A few years ago, a couple friends of mine raised the question of what’s going on in the Angelus. It seems to be scattered: various lines from the Gospel, mixed up with Hail Mary’s. We know it’s supposed to be a good thing, but how do we understand it, so that we can pray it well? Good question!
The Hail Mary offers one way to answer that concern. The Hail Mary itself at first appears a bit scattered. The second half is a petition: Pray for us. But the first half is not a petition, it just addresses Mary. And each of these parts has multiple parts: the first half is the Angel’s words to Mary (Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you), three clauses which themselves make at least three main points; and then Elizabeth’s words (Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb), two clauses with two points, plus a third point in the parallels between them.
The petition half of the Hail Mary is complicated, too: before we get to the two prayers (now, and at the hour of our death), we have two titles (Holy Mary, Mother of God). The trick is to see how all this fits together. . . .
“The Angel declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.” The first phrase of the Hail Mary is the Angel’s first declaration to Mary. The words of the Angelus help us to focus on the drama of those words—and then to see how they inform Elizabeth’s words: Mary is blessed because the Angel declared unto her and, by the Holy Spirit, she conceived the blessed fruit of her womb.
We have our first glimpse of how Mary is holy, and the beginnings of her being Mother of God. And so we ask her to pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.
Great Marian saints like Louis de Montfort and John Paul II recommend that we add words to the Hail Mary to help us dive in. We could make the connection here vivid by saying, “Hail Mary, who heard the angel’s word: full of grace, the Lord is with thee!”
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.” Now we turn around, from the Angel’s words to Mary, to Mary’s words to the angel. And we have an even deeper insight into who she is, because we see how she acts.
Hail Mary, full of grace, who received the word—that’s how the Lord is with thee, that’s why you are blessed among women, and the Blessed One is the fruit of your womb. Pray for me to be open to his word like you were, now and at the hour of my death!
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Always Mary points beyond herself to Jesus—De Montfort says, “When we say Mary, she says Jesus.” The Hail Mary itself reminds us that everything about Mary is relative to Jesus: she receives his grace, he is with her, he makes her blessed, he is the blessed fruit of her womb, he makes her holy, he makes her his mother, and she prays to him.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Incarnate word is with thee. That’s why Elizabeth calls you blessed, because of the blessed fruit of your womb. You who are so close, so holy, because God is in your womb, making you his mother: pray for us.
You can expand the Hail Mary in your own words, as I have here. You can find a simple little formula for each of these Hail Mary’s: Hail Mary, hearing the declaration; Hail Mary, handmaid; the Incarnate Lord is with thee. Or you can just pray the Hail Mary, but using each of the three declarations of the Angelus to help you dig deeper into its words.
The point is: the Angelus is an opportunity to pray the Hail Mary better, to delve into its riches.
One more thought: more and more, it seems to me the richest word of the Hail Mary is the most obscure word, Hail. It doesn’t mean “Salute.” It is a greeting. It’s a rough attempt to translate the Greek word in the New Testament, which means “Rejoice,” the deepest most personal version of “Good day!”
When we pray the Hail Mary, we should pause now and then on this word, and just enjoy Mary’s joy. The Angelus gives us three angles on that joy.
How do you pray the Angelus?