Holy Mary

Hail Mary Image

Part 9 in our series on the “Hail Mary.”

We now begin our reflections on the second half of the Hail Mary, the Church’s response to the Biblical words in the first half. The first thing we say, to sum up our understanding of Mary, is that she is holy, a saint: “Holy Mary.” But this needs some untangling.

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People often say it is hard to relate to Mary because she is holy and we are not. A standard joke imagines the Holy Family doing an evening examination of conscience. “What sins did you commit today?” Jesus: “I can’t think of any.” Mary: “yeah, I think I’m good.” And then poor St. Joseph is the only one who did anything wrong – though he too is this dazzlingly innocent guy, pretty much completely unlike us.

It seems like “saint” means “someone I can’t relate to.” And if Mary is Queen of the Saints, holiest of the holy, then she is the ultimate in unrelatable.

The first problem with this view is that it misunderstands how one gets to be a saint. Sometimes people think the Immaculate Conception – the doctrine that Mary was conceived without any stain of original sin – means that she had it easy, and never struggled. We, on the other hand, have to work really hard to be good. To the contrary, the Immaculate Conception means – as we saw in the first half of the Hail Mary – that she is full of grace. The same grace God offers us.

Mary is holy because she always clings to the divine assistance. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception just doubles down on this by pointing out that the first move was God’s: always it is God who makes us holy, and holiness is nothing but holding onto that help.

Pelagianism is the heresy that thinks that, on some level, it all depends on us. It doesn’t. Jesus saves. Jesus saved Mary. (Even before he was born! Just as Jesus saved Abraham centuries before he was born.) Grace saves. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us holy. The reason we point to Mary as the highest of the saints is precisely to make clear that this is always the work of God: always a matter of staying close to Jesus, and always God acting before we do.

How do we relate to Mary? First, by relying on the grace of Jesus Christ.

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A second wonderful, relatable thing about Mary’s sanctity: Where does she live it? Mary didn’t do anything even slightly interesting in her life. Well, okay, she was the Mother of Jesus. But her role there is as humdrum as humanly possible: she lived closeness to Jesus by being a wife and mother of an ordinary, working-class family in an extraordinarily uninteresting corner of the Roman Empire.

The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary remind us of this ordinary life. The Luminous Mysteries remind us that Mary listened to Jesus just like we do. The Sorrowful Mysteries show us that Mary suffered, too. Now, one might say it is hard to relate to Mary in that her suffering is so much more profound: none of us will have to go through what she went through. But that only emphasizes: in whatever suffering we face – just like in whatever joy we encounter – we are walking the ordinary path that Mary walked.

Finally, in the Glorious Mysteries, we see that Mary looked beyond the borders of this life, to eternity, and the resurrection. But there, too, Mary’s holiness is ordinary: just like us, the real excitement is something to look forward to beyond this world. Until glory came, she lived in hope – and hope which already possesses is not hope at all.

Mary makes sanctity easier to relate to, because she reminds us that it all comes from Jesus, but that it is lived out in the utterly ordinary circumstances of life in this world.

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What then is the holiness we see in Mary?

First, it is love of Jesus – and so the Hail Mary immediately follows “Holy Mary” with “Mother.” Mary is different from us in that she loves him so much more than we do.

Second, it is prayer – for us sinners – which is what we ask of “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” Mary possesses nothing, but she knows how to ask for it from God. That’s another key difference between us and Mary. Finally she prays even for schleps like us: her love of Jesus makes her love all of us. One more key difference between Mary and us.

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How do you relate to “Holy Mary”?

Click here for the entire Hail Mary series.

Hail Mary: The Second Part

Hail Mary ImagePart 8 in our weekly series on the “Hail Mary.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

“The Fruit of Thy Womb”

Hail Mary Image

Part 7 in our weekly series on the “Hail Mary.”

Last week we considered Elizabeth’s words to Mary: “blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” but we only considered the blessing part: we bless Jesus.

This week let us consider the remarkable way she describes Jesus: the fruit of Mary’s womb.

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We can be a bit flippant about these expressions. “Oh, that’s just how they talked.” A parallel example is the line in Genesis, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore” (Genesis 4:1). Most of the time we just shrug our shoulders and say, “oh, that’s just their quaint way of saying, ‘had sex’.” But in John Paul’s biblical meditations on “the theology of the body,” he stops to consider why they talk that way. Why call it “knowing”? Language carries insights – especially biblical language. We should think about the words that Scripture uses to describe things. Adam did not just have sex with his wife. He “knew” her more deeply. (John Paul emphasizes that he knew her as one capable of conceiving: a new element of who she is. Most sex does not include this kind of knowing.)

Similarly, rather than dismiss “fruit of thy womb” as just a quaint way of saying “baby,” we should consider why St. Elizabeth, in the prophetic state of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41), used this expression. The Hail Mary, in fact, is an encouragement to meditate on these words: not to skip over them, but to ponder them, over and over, day after day. “Fruit of her womb”?

