Hail Mary: the greeting means health, happiness, good news. We can approach it as an immediate entry into the transformation God has worked in her. Hello, oh virtuous one! How fortunate you are to be good!
Full of grace: in Catholic theology, grace is the effect of God’s work on us. In one direction, this greeting reminds us, immediately, that Mary’s virtues are a gift from Christ. In the other direction, they remind us that Christ really does give her gifts, really does fill her with his graces, to make her good.
The Lord is with thee: this says almost the same thing, but in reverse. Her virtue comes from her nearness to Christ. But it also exists for his presence: he makes her good so that she can meet him, so that she can fully embrace his presence.
Blessed art thou among women: in her own vocation, as a woman, in her own humanity, how fortunate she is – to be good, filled with Christ’s grace, so that she can encounter Christ in all the mysteries of the rosary.
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus: oh, and how good he is! How her virtues mirror his, and his virtues mirror hers – he who comes to share in her nature, to be so close to her that he can have human virtues, and she can have divine ones.
Holy Mary: the truest definition of her virtue is holiness. What a prayer these two words are in themselves: just to ponder the holiness of Mary. And again, holiness is defined as a gift from God, really changing her, so that she returns to God.
Mother of God: the second half of the prayer makes a turn, from simply meditating on Mary’s virtues, to begging her to pray for us. And so we invoke her power, the strange relationship that allows her, with the audacity of Cana, to beg Jesus to act. But it is the audacity of cheek-to-cheek: she is not God’s boss, but rather the one he has chosen to let hold him in her arms.
Pray for us sinners: we ask her to pray precisely in relation to our non-holiness, our lack of virtue. You have it, Mary – pray for us who don’t!
Now and at the hour of our death: in all of our needs. Looking forward to our death, we realize how deeply we need to be transformed, to be like Mary, so that we can cling to Jesus even in the hardest times.
Each mystery of the rosary gives us an encounter between Mary and Jesus. They are not all really meditations on Jesus himself: in the first two and the last two, at least, he is kind of hard to see.
But neither are they mysteries of Mary alone. She is not even present for many of the luminous and sorrowful mysteries, and Mary’s whole life is defined by relation to Jesus. If we separate her from him, we lose everything.
At the end of the Paradise, Dante sees the Trinity in the eyes of Mary. In the rosary we see Jesus in the eyes of Mary. We see the gaze, the union, the connection: him living for her, and her living for him.
This comes especially alive if we meditate on the virtues. Each mystery makes tremendous demands of Mary. Each mystery, in fact, demands all the virtues: that she figure out how to live (prudence), leave behind pleasure (temperance), fulfill her human obligations (justice), believe the unthinkable truths of God (faith), trust in his strength (hope), and love. Each mystery gives us an opportunity to see what every virtue looks like in its fullest development: in the encounter with Christ.
But so too each mystery lets us see those virtues radiate out from Christ himself. At the Cross Christ demands the ultimate fortitude from his mother – and from his Sacred Heart it radiates to her, so that she stands with his strength. These encounters with Christ that are the mysteries of the rosary show us what it means for Christ to give us the strength to meet him.
There are traditional lists of virtues, one for each mystery. But we can bring whatever list we want, meditate on whatever virtue we are looking for. We can do one virtue per rosary, one per mystery, or even one for each Hail Mary. I like to count to ten with Faith, Hope, Charity, and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or the Seven Beatitudes. (This is easier if you just pray one mystery at a time.)
What virtues do you find in the mysteries of the rosary?