Sunday, September 2, 2012

A sketch of a theological view of the Ave Maria (Hail Mary) prayer

14th century Byzantine Annunciation
 ( Evangelismosicon

This small exposition of mine was drawn up to help me to better reflect on how to teach the Hail Mary prayer, but it got a bit out of hand and there is certainly more content here than just a 4th grade level reflection, which I intended at the outset. All in all, much of my reflection echoes, I think, St. Thomas of Aquinas' reflection on the Hail Mary prayer which did not have the last part of the prayer we know today (Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death). You can find his reflection here.

The prayer Hail Mary is a centuries-old and traditional Catholic prayer that in some of its oldest forms is written without the clause, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. In light of this, we should understand that the prayer itself comes from both the Holy Scriptures and from the light of Catholic Tradition. The full length of the prayer reads:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Our Lady Queen of Angels, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, and blessed art thou amongst women
The prayer begins Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with you, blessed art thou amongst women taken nearly verbatim from Luke 1: 28, “And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women.” This was recited by the archangel St. Gabriel who came as a messenger from the Lord to come and ask Mary to become the mother of Jesus. First we note that St. Gabriel says, Hail! to our Lady, which is very curious indeed. In Psalm 8:5-6, the psalmist notes to us that mankind is made a little less than angels and questions why it is that God goes to such limits to talk to people who are so far below Him as opposed to angels who are much closer to God [1]. But here we see that St. Gabriel the archangel is proclaiming Hail to our Lady, showing that she had a place in God’s heart that was very special and that even he an angel was not superior to, or above, the Virgin Mary.

“I am the Immaculate Conception”, Mary’s sinlessness, looking further into the first few phrases’ meaning
Next we read how she was full of grace and that the Lord is with her. This is what it means then to be full of grace, which is to say that the Lord is always with us. Now the Lord is always with every person and yet not every person is full of grace, but to those who are holy God is with them in a special way. St. Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 3, that the bodies of true Christians are temples for the Holy Spirit. We ought to consider what kind of a temple the Virgin Mary’s body and soul must have been to not only have the Lord with her in her heart and soul, but soon later in her very body. Truly she was the most blessed women of all!

We can get yet further with this reading however, an archangel who was full of grace and the presence of God said with full justice Hail to our Lady and proclaimed her full of grace. You can just imagine St. Gabriel bowing with humility to a woman. What an awesome sight it must have been! However, this also points to the manner in which St. Gabriel was bowing to how much holier she was than even him, because St. John the Apostle tried to bow down to an angel in the Book of Revelations but the angel did not even think of bowing to St. John the Apostle. Mary was much holier than an angel and much holier than St. John the Apostle, but she was not proud of her accomplishment, recognizing that everything she had was from the Lord’s doing and not her own. That is why she says, “…Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to your word. And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1: 38) and what is contained in the magnificat [2].

To be holier than an angel indicates to the Christian believer that Mary must have been sinless in all of her life, and pure from the moment of her existence. Before I go more into why we can know this from this instance I will say why an angel bowing to Mary shows that she is holier than him. An angel bowed in justice to Mary’s excellence, proclaiming Hail, and the reason why Mary is holier than the angel is on account of how many more tests Mary had to occur and succeeded than the angel. Now if both were made without sin and the angel only had to say one yes to God before going to Heaven, how much more is Mary holier than the angel who had to endure years and years of suffering patiently and saying yes to God in so many more instances before being called up into Heaven? In the traditional Catholic sense we can say that Mary merited a greater reward than the angel because she underwent more trials and was successful in her affirmation of the faith, and so that is why she is holier than the angel. Now the angel would not have bowed and said Hail if Mary had any sin in her, because angels do not sin, and sin takes us further away from God and so it wouldn’t be just or right for the angel to be honoring and bowing to someone farther away from God than him. The angel also has what’s called the beatific vision, meaning the vision of God Himself and through that he also knew what was going to happen in the future, and so if Mary had or would ever sin St. Gabriel would know that she was not pure. However, St. Gabriel saw no sin in her past or her future and recognizing her as the Queen of Angels he bowed and said Hail, full of grace, as if Mary’s name itself was not Mary but instead you who should be addressed only as full of grace. This is why in the visions of Lourdes [3] our Lady calls herself the Immaculate Conception, preserving the angel’s naming her as full of grace, indicating that her whole life was grace, just as the Immaculate Conception dogma shows that Mary is full of grace from conception until eternity. [4]

