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.

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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.

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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.

The Hail Mary: Keeping God’s Word in Our Heart

Hail Mary ImageBut Mary kept all these sayings, considering them in her heart (Luke 2:19).

We pause this week in our meditations on the Hail Mary to consider what we are doing, and why.

Mary is a model of Christian spirituality. As we considered at the end of our meditation last week, Luke’s Gospel constantly presents her as meditating on the Word.

In fact, it goes deeper than that. Jesus says, “blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (11:28). The Greek word he uses here for “keep,” phulasso, is about guarding: keeping watch, protecting. Earlier on, Luke gives several variations on, “Mary kept all these sayings, considering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Here the word for “kept” is syntereo, similar, though slightly different: here we are “protecting” by holding everybody together – like a shepherd. It is also a word used for remembering.

It then adds that Mary “considered” these sayings, symballo. This word means putting things together; it can be used of two people in conversation, putting their heads together, or of one person pondering, putting it all together in their mind. It is similar to dialogizo – when she saw the angel she was stirred up at his greeting, and “deliberated” what sort of greeting this could be (Luke 1:29). Here too the idea is of putting things together, as in dialogue with another person, but also in our own mind: ruminating on the words we have heard, pondering them, meditating on them.

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This is how traditional Catholic spirituality works. It is profoundly Scriptural. First, we “guard” the words of Scripture, hold them within us, fight to protect them from corruption, and not to lose them. We cling to the words of Scripture.

Next, we ponder them, putting them together, considering.

The tradition makes the Psalms the heart of its prayer life: memorizing, meditating, pondering, savoring, digging deeper into their meaning. Then lectio divina, which is simply meditative reading of the Bible. Also the rosary, which is a meditating on key phrases and events from the Bible. (And the original core was meditation on the words of the Our Father and the Hail Mary – the mysteries were added to help us ponder those words, not to substitute for them.) Various types of meditation, like the Ignatian exercises, are also just meditation on Scripture. In all of this we imitate Mary, who hears the word and keeps it (Luke 11:28), and indeed goes farther, keeping the word and pondering it (Luke 2:19, 1:29, etc.).

Somehow in modernity Catholics came to think of vocal prayer, mental prayer, and contemplation as three different types of prayer. But in the tradition – and, indeed, in the Catechism – they are all one, perhaps summarized better in St. Benedict’s admonition, “let us consider how we ought to be in the sight of the Divine and his angels, and when we say the Psalms, stand in such a way that our mind may harmonize with our voice.” Vocal-mental-contemplation doesn’t mean we should seek contemplation apart from vocal prayer, any more than it means we should have vocal prayer without using our mind. Rather, when our mind attends to the words we are saying, that is the path to true contemplation. To be a contemplative is to pray like Mary: pondering the words of Scripture.

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So when we meditate on the Hail Mary, we are imitating Mary, learning to draw our spiritual sustenance from the words of Scripture.

But in imitating Mary’s meditation on Scripture, we also discover Mary herself. Or rather, in meditating on the Gospel, we find the Gospel—and we find Mary as the personification of the Gospel.

Mary shows us the reality of grace, and the power of the Lord’s being with us. When we look at Mary, we discover more profoundly that he really is with us: that God himself has become Mary’s son, our brother in the flesh. And when we look at Mary, we see what God-made-flesh comes to do: to transform us, to make us holy, to fill us with his presence.

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The Gospel has content. Christian contemplation, and Christianity itself, is not like Buddhism, where our minds check out and we fade into abstract unity. The Gospel – the presence of God, and the work of his grace – is something to be heard, received, and meditated on. It is like the rosary: a meditation on specific words and actions of God.

But that meditation is not just for scholars. The Gospel, and Mary herself, is as simple and profound as the Hail Mary: simple words, rich in meaning, to be kept and pondered in our heart.

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

The Lord is With You

Hail Mary ImagePart 3 in our series on the “Hail Mary”.

Last week we looked at the angel’s title for Mary, Full of Grace. Today we consider his next words, which are far more common (the Latin Dominus tecum is the same thing the priest says to all of us at Mass), but also take us deeper into the meaning of “full of grace.”

The two phrases are like two sides of a coin. “Full of grace” describes Mary on the inside (beloved of God, and gifted by God), whereas “the Lord is with you” describes her in relation to someone else.

But in fact, the greatest gift God gives her is precisely his presence – there is no greater gift possible, no greater good, than to be with God. And Mary is beloved, “in God’s favor,” precisely because she is with God. In fact, Mary is totally relative to Jesus: we look to her to look to Jesus, to see who he is (God-with-Mary – God become man) and to see what he does (he fills us with grace, transforms us, brings us into his favor).

Grace is nothing other than the presence of God. Grace is being made present to God. But let us consider what that means.

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The Fathers of the Church notice something funny in the story. “The Lord is with you” obviously refers to Jesus, right? He is Emmanuel, God with us. The Lord is with Mary because he takes flesh in her womb.

But in fact, when the Angel says this, Jesus has not yet taken flesh. “The angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . . . And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for you have found grace with God. And, behold, you shall conceive in your womb . . . . The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” The Lord is already with her before he comes to be in her womb. Augustine says, “Mary conceived in her heart, before she conceived in her womb.”

