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!

The Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and so October is a month specially devoted to the rosary. We will take some time this month to consider some practical strategies, rooted in the medieval spirituality from which the rosary was born, in order to pray the rosary better.

This week, let us consider the Liturgy of the Hours.


The Liturgy of the Hours, you probably know, consecrates the day as a whole to prayer by giving special prayers to the main moments of the day.

Psalm 119 says, “In the middle of the night I will rise to give you thanks” (v. 62) and “Seven times a day I praise you” (v. 164). The Tradition fulfilled the first line with Matins: the name means “early in the morning,” but it was before Lauds, or morning prayer. And so as not to double-count Matins, they added to the natural six-fold division of the day (rising, mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon, evening, bedtime) another hour, “prime” (literally “one hour into the day”), somewhere between lauds and mid-morning.

But notice, with regard to Matins, that the interpretation of the line is not as strict as it first appears. St. Benedict (c. 8), for example, says that during winter, “they should rise at the eighth hour of night, so that they may stop for prayer a little after the middle of the night.” They get to the Psalm’s “mid-night” by sleeping specifically “eight hours.” In the summer, “let the hour for the prayers of ‘waking’ be set so as to allow sufficient time for the brothers to attend to the necessities of nature before the prayers at the rising sun.” Here, midnight is frankly abandoned, replaced with early morning. He even says these prayers should be shortened “on account of the shortness of the night” (c. 10).

In short, the principle was not a rigid adherence to a divinely commanded schedule, but exactly the opposite: the principle was to scatter prayer throughout the day, at the most convenient times.


But note, with regard to Prime, the pure joy in fulfilling the Scriptural text. The Psalm says “seven times a day,” and they said, yes, let’s do it, let’s go all the way. Seven is in Scripture a number of completeness, and they embraced the Psalm’s encouragement not to stop short of praying at all the moments of the day, even bordering into the inconvenient.

And they did it precisely through the Psalms. They only are interested in fulfilling this particular line because they love the Psalms as a whole. The Liturgy of the Hours sanctifies all those hours of the day precisely by plunging into the divinely inspired prayers of Scripture.


What does all of this have to do with the rosary? Three things:

1. The rosary was developed in the Middle Ages precisely as a substitute for those who did not have the equipment (especially the books) for the Liturgy of the Hours. Its original spirit is not to be segregated into one part of the day, but to season the whole day with prayer.

2. The deeper insight of the Liturgy of the Hours was not only that each hour should have its prayer, but that prayer is done better when spread into shorter, more intense moments. Modern devotion seems simply to disagree: to prefer the Holy Hour (which is also good!) to this spirit of sprinkling prayer throughout the day, and to pray the rosary all at once. But the medievals insisted that we can pray more deeply when, rather than watching the minutes tick by till our hour is complete, we pray as hard as we can, even for just five minutes, and then return to do it again a few more times in the day.

3. The Liturgy of the Hours was Biblical – and so too is the Hail Mary. The words are not to be missed. It’s hard to pay attention to fifty Hail Mary’s. But if we pray just ten at a time, perhaps we could pray them really well, and discover the richness of the Biblical words.

What I am proposing, then, is that one way to get the most out of the rosary is to make it into a Liturgy of the Hours (and even a supplement to the “real” Liturgy, if we pray that too). The Creed and the first three Hail Mary’s are a fabulous way to begin the day with a profession of faith. Then scatter five mysteries through five separate times of day, if you can, so that your whole day is seasoned with the rosary, and so that you can pray each decade intensely. And end the day, as the monks long have, with the Hail Holy Queen—and with the conclusion of the rosary.

Are there ways you could pray more intensely, and more frequently?

O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet – Mary in the Salve Regina

The Deposition or "The Florence Pieta", Michaelangelo

The Deposition or “The Florence Pieta”, Michaelangelo

As a complement to last Thursday’s meditation on the sigh at the heart of the “Hail Holy Queen” (Salve Regina), today let us consider the prayer’s portrayal of Mary. We can learn much about her, both as our advocate and as our mother, by leaning on these beautiful words.

The final sighs are perhaps the most telling. Just as the whole prayer revolves around sighing for the sight of Jesus, so the ending has the three beautiful “oh’s”: “O clement, o loving, o sweet virgin Mary! Pray for us!” The final word to Mary is nothing but that sigh.