The name of Mary and her pondering the response of St. Gabriel, continued search of the meaning of the first parts of the prayer
After St. Gabriel addressed Mary, Mary was troubled: Luke 1:29, “Who having heard, was troubled at his saying and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.” Why was she troubled? She did not know why an angel was coming to visit her yet, perhaps, and blushed at the title that St. Gabriel gave her on account of her humility, perhaps. She pondered what sort of a salutation was given to her by the angel, and so she was given by the angel an opportunity to not only conceive the Son of God but to grow in grace, perhaps. That is just as St. Simeon prophecy of Mary and Jesus’ fate in Luke 2 was kept in her heart, this greeting by the angel was kept in her heart too in which she would reflect and thank the Lord for His works.

Then, the angel said “30Fear not, Mary, for you have found grace with God.” (Luke 1:30)

Now this is interesting because first the angel had called Mary by the name full of grace, but now noticing how humble Our Lady was he decides to calm her by calling her by her name Mary. Perhaps Mary was still growing in faith and holiness and so her response was sort of like saying, “We should wait to the end to proclaim me blessed because I still hope and rely totally on the Lord to lead me, not on my own sense of self-worth”, to which the angel affirms that this is the humblest way of replying when someone calls us holy, and then seeing that it was appropriate to then call Mary by her own name instead. The angel did not make a mistake however in calling Mary by the name, full of grace, but rather was giving her a small prophecy of her holiness, which as we saw she pondered in her heart, wondering what the Lord was telling her through the angel.

Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb, Jesus
The angel continues:
31 Behold you shall conceive in your womb and shall bring forth a son: and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever. 33 And of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)

Next, St. Gabriel recognizing the holiness of Mary knows that she will always do the will of God and that she will conceive the Creator and Savior of the World. She shall bring forth a Son, named Jesus, or God saves, literally Him being God who saves. Jesus as we know is the Son of the Father, the Most High. His Kingdom shall have no end. Mary had freedom as we do to say yes or no to God’s wishes, but as we become holier and holier we recognize that we in fact lose our freedom when we commit evil, and instead begin to live in what St. Paul calls the bondage of sin [and guilt]. This is how St. Gabriel knew Mary would say yes to God, because she was so holy that saying no to God would have been unthinkable to her!

“And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?” (Luke 1:34) Now reading this we shouldn’t think that Mary was like St. Zachariah who doubted an angel who came to him and said that he would have a son by St. Elizabeth because they were having problems having children. St. Zachariah could not speak for months as punishment for his doubt of the angel who came to him. Mary on the other hand is saying, How shall this be done to me, because I have not yet been with a man, not as if saying that what the angel is saying is crazy, but rather it is more enthusiastic, already willing to say yes to God but asking how it can be done. She jumped at the idea of conceiving the Son of God! She did not even doubt for a second, knowing that “no word shall be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37), as St. Elizabeth proclaims under the influence of the Holy Spirit later on when Mary visits her months later.