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St. Thomas has an almost quaint meditation on the word “fruit.” The fruit of a plant is two things. First, it is the culmination, the perfection. An apple tree grows and matures – until it can bear fruit. That’s the whole purpose of its existence. The word “flourishing” is similarly beautiful: something is literally flourishing when it is in flower. That is the sign of a healthy, adult plant.

So too Jesus is the flourishing of Mary, her perfection, her culmination. This is what she was made for. This is the flourishing of humanity: to bring Jesus into the world. Mary has born fruit!

But second – and even more quaint, almost – St. Thomas points out that fruit is sweet. The same can be said of flowers. Modern science can sometimes get us into an over functional account of these things: The fruit is sweet so that birds will eat it, and poop out the seeds. But let us not miss the gratuitousness of a plum, or a rose: just plain wonderful, sweet.

So too the fruit of Mary’s womb. Not just a product, a fruit. Jesus is sweet!

In fact, one of the tradition’s favorite hymns, maybe written by St. Bernard, is Jesu Dulcis Memoria: “Jesus, sweet to the memory | giving true joy to hearts | but even sweeter your presence | beyond honey and all else.” We should think of Jesus this way: sweeter than honey, the perfect fruit.

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That is the deepest theology of Jesus: he is the one we enjoy. But there is another theological angle on “fruit of thy womb.” It is a statement about Christology.

In a couple weeks we will discuss the most proper theological statement of the truth. “Mother of God” is the perfect culmination of the Christological debates: Jesus is truly God, he is truly man (and thus son of Mary), and there is but one Jesus, not one “part” who is son of Mary, and another who is son of God.

But even finer are the biblical anticipations of this title in Elizabeth’s prophetic words to Mary: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). Anyone familiar with the Old Testament – and Elizabeth is the wife of a priest – knows that “Lord,” Adonai, is the word devout Jews used in place of the unspeakable name YHWH. “The Mother of my Lord” means “the Mother of YHWH.” This says even more than the later theological title, “Mother of God.” Luke 1 uses “Lord” to mean YHWH no fewer than fifteen times.

But in “fruit of thy womb,” Elizabeth encourages us to go deeper. To contemplate the depth of the connection between YHWH and Mary. As in all Marian spirituality, the point is not to exalt Mary. The point is to meditate on how close God has come to us. YHWH himself has not only lain in Mary’s womb, but become the fruit of that womb. Sweeter than honey.

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How do you appreciate the closeness of God in Jesus? How do you savor his sweetness?

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

And Blessed is . . . Jesus

Hail Mary Image

Part 6 in our series on the “Hail Mary”.

I am late on this week’s post because we had a baby Saturday morning. Welcome, Catherine Rose!

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“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Elizabeth’s words make a parallel between the way Mary – and we – are blessed and the way Jesus is blessed. He shares his blessings with us. Our blessing is no less nor more than his. It flows from his blessings, and then returns back to him.

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This too can be called the very heart of the Hail Mary, and the heart of the Gospel: to say, “Blessed is Jesus.” We pray this through all the mysteries of the Rosary: Blessed is Jesus, announced to Mary, and incarnate in her womb; visiting through Mary the visitor; born in poverty; presented by Joseph and Mary; found in the temple. Blessed is Jesus in agony, scourged, crowned with thorns, carrying the cross, crucified and dead and buried. Blessed is Jesus sending the Holy Spirit, carrying his mother to heaven, crowning Mary. Blessed is Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom, transfigured, giving us the Eucharist.

This is, in fact, one of the traditional methods that St. Louis de Montfort recommends to make our rosaries bear real spiritual fruit: to add after the name of Jesus a very brief description of the mystery we are praying, “Jesus, baptized in the Jordan.” If we do nothing else in the rosary but bless Jesus in each of the mysteries, we will have drunk deeply.

And of course we can add other words. Blessed be Jesus my faith, my hope, my love. Blessed be Jesus in this trial, in this small victory, on this happy day, as I begin my work. Or just blessed be Jesus, whenever we can pray.

This is the heart of the Hail Mary. And, conversely, to surround this blessing of Jesus with the Hail Mary is to enter more deeply into it. Because above all, we pray, Blessed be Jesus, who brings joy (Ave!) to Mary, who fills her with grace, who is with her. Blessed is Jesus who makes her holy, who is her child. Blessed is Jesus to whom Mary prays for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Blessed be Jesus!

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In his letter on the Rosary, Pope John Paul II wrote: “The centre of gravity in the Hail Mary, the hinge as it were which joins its two parts, is the name of Jesus. Sometimes, in hurried recitation, this centre of gravity can be overlooked, and with it the connection to the mystery of Christ being contemplated. Yet it is precisely the emphasis given to the name of Jesus and to his mystery that is the sign of a meaningful and fruitful recitation of the Rosary.”

