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.
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).
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.