When she stops to ponder this enormous greeting, this fabulous title given her by God, full of grace, she is not yet the Mother of God. He is already with her in a different way. And so it’s important that we pray, “the Lord is with you” not only during the mysteries of Jesus’s life, but also in his absence. The Lord is with her before he is in her womb; when she is searching for her child, disappeared into the Temple; in his agony in the Garden; and when he has gone up to Heaven, leaving her behind.

In fact, meditating on how he is with her at these times helps us penetrate more deeply how he is with her in his physical presence. He is not only in her womb, but also in her heart, and in her voice, so that the infant John the Baptist leaps at her words: “as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:44).

When he is with her before her eyes, dying on the Cross, he is also with her in her heart, giving her the courage to stand. Indeed, everyone who approaches Jesus is drawn from within: he acts in their hearts before he acts in the flesh: “No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him” (John 6:44).

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This is the real meaning of that strange encounter later in Luke’s Gospel. “And it came to pass, as he spoke these things, a certain woman in the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:27-28).

Those who read the Bible quickly and carelessly think this is a rebuke to Mary. Far from it. For this is Luke’s Gospel, where we have seen Mary say, “be it to me according to thy word”; Elizabeth tell her “blessed is she that believed that all those things will come about which were said to her by the Lord”; Mary respond to Elizabeth, “he has raised up Israel his servant, mindful of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, Abraham and his seed forever” (thus showing Mary the new Abraham: who believes what the Lord says, and it is counted to him for righteousness: Genesis 15:6); after the shepherds came, “Mary kept all these words in her heart,” and then again when she finds him in the temple, “Mary kept all these words in her heart.”

The deeper mystery of Mary is not what happens in her womb, but what happens in her heart. And in this, she is model to us all of perfect faithfulness, of living the true presence of God. That is what grace means. That is what Jesus means.

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

“Full of grace”

Hail Mary ImagePart 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.

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“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.

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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.

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

“Hail Mary”

Hail Mary ImageOn Mondays we’ll be going through the Hail Mary, phrase by phrase. This prayer is rich beyond telling, a fount of theology and spirituality.

The first words get us started. “Hail” is not a word that means much to us in English. That in itself is interesting. Sometimes in prayer we use fancy language: to remind ourselves that prayer is a dignified thing; to find ourselves in a tradition; to challenge ourselves; to make ourselves think more deeply.

And, too, sometimes we don’t have the perfect word in our stripped-down modern language. I often tell my students: the King James Bible, and the RSV, which is based on it, is not just in antiquated English (though it is that too). It is also a more literal translation than most modern ones. It finds a word to translate the original, instead of just dumbing things down.

“Hail” is a greeting. It’s a remarkable way to start a prayer. It puts us on friendly terms with Our Lady. Ironic that a prayer that begins in such personal terms should so often be rattled off in the most impersonal way.

More than our greeting, though, it recalls the greeting of the Angel Gabriel. For the first line of the prayer is just a quotation from Luke’s Gospel.

And the angel came in, and said unto her, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

The next line of the prayer, of course, is also from Luke’s Gospel.

And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth 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.”

And then the second half of the prayer is the Church’s response. First, our two favorite titles: “Holy Mary” (or, “Mary, the holy one”) and “Mother of God,” and then our very simple request: “pray for us” (who are sinners, both now, and at the hour of our death).

In effect, the whole Hail Mary is just a very simple liturgy: two short Scripture readings, followed by the simplest prayer, couched in the language of the Church. We can pray the Hail Mary like a little liturgy.

The English greeting “hail” is related to the word health. It means, “be well,” “I hope you are well,” “blessings!” The Latin Ave, like the Greek kaire (the word used in Luke’s Gospel) are actually more rooted in the idea of rejoicing. Not “hail” on a bodily level, but on a spiritual level: “happiness, Mary! Be glad! Blessings!”

The “Hail” should remind us of that the Gospel is Good News. Where Mary is, there is reason to rejoice, because God is there. It is pleasant to reflect on this “Hail,” not only at the Annunciation, but at every point in life. We are trained to do this through the rosary.

At the Finding in the Temple, Jesus is lost, causing sorrow for his parents; he scolds them for not knowing where he is; they don’t understand – and we say, “Be joyful, Mary!” And she is. Our Lady of joy carries the word of God in her heart, and it always brings joy.

It brings joy even at the Cross. Modern spirituality likes to wail and be sorrowful at the Cross, and indeed we should. But we also carry a gladness within us. The tradition notes that in John’s Gospel, Mary stands at the Cross of Christ: Stabat Mater. She does not faint, she does not collapse. What can keep her standing through this sorrow? The joy of the presence of God, of his grace holding her up, his love poured out on the Cross. We can afford to enter into the sorrow of the Cross because we know that the joy of Jesus is even there. “Hail, Mary!”

But the tradition has added two words to the Scripture verses of the Hail Mary. The Angel names her “full of grace,” and Elizabeth calls Jesus only, “the fruit of your womb.” But we add their holy names: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. . . . The fruit of your womb, Jesus.”

Why? Because we love the names of Jesus and Mary. The name of the beloved calls the beloved to mind. The Christian savors those holy names. We are not in such a hurry that we would skip over the most beautiful name of Mary!

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.