“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!