Part 2 in our series on the Hail Mary.
Today we continue our journey through the Hail Mary, with the most important part of all.
The phrase is from the Angel, who addresses her, “Hail, full of grace: kecharitomene.” It is a strange greeting. According to St. Luke, “and at his word she was troubled, and cast about in her mind what manner of salutation this might be” (Luke 1:29). The Greek is quite nice: it is at his word (logos) that she is troubled – Greek lets you put that forward and emphasize it in a strong way – and her grappling is die-logiz-eto: “dialoging,” but more to the point, bumping around this logos, grappling with the strange word that he uses. Why has he called her this?
This is the name he gives her. He doesn’t say, “Greetings, you who are highly favored.” He says, “Greetings Highly-Favored,” or “Full-of-Grace,” as if it is her name. At Lourdes Mary told St. Bernadette, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” This is similarly bizarre language: not “I was immaculately conceived,” but I AM the Immaculate Conception. It’s who I am, what I am. Our Lady of Lourdes was just glossing this strange greeting of the Angel.
Luke’s narrative is nicely crafted – sometime we can explore this at length – with parallels between Mary and Zechariah, in order to show how they are alike and how they are different. It’s interesting to compare here: Mary struggled with the word he used, but “when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.” The difference is intentional – just as when Zechariah is struck dumb, but Mary’s mouth is opened in the Magnificat. Mary isn’t scared, she’s just overwhelmed at this magnificent name she has been given: kecharitomene.
“Full of grace,” gratia plena, is St. Jerome’s lovely attempt to translate this loaded Greek term. Isn’t gratia plena just about the most beautiful phrase you’ve ever heard?
Let’s break down the Greek ke-charit-o-men-e – Greek lets you cram all sorts of information into a single word. The central concept is charis (the ending changes to a –t in most of its grammatical forms): grace. We will have to talk about what that means in a minute. The -o- indicates that something has happened to the subject. She is “be-graced” or just “graced”: there’s something that has happened to her. Ke- and -men- indicate the grammatical tense called “perfect.” That doesn’t mean (by itself) that she’s perfect. It means that the action is completed. Not “on the way to being begraced,” or “half way begraced” but “all the way begraced.” And, just a small nice note, the -e is a feminine ending. Because Mary is feminine.
Not easy to translate, but you see how nice St. Jerome’s option is. Fully graced. Full-graced. But gratia plena is so much more beautiful. And you see how insufficient is the Protestant translation, “Highly favored.” Well, sure, but that does not signify (a) that this is a personal transformation, that has happened to her; (b) that it is complete (try “totally favored”!); (c) that it is given to her as a personal name, or title (maybe “Highly-Favored”?); or (d) that we are talking about grace, the core concept of the whole New Testament.
So what is grace? Well, in fact, that’s what everything about Mary is meant to reveal – what the rest of the Hail Mary helps to reveal. But the core concept (the Protestant translation does get this right) is “favor.”
Interesting, though: “favor” indicates two things, and they are both operative in the understanding of grace. In one sense, “favor” indicates what someone thinks of you. She is “in” God’s favor, he likes her. But in another sense, “favor” indicates what someone does for you: God has given her a favor. In fact, God, who is Creator, and who makes everything to be what it is, is the source of what makes Mary favorable. She is likeable to him (in his favor) because of what he has done in her (by giving her a favor).
When God finds favor, it is not because he has changed his standards, but because he has changed us. The path to heaven is to be transformed by his grace, to become a new creation. He makes us new, just as he made Mary new – totally, completely, transformed by his grace.
Everything else in the theology of Mary, in fact, ultimately hinges on this magnificent revelation from the Angel: Mary is Gratia-Plena, kecharitomene.
And our hope is that God will favor us, too.