first Gospel. “And the Lord God said to the serpent . . . I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15). Who will bruise the serpent’s head? Well, Jesus will – but this is part of the enmity between the serpent and the woman – Jesus is even called just “her seed.” To show Mary crushing the serpent’s head is not a matter of mistaking “she” for “he.” It is a matter of saying that we communicate in his victory. Because he crushes the serpent, so can we.

When the Son became man, it wasn’t so we could be “sort of like” sons. It was so that we could truly be sons of God, “whereby exceeding great and precious promises are given to us: that by these things you might be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

That’s what we mean by “full of grace.” Blessed as he is blessed.

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.