The Hail Mary prayer is perhaps the most common Catholic prayers, and one of the most Biblically based prayers in our tradition. This prayer consists of two salutations that come directly from the Gospel of Luke, and a petition for prayer.
Broken into these three constituent parts, you would imagine non-Catholics would take most umbrage at the final part, because that part rests on the Catholic doctrine of the Communion of Saints. But somewhat surprisingly, the one part that is usually the most objected to, is the opening line. This is mostly because of a misunderstanding, and leads to the false charge that Catholics “worship Mary.”
If properly understood, just like everything else in Catholicism, there is nothing in the Hail Mary that would be objected to by any Christian. So let’s take a line-by-line look at this beautiful prayer, and so understand the words of the Hail Mary.
- Part I
“Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord Is With You.”
The first part of The Hail Mary can be found in Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation. In this verse, the angel Gabriel greets the young virgin named Mary with a lofty salutation, he then tells her that she has been shown favor by God, and is to be the mother of the Christ.
And he came to her and said, ” Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”
This Gospel passage is almost verbatim for the words that open this prayer, the only difference being the insertion of the Blessed Mother’s given name.
To really appreciate the depth of meaning in this greeting we have to look at each word in their original language. Now, to be sure, we have no evidence to say that the angel Gabriel spoke Greek to the Blessed Mother, but that is the language that the Holy Spirit inspired Saint Luke to write in, so it’s the one we’ll turn to.
Hail ( Greek: Χαῖρε “Chaire”)
I included the Greek word that was recorded by Saint Luke to express the greeting of Gabriel to this young Jewish girl in Nazareth because its use is disputed by some. This word is used five times in the Gospels, and is always translated as “Hail,” but in some non-catholic translations of the Bible, this word is translated as merely “greetings” in this one verse, but not in the other four. That is what is know as “translator bias” where they translate not according to the text, but according to their own preconceived notions about the text. It’s closely related to the difference between exegesis and eisegesis when it comes to biblical interpretation.
So why go through the trouble to change the translation of a word from “Hail” to “greetings” anyway? There’s a couple possible reasons, one being that “Hail” is falsely thought to convey worship or adoration, but the real reason (in my estimation) is that it gives too much deference to a person that is held in most Protestant theological systems to be just a vessel. According to many modern Protestants, the blessed mother was just another person, just a regular woman that cooperated with God’s grace and said yes, with some even going so far as to say she didn’t have a choice to say no.
This runs in the face of both the greeting of the angel, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when Mary sang her beautiful Magnificat.
The greeting that Gabriel used was a fairly common greeting at that time, and in that part of the world, but it was reserved to greet dignitaries, royalty, religious and civic leaders. It was very strange indeed to use that salutation when speaking to a Jewish teenage girl, in a backwater town, at the edge of the Roman Empire. Unless, of course, Mary was more than just “another Jewish teenager.”
Full Of Grace (Greek:κεχαριτωμένη “kecharitōmenē”)
This word that Saint Luke records is found nowhere else in scripture. Because it’s a singularly used word, it becomes difficult to translate from Greek into English, with many modern translations rendering it as “highly favored” or “favored one,” but these translations fall far short of the greeting from Gabriel that was earth shattering and history changing.
It’s often translated in Catholic Bibles as “Full Of Grace” because of Saint Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation, and but even this translation falls short of what was being said. If like Saint Luke meant to just say “full of Grace” he could’ve used the same words that he did to describe the infusion of Grace that was received by Saint Stephen during his ministry in Acts.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.
The words used by Saint Luke were “plērēs charitos” (Greek: πλήρης χάριτος) that very literally translates into “full of Grace.”
So since Saint Luke was the author of both passages, we can ask why he chose two different phrases to convey the same meaning. I believe the reason is that he didn’t intend it to be the same.
What Gabriel said to the Blessed Mother could accurately be rendered as “you who were perfectly, fully, and completely filled with the Divine Grace Of God.”
This points directly to the Immaculate Conception, and even it’s less glorious translation of “full of Grace” does too, but read in the light of the deeper meaning of kecharitōmenē, we can more easily see that this was no ordinary Jewish teenager, but a sacred vessel who was set apart from even the stain of original sin, from the moment of her conception.
This is also notably the only time in the whole of the Bible that an angel addressed someone by title rather than name. That’s how important this line is, that it became the name that The Blessed Virgin was called by heaven. Full of Grace can legitimately be considered another name for Our Lady.
“When the Fathers and writers of the Church meditated on the fact that the most Blessed Virgin was, in the name and by order of God himself, proclaimed full of grace by the Angel Gabriel when he announced her most sublime dignity of Mother of God, they thought that this singular and solemn salutation, never heard before, showed that the Mother of God is the seat of all divine graces and is adorned with all gifts of the Holy Spirit.” -Bl. Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus
But we cannon confuse this to mean that she did not need the salvific work of Christ on Calvary to be saved, for she herself called God her “savior” in her song of praise, The Magnificat. The Blessed Mother was preserved from Original Sin by an act of God, and through the merits of her Son, Jesus Christ.
“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” -Bl. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus
The Lord is With You
This portion of the greeting logically follows from the previous part. If she was preserved from Original Sin, it was only because of the “singular Grace” of Almighty God, as Blessed Pope Pius IX defines it, then the Lord was truly with her at all times. She had received this Grace from God, and was in communion with Him, from the moment of her Immaculate Conception. The Lord was with her, and would soon be with her physically by living inside her for the next nine months. Just in the same way that the Lord is with us from the moment of our receiving the Holy Spirit at our baptism, and then in a physical way He comes to use in the Blessed Sacrament.