Let us carefully invoke his holy name, and so discover the riches of the Hail Mary.

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Blessed is Jesus: this is the content of heaven. “I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:1-3). “And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna, to the Son of David: Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9). “And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, and the beasts and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing” (Revelation 5:11-12).

“Holy,” “Glory,” “Blessed,” “Hosanna,” “Worthy.” There really is nothing else in heaven to prepare for than to bless Jesus. In heaven we will do nothing but bless him forever. Praying the Hail Mary well – praying “Blessed is Jesus,” with the words that surround and emphasize that central affirmation – is practice for heaven.

It is worth considering how the rest of our lives prepare for heaven precisely insofar as they participate in this blessing. The Commandments mark out things completely inconsistent with blessing Jesus. But really to bless him is to be patient and kind; not to be envious, or puffed up; not to seek our own, but to rejoice in the good (1 Corinthians 13). To bless Jesus in all things.

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How do you bless Jesus, in your prayer and in your work?

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

“Among Women”

Hail Mary ImagePart 5 in our series on the “Hail Mary”.

This week’s meditation on the Hail Mary is about vocation. Mary is not generically blessed: she is blessed among women.

St. Elizabeth’s words pair this statement with a description of Jesus as “the fruit of your womb.” In English (though not Greek or Latin) you could think of the word woman as coming from “womb” (like a man, but with a womb!), and the womb is the most womanly part of woman.

In fact, this pair spells out what we saw in the first pair. Mary is full of grace because the Lord is with her – but the Lord is with her as fruit of her womb, and she is with him, and full of grace, precisely as woman. Mary makes it so concrete: she lives in union with Jesus not through abstraction, but through her vocation as his mother. She carries him, births him, nurses him, cooks and cleans and mothers for him, bosses him around at Cana, and experiences his ministry, his cross, his resurrection, and his ascension – and even Pentecost, and her own arrival in heaven – precisely as his mother. Her vocation colors everything about her relation to him.

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It colors, too, her relation with her neighbor. Beautiful that the one who calls her “blessed among women” is her woman friend – and, indeed, her relative, descended from a common womb – Elizabeth. Together they are doing women’s work, preparing for their babies. She relates to Elizabeth not as an abstract individual, but as a woman – and, in addition to her gender, also in a family, in a place, in a historical period, in a language, etc. They are not abstractions, they are people, and it is there, in their human particularity, that God’s grace comes to meet them.

Nor does Mary’s femininity shut her off, as if “among women” means that she doesn’t get to be around men. Luke adds the nice little detail that she “entered Zechariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:40): Zechariah is around too!

More importantly, Mary has Joseph. There are various things to love about St. Joseph, but one of the finest – Marie-Dominique Philippe’s The Mystery of Joseph explores this in all its Scriptural richness, but it also plays a prominent role, for example, in Leo XIII’s encyclical on St. Joseph Quamquam pluries – is that Joseph is Mary’s husband. Mary and Joseph are not abstractions, they are a man and a woman, making a home together. Together they marvel at the things that are said of Jesus (Luke 2:33), together they seek for him (2:44-46), Mary speaks for his feelings, “your father and I have sought you sorrowing” (2:48). They were engaged to be married, and Joseph trembled to take her to himself, and trembled to lose her. They built a home together, eating dinner, knowing their neighbors, and establishing customs: “his parents went to Jerusalem every year for the passover” (Luke 2:41).

And later Jesus will give Mary to John to be his mother (John 19:26-27), and she will gather with the apostles as “mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14).

In all of these things Mary is profoundly woman, profoundly in relationship, profoundly personal. There is no abstraction in the life of grace. Grace graces our life, in all its particularity.

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Is this limiting? Well, yes and no. To speak of Mary in terms of her womb is to reduce her to biology. And, indeed, Jesus is careful to say there is more to us than just our biological acts: “rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28) But Mary keeps the word of God in her vocation. Her biology – “the womb that bore him, the breasts he sucked” (Luke 11:27) – becomes the place of her encounter with Jesus.

We are limited by our vocations. We cannot meet Jesus anywhere else than where we are. Those limitations are very real: so many things I can’t do – and so many things I must do! But the wonder of the Incarnation is that God, who created this particularity in the first place, then took it on himself when he walked in a particular body in a particular time and place, comes to meet us right where we are. Sometimes that seems unimportant: Mary is “just” a woman, not a priest like Zechariah. But it is God who makes the little things matter.

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By the way: did it ever occur to you that Mary had a funny accent? “They that stood by said again to Peter, Surely you are one of them: for you are a Galilean, your way of speaking gives you away!” (Mark 14:70; cf. Luke 22:59 and Acts 2:7) They will know that we are Christians by our funny accents.

Click here for the rest of the “Hail Mary” series.

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 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.

***

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.