And yet the sigh is couched about with descriptors, and they are very rich.


First, “o clement.” Clement is not a word we use much anymore. The only place I can think of is that when a Governor takes someone off death row, it’s called “clemency,” I think. That’s not a bad place, though, to look for the meaning of the word.

In Latin, clementia means not punishing someone even when they deserve it. To appeal to Mary’s clemency is to say we do not deny that we sin, do not claim that God owes it to us to let us see Jesus. To the contrary, we acknowledge that we are “children of Eve,” caught up in this world of sin.

But neither do we grovel. The way the Salve Regina speaks of sin is as an exile, and it begs for help. Get me out of here! Not out of this world, but out of my sin. Help! Consider not what I deserve: just love me.


The central word for Mary in the Salve Regina is “mercy.” “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy . . . turn then thine eyes of mercy toward us.” Mother of Mercy, I think, is about the hardest phrase imaginable in Catholic theology. What does it mean to call Mary “Mother of Mercy”? She is merciful – but even more, Mercy himself is her Son. We need to lean into this, to think hard about what it means that Mercy himself came that close to us. But we need also to tread lightly, lest we flatten the mystery. The Salve Regina is a gentle meditation on Mary’s involvement in the Mercy of Jesus.

We see her first as the clement mother, she who does not punish.


But then the prayer takes us a step further: “O loving.” The word in Latin is pia. It’s one of the most fabulous ideas in the Latin mind . . . but we just don’t have it in English. Pietas does not mean pity, nor does it mean piety – though in a moment perhaps you will see how it is related to both. Pietas is “family feeling.” It means treating your father like your father, your mother like your mother, your son or daughter like your own child.

In a technical definition, St. Thomas says it is justice as it relates to family. I’m not going to try to unravel that, except to say, we need not be unjust to other people in order to recognize that our family has special claims on us, deserves a special something. In fact, we would undermine the deepest meaning of justice as right relation if we didn’t embrace those family relationships.

In Michelangelo’s Pietà, that’s what Mary is experiencing . . . .

Rondanini Pieta, Michaelangelo

Rondanini Pieta, Michaelangelo

We take, then, a step deeper in our understanding of the Mother of Mercy when we say she is not just clement, she is pia. Indeed, she is clement because she is pia: we are spared punishment, given another chance, because we are family. We needn’t say Mary is our mother to say that, when we stand beside her at the Cross of Christ, we become family, and we gain a special affection. Indeed, this is the deepest meaning of calling Mary mother.


And so, in fact, the prayer takes a step further. To be truly pia is not only to be clement, but to be sweet. A loving mother, or sister, or any kind of family member goes far beyond just sparing punishment. A loving family is sweet to one another, helps one another. This is the deepest meaning of mercy: not just clemency, but sweetness, because of pietas.

That is why Mary is our life, our sweetness, and our hope: because she bespeaks the mystery of Jesus becoming family. Mother and mercy are intimately intertwined. A mother is merciful – sweetly merciful, not just sparing but praying for us, and keeping her eye on us. And when Mercy himself takes our sister as his mother, the sweetness truly reaches to the depths of God.


How do you experience, and live pietas: with Jesus, with your own family, and with Jesus’s family?

On Earth as It Is in Heaven

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

Part 7 in our series on the Our Father.

It is common to think of “thy will be done” and “on earth as it is in heaven” as one clause. But we can also think of the latter as its own prayer. (The traditional division of the prayer finds seven petitions; in this commentary, we will divide it into twelve. These Biblical numbers are fun!)

Notice first that we are at a transition point in the middle of the prayer. The first half (six parts, according to our reckoning, but three petitions according to the traditional reckoning) revolves around the word “thy”; the second half revolves around the words “us” and “our.”

The first half concludes with a sort of summary, “On earth as it is in heaven.” The second half begins with its own kind of summary, “Give us this day.” This is typically Biblical. In the Ten Commandments, the first tablet, about honor to God, begins with a statement about God himself, “I am the LORD your God” (parallel to “Our Father”) and concludes with a narrative of God creating “heaven and earth” (parallel to “on earth as it is in heaven”).