Mary had been reserved by the Holy Spirit to be the new Ark of the Covenant, the tabernacle Of The New Covenant, for our Lord to reside in.
- Part II
“Blessed art Thou among women
And Blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.”
This part of the prayer comes from the greeting of Elizabeth (the mother of John the Baptist) to her cousin, except that Elizabeth never said Jesus’ name. At this point she wouldn’t have known the name of Our Lord, because Mary had just arrived and they didn’t have long distance calling plans back then.
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the child leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
Between this greeting, and the fact that Mary later says, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that “all generations shall call me Blessed,” we generally refer to her as The Blessed Mother. By calling her this title, we are only obeying what the Holy Spirit said through both Elizabeth and Mary herself.
“To them Mary is an almost infinite treasury, an inexhaustible abyss of these gifts, to such an extent that she was never subject to the curse and was, together with her Son, the only partaker of perpetual benediction. Hence she was worthy to hear Elizabeth, inspired by the Holy Spirit, exclaim: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” -Bl. Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus
An interesting note here, is that Elizabeth calls the unborn child “the fruit” of Mary’s womb. This plays a very important role in one of the earliest titles of the Blessed Mother, “Theotokos.”
This title means “God Bearer” and was a direct response to the Nestorian heresy that claimed she only gave birth to the humanity of Jesus and not His divinity. But we’ll look more deeply at that in part III
- Part III
“Holy Mary, Mother of God
Pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.
Now we are at the final part of the prayer. This is the only part that isn’t meant to be a quotation from Sacred Scripture, but is nonetheless scriptural. This part of the prayer is our addressing and petitioning the Blessed Mother.
We’ll take this final part one piece at a time, like we did with Part I.
Because of the fact that Mary is fully, completely, and perfectly filled with the grace of God, and because of her perfect conformity to God’s will evidenced by her fiat found in Luke 1:38, we rightfully and justly call her Holy.
Once again, just as with any created being, her holiness is not of her own making, but derived from her cooperation with the Graces that God gave to her. Believe it or not, this is the level of holiness that we are all called to attain by virtue of our baptism. We are all called to be Holy as God is Holy (1 Peter 1:16), and God doesn’t ask of us anything that is impossible. With God’s grace we call all be Holy and become saints, with the Blessed Mother as our most perfect example of holiness.
Mother of God
So how can Mary, a finite created being, be the mother of God, who is eternal and infinite? This title for the Blessed Mother, often rendered in Greek as Theotokos, as I mentioned earlier is one of the oldest titles for her. The reason it was so important for the Council of Ephesus to confirm this title of Our Lady was because of a heresy called Nestorianism, and it’s implications for the understanding of Christology.
Nestorius had rejected the traditional title of Theotokos, and instead referred to her as “christotokos.” This title means “Christ bearer” or “mother of Christ” and by itself is not at all objectionable, because Mary is the mother of Christ. But just like almost all heresies, this was just an insidious way to sneak in his real beliefs, that Jesus and the Son of God were two distinct and separate persons. That Jesus Christ was a man born of the Virgin Mary, and that the second person of the Trinity came and indwelt inside the man Jesus. Being in the same body, but two separate persons. This ran counter to the orthodox position that Jesus has two distinct natures and two distinct wills, but they exist within the single hypostatic union. As the council of Chalcedon would later codify with this statement,
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
1 John 1:8-10
We ask Mary to pray for us because we believe in the Communion of Saints, and that those in heaven can and do intercede for us before the throne of God. Just as we’d ask a fellow Christian to pray for us, we can ask any Saint in heaven to pray for us, and they do. This is evident from the Revelation of Saint John.
But we ask for the Blessed Mother’s intercession even more than other Saints, and there are some very good reasons (among many more I’m sure) for this.
Reason number one is the fact that Jesus performed His first miracle at the behest of His mother. You could call this the first instance of Our Lady’s miraculous intercession on behalf of others. When the wine ran out at the wedding in Cana, she came to Jesus and told them “they have no wine.” Because she was cared about the hosts and how embarrassing it would be to run out of wine at a first century Jewish wedding. When Our Lord gave His mother to the Apostle John, while they both stood at the foot of His Cross, it was both a good Jewish Son making sure His mother would be looked after, but also symbolic of her motherhood over all the Church. So as a mother, Mary cares about us the same way that she cared about that newlywed couple in Israel some 2000 years ago.
My favorite part of that Gospel account is what Our Lady said to the servants at the wedding; she told them to “do whatever He tells you.” She says this to us to this day. The Blessed Mother points is to her Son, and says “do whatever He tells you.”
The second reason we seek her intercession, more than even the other saints, is because of her position as the Queen Mother. In the kingdom of Israel, the mother of the king was the true queen, while the king’s wife held no power until the Queen Mother died.
Bathshe’ba said, “Very well; I will speak for you to the king.” So Bathshe’ba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adoni’jah. And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a seat brought for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right. Then she said, “I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me.” And the king said to her, “Make your request, my mother; for I will not refuse you.”
1 Kings 2:18-20
This is a model of the intercession that we seek from the successor to King Solomon’s throne. We can, and should do so daily (at least), pray to The Father, Jesus and The Holy Spirit, but we should also ask others to pray for us, both alive on earth and those alive in heaven. Those in heaven are more alive than ever before and are unencumbered by the cares of this life, so they make constant intercession on our behalf. Ask them to pray for you, and ask Our Lady especially. I do every day.
On The Solemnity Of The Annunciation Of The Lord,