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”.