The second tablet of the Ten Commandments, about how we relate to people on this earth, is “the only commandment with a blessing” (as Paul says in Ephesians 6:2): “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land.” Similarly, the second half of the Our Father begins with God blessing our days on earth: “give us this day.”


We can think of this transition as piercing the clouds, as it were, descending from heaven to earth. Just as the Ten Commandments, and Jesus’s summary of them, teaches us to look both upward to love of God and around us to love of neighbor, so the Our Father has us look upward to Our Father, in heaven, his kingdom, his will – and then around us to our daily needs, our trespasses, forgiveness, our temptations, and the threat of evil.

The lynch pin, in a sense, is the prayer we consider today, “On earth as it is in heaven.” This is how we think of this world: we want it to be as in heaven, where God is “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). “On earth as it is in heaven” is a beautiful gloss on all of the other eleven parts of the Our Father. To call God “Our Father” is to think of earth being united to heaven. When we think of him being (“who art”) “in heaven,” we long for our earth to be as heaven. Right down to forgiving trespasses and being liberated from temptation and evil. Let earth be as it is in heaven! Let me be on earth as I will be in heaven!


We can think of our world this way only if our treasure is in heaven. Only if we long for God to be all in all, only if we long to see him face to face, can our here really be transformed according to that vision. Heaven lost its grasp on the Christian imagination sometime in the last couple hundred years, but traditionally, devotion to heaven was a dominant part of Catholic spirituality. As we saw in the Salve Regina, we sighed, “after this our exile, show us . . . Jesus!” Pope Benedict, in fact, wrote one of his three encyclicals, Spe salvi, precisely on rekindling love of and hope for heaven.

Longing for heaven does mean seeing this world as a kind of exile. It means seeing the things of this world as passing and not truly fulfilling. It means longing for things that we cannot see now, but only hope for.

But, ironically, as our prayer today so pointedly reminds us, love of heaven doesn’t at all mean giving up on this world. “On earth as it is in heaven” means longing for heaven – and longing to live heaven on earth. I think our culture often tells us that heaven and earth are opposed, that loving heaven can only mean you don’t care about this world. The prayer Jesus teaches us says exactly the opposite. I’d note that this is a constant theme of papal encyclicals – think, for example, throughout the writings of John Paul II: love of heaven does not diminish our concern for this world, but kindles it.

When we learn to love the “thy” phrases of the first half of the Our Father, we see “this day” in that light. We learn to forgive and ask forgiveness, to flee temptation and evil – and, more importantly, to rely on our Father for our daily sustenance, and thus to see Him as the one who sets us free to love.


How do you make the connection between heaven and earth?

Eia Ergo –The Sigh of the Hail, Holy Queen

Hail, Holy Queen is a beautiful medieval hymn, written perhaps by Hermann Contractus, a brilliant monk, crippled from birth (contractus means something like bound up, or handicapped), around the year 1000, at the dawning of a great age of Marian piety. It was adopted by the Dominicans early in the thirteenth century as their prayer at Compline, from whence it has passed both to the end of the rosary and the liturgical end of the day for much of the Church. For many years it was also prayed at the end of Mass.

If you have not heard this beautiful hymn, in both its shorter and its longer, monastic version, please listen here!


Unfortunately, the English translation leaves out a beautiful line, eia ergo! I’ll show where it goes:

Hail, Holy Queen

Our Lady of Altoetting, oldest Marian shrine in Germany

Our Lady of Altoetting, oldest Marian shrine in Germany

Mother of Mercy
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope
To thee do we cry
Poor banished children of Eve
To thee do we send up our sighs
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears
Eia ergo! Oh! therefore, a sigh! —
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy toward us
And after this our exile
Show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Oh! clement. Oh! loving. Oh! Sweet Virgin Mary
Pray for us!

Today I would just like to point out the element of sighing.

In the first half of the hymn, we do little but cry out: “To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping.” In the second part, we ask for something . . . but not much. Just remember us, turn thine eyes of mercy toward us – and someday, show us Jesus.


“Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us,” said the Apostle Philip. Jesus responded, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9).