Next the angel replies, “And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon you and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)

This is a very important verse. We hear from the Nicene Creed that the Son of God was made incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament whenever God showed His power He did so under cloud and shadow, and this was the sign of His ultimate Holiness and Sanctity. When Moses was on Mount Sinai speaking with God, we read, “16 And the glory of the Lord dwelt upon Sinai, covering it with a cloud six days: and the seventh day he called him out of the midst of the cloud. 17 And the sight of the glory of the Lord, was like a burning fire upon the top of the mount, in the eyes of the children of Israel. 18 And Moses entering into the midst of the cloud, went up into the mountain: And he was there forty days and forty nights.” (Exodus 24:16-18) Just as well we read in the New Testament that when Jesus reveals His divinity in prayer, “And there was a cloud overshadowing them. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying: This is my most beloved Son. Hear him.” (Mark 9:6) . And finally we see that the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament which carried some of the manna from the desert, the Ten Commandments, and the staff of Aaron (the sign of the old priesthood) was covered by God’s glory in cloud and shadow: 18 At the commandment of the Lord they marched, and at his commandment they pitched the tabernacle. All the days that the cloud abode over the tabernacle, they remained in the same place: (Numbers 9:18) The Holy Spirit lifted Mary into shadow and cloud, and as we see God makes use of the cloud and shadow to make known His glory and Power.

God’s glory and power always shows His holiness and Mary is taken up into the cloud and shadow for the express purpose of conceiving the Son of God. In the Old Testament the Ark of the Covenant receives similar cloud and shadow, and it holds the holiest items of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant guaranteed Israel’s victory in many battles. However, we see something new, that is Christ becoming flesh to become the conqueror of the entire world. And He chose to dwell in Mary, whose name is Full of Grace. In the Old Testament, God was very specific about how He wanted the Ark of the Covenant to be made, because it would bear His presence. Now Mary carries God in a totally new way. She carries Jesus who is the Son of the Father, and we should not be amazed that He prepared her with even greater care than the Ark of the Covenant. Her name was Full of Grace! Is there any better preparation than for God to saturate her life with His presence at every moment, even the moment of her conception!?

This is the end of the original prayer, but our prayer continues
The original prayer seems to have ended with the reflection above, but the modern prayer continues: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.

Now we all understand that the saints pray for us, but Mary is the mother of God, because she is the mother of Jesus. On account of her holiness and closeness to God she has a special intercession before God. She is the holiest and most just of all creatures under God, and that is why God delights to have her intercession be more powerful than all of the saints and angels. Mary’s whole identity is wrapped in Jesus’ life and being, and that is how God intended it. That is why He delights to answer her prayers, because when we see that her intercession was successful we are being told by God, see my handmaiden, follow her example, become wrapped and consumed in My Son’s Flesh and Blood. Offer up your own body as a manner of offering like she did! See she followed, follow her, and become like Him!


[1] Psalm 8: 5-6, “5 What is man, that you are mindful of him? Or the son of man, that you visit him? 6 You have made him a little less than the angels, you have crowned him with glory and honour:”

[2] The magnificat is a traditional word used to convey the instance when the Virgin Mary prays and glorifies the Lord for the revelation that St. Elizabeth is given: Luke 1:46-55, “46 And Mary saidMy soul does magnify the Lord. 47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour. 48 Because he has regarded the humility of his handmaid: for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. 49 Because he that is mighty has done great things to me: and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him. 51 He has showed might in his arm: he has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. 52 He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he has sent empty away. 54 He has received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy. 55 As he spoke to our fathers: to Abraham and to his seed for ever.”

[3] An apparition of the Virgin Mary in a small town, Lourdes, France.

[4] St. Thomas of Aquinas in his Exposition on the Angelic Salutation (Expositio Salutationis angelicae) writing on the three parts of the original prayer says: “The Church adds the third part, that is, “Mary,” because the Angel did not say, “Hail, Mary,” but “Hail, full of grace.” But, as we shall see, this name, “Mary,” according to its meaning agrees with the words of the Angels.”

Much of the teaching in this reflection is present in St. Thomas’ exposition, though the parts referring to the Immaculate Conception are denied by him to which I think his position weakens the extent to which an angel ought to salute Mary as above him in grace and honor.

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