The Hail, Holy Queen does little more than give expression – beautiful, emotional expression – to this line from the Gospel. We want nothing but to see Jesus.

And so the turning point of the hymn, the lynchpin, is Eia ergo! Ergo means “therefore”: since we mourn and weep in this valley of tears . . . therefore, what? Therefore eia. Eia is not a word, it is a sound, a cry, a sigh. Like “Oh!” But, a bit more expressive, I think. Try it: eh-yah!

Ultimately, what we sigh for us is to see Jesus: “show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb!” What the hymn does is build up that line, give it expression. We sigh for that line. The hymn adds a gloss, a kind of commentary, or poetic interpretation, to Philip’s line. Not just “Lord, show us the Father,” but “oh, oh, eia!


In addition, of course, it uses Mary to give greater emotional energy to the cry. The balance of “children of Eve” crying for the “Mother of Mercy” not to forget us; of being “banished” in “this valley of tears,” but praying that we may never be forgotten by those in heaven: “turn thine eyes of mercy toward us!” (And what is it to be poor and banished? Nothing more than not to see Jesus. Who is our most gracious advocate? She who sees Jesus.)

From “show us the Father” we come to a dramatic vision of Jesus (the more emotional, vivid image of the Father), a vivid image of our distance from that vision, a vivid image of our advocate, she who stands close to Jesus, and loves us – and a sigh, a real crying out of longing.


Notice, first, that the medieval tradition is anything but stoic! Jesus is an emotional thing. Longing for heaven is something we are supposed to feel, and sigh for. The medievals love to talk about people crying when they pray. To be sure, we don’t always feel like that. But let us not become too complacent in our unfeeling! Our prayer should be vivid enough, heartfelt enough, that we can sigh, and groan, and weep, for love of God. Prayer should make us say eia!

That doesn’t mean, of course, manufactured crocodile tears. To the contrary, notice also the funny conjunction of words and sighs in this hymn. The end is nothing but a groan, eia, beyond words. But the path to that end is strong, Biblical, Christ-centered words, an intelligent meditation on the sadness of our plight and the goodness of our heavenly friends. The path to real Christian tears is through solid Christian doctrine.

Thy Kingdom Come

Sermon on the mountPart 5 in our series on the Our Father.

Our prayer continues to move outward. “Hallowed be thy name” looked upward, to God himself, a prayer focused entirely in worship. “Thy kingdom come” now looks to the reverse side of the coin, to how God is manifested in the world. “Who art in heaven” had us up where God is already all in all. Now we ask him to extend his reign even here below, to where he is not yet.

Next week we will consider “thy will be done,” a beautiful prayer and, for many people, a favorite part of the Our Father. But here, let us briefly consider how “thy kingdom come” is different, and why it comes first, on the “heavenly” end of the prayer.

Note, first, the difference between the prayer “thy will be done” and Mary’s prayer to the angel, “be it done to me according to your word.” “Will” stresses arbitrariness, or at least darkness. I don’t know what you’re going to do, and I don’t know why you want to do it, but go ahead. But “word” expresses intelligibility, and wisdom. God has told Mary what is going to happen (at least in rough outline). She understands – and more importantly, his plan is understandable.

There is a risk – in fact, it is one of the key breaking points in the history of Christian thought – in thinking of God too much in terms of an arbitrary will. Certainly his plan is far beyond our sight or understanding. But God is not a tyrant, not arbitrary. He calls us into his heavenly kingdom – not, ultimately, into blind obedience to his “will.”

Before we speak of God’s “will,” the Our Father calls us to think of his Kingdom.


What is a kingdom? Well, first of all, it is a social reality. Louis XIV is supposed to have said, “l’état, c’est moi”: I am the State. Without getting into too many subtleties of political philosophy, let us notice that, though a tyrant may himself be the entire government, he simply cannot be the entire realm. A realm, or a kingdom, is many people, all the complexity of many lives. The tyrant might be the “State,” if by that we mean the mechanics of government, but he cannot be the entire nation.

Yet to the extent that there is a single realm, there is a kind of unity about it. A realm, or nation, is, as we occasionally remember in America, e pluribus unum, something one out of the many, a kind of unity of many people.

This is actually quite important to the Catholic understanding of the human person. We are social beings in such a way that our individuality and our being part of society are not at odds. In fact, we are more human when we participate in communities bigger than ourselves.

Heaven is the ultimate community, the ultimate kingdom. The heavenly city, the eternal Jerusalem, “the city of the great king” (Ps. 48:2) is a place where we are more fully alive because in union. Both our union with God and our union with all the saints do not destroy our individuality, but bring it out in all its richness.

All of this speaks of the order, the wisdom, the fullness of God’s kingdom. Indeed, in the old political philosophy, the distinction between a king and a tyrant was that a tyrant demands that everybody be a slave to his will – but a king works for the good of his kingdom, to make the realm shine and come alive in all its richness. That is what we pray for when we pray “your kingdom come.”


A kingdom, of course, points above all to a King. But in Christianity, our great king, the son of David, is a shepherd. We need his help. The sheep go astray, and the kingdom goes to pieces, without the goodness and wisdom (and defenses from danger) of the king. There is no doing without the good shepherd – and oh, how foolish it would be to try to replace him with our own selfishness and short-sightedness and weakness. But his exaltation is ours too, his kingdom our life, and happiness, and well-being.

All of this points, too, to why we must pray Thy Kingdom Come. It’s a little strange. In one sense, God is already king. Creation is always in his hand, nothing escapes his providence. But in another sense, Jesus will only truly be king when we embrace him, when the sheep hear his voice, when order, and beauty, and goodness come to our world, through the wisdom of Christ the King.


How do you envision Jesus as King? What does his “kingdom” mean to you?

A Prayer at Communion

massacio trinity with virginLord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof . . .

Father, I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be a called a son of God. I am not grateful to you. I do not entrust myself to you, and I do not receive the gift of life you offer to me.

But Father, you are mercy. Mercy itself. Eternally giving alms, giving to the poor, making life, and goodness, where there was nothing at all. You are the overflowing spring from which all creation pours forth, the spring from which even the Son and the Holy Spirit flow forth.

And Mary is daughter of mercy. She is your creature, your daughter. Her very being is to receive life from you. She lives perfect daughterhood, precisely because you have made her your daughter; the spirit of daughterhood is itself your gift to her. This is the Gospel. This is the promise – that we too may receive Mary’s spirit of daughterhood.

Jesus, Son of God, I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be called your brother. I do not love as you love. I do not pour myself out as you pour yourself. I am not poor as you were poor, I do not care for those who are poor as you care for them.

But Jesus, you are mercy. Your very being is to be the overflowing spring of mercy, the almsgiver. You came not to condemn but to seek out and save. You are the Good Samaritan. Your well of mercy never runs dry. Your purse is never empty.

And Mary is mother of mercy. I cannot fathom what this means. You who are such perfect mercy have become so little that she could hold you in her arms, wrap you in swaddling clothes, lay you in a manger, and see you die on a cross. You have come so close that she could hold you at her breast, hold you at her cheek, stand and suffer the wound of love at your cross. This is the Gospel. This is the promise: that you become so little, so close to us, that we can receive you as she did.

Holy Spirit, I am not worthy. I am not worthy to be called your temple. Not worthy to hold God within me. I do not live by your power, do not live by your goodness. I turn always to myself, to my own strength, to contemplation of my own face. I am not yet your true temple.

But Holy Spirit, you are mercy. You are nothing but the poured-out love of Father and Son. There is no end to your goodness, no end to the alms you give us. You are truly Father of the poor, giver of life to us who are dead, light to us who dwell in darkness.

And Mary is the bride of mercy. You come to make life in her womb, to bring her to life, to let her pour life out for others. You have united her eternally to your work of mercy. She walks where you walk, and gives your perfect gift. And this is the Gospel. This is the promise. That you come to make us your partners, come to give us life, come to make us your bride, ever crying out “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Father, I am not worthy
But Father, you are mercy
And Mary is daughter of Mercy

Son of God, Jesus, I am not worthy
But Jesus, you are mercy
And Mary is mother of Mercy

Holy Spirit, I am not worthy
But Spirit, you are mercy
And Mary is bride of Mercy

This is the Gospel.
For this I give you thanks.
This is the mercy I receive from your altar.

 My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord . . .

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.”