“For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed." (Luke 1:48)
It was with great humility that Mary spoke these prophetic words to Elizabeth. Mary thought of herself as a mere servant of the Lord. Yet, she understood her role in the Father’s plan of salvation would bring honor to her for all ages to come. Our devotion to Mary and her ongoing role in our salvation cannot be diminished. "The Church's devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship.” (Catechism, 971) It is with great joy and great spiritual benefit that we pray the Hail Mary.
Praying to Mary can be misunderstood by some. Devotion can appear to be adoration. Intercession can appear to be mediation. But Mary is not adored and is not our mediator. The Church teaches “This very special devotion ... differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and to the Father and the Holy Spirit." (Catechism, 971) and “Jesus, the only mediator, is the way of our prayer; Mary, his mother and ours, is wholly transparent to him: she ‘shows the way’, and is herself ‘the Sign’ of the way.” (Catechism, 2675)
The Hail Mary is an important prayer and one Catholics usually learn immediately after the Lord’s Prayer. About memorizing prayers, the Church teaches “The memorization of basic prayers offers an essential support to the life of prayer, but it is important to help learners savor their meaning.” (Catechism, 2688) Let’s take a fresh look at the Hail Mary, line by line, and savor its meaning.
Comparing the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer
It is characteristic of love to think first of the one we love. In the Lord’s Prayer, we open by addressing “Our Father”. We first acclaim His glory and give Him honor. It is only after we are respectfully in His presence that we begin to offer Him our petitions of daily bread, forgiveness, freedom from temptation and deliverance from evil. We magnify the Father’s glory and entrust our petitions to Him.
Similarly in the Hail Mary, we open by addressing Mary. We first acclaim the grace and blessing bestowed upon her by the Father. We also acclaim the blessedness of her Son. After we are respectfully in her presence, we ask her to pray for us. We “magnify with her the great things the Lord has done for her, and to entrust supplications and praises to her.” (Catechism, 2692) The two prayers follow the same format, but there are some subtle differences.
In the Lord’s Prayer, the Father is worshiped directly. In the Hail Mary, the Father is worshiped indirectly. Mary is honored, but the honor she receives is directed to the Father. He is the source of her grace and Mary is blessed because “the Lord is with thee”.
In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for His will to be done. In the Hail Mary, we do not ask that Mary’s will be done. Mary’s will is already the will of the Father. “Mary gave her consent in faith at the Annunciation and maintained it without hesitation at the foot of the Cross.” (Catechism, 2674)
In the Lord’s prayer, specific petitions (bread, forgiveness and deliverance) are offered to the Father. In the Hail Mary, Mary is simply asked to pray for us. Mary takes our needs to the Lord, but only the Father can grant us bread, forgive us and deliver us.
Why pray the Hail Mary
Since everything in the Hail Mary leads back to the Lord, one might wonder why pray to Mary at all. Praying directly to the Father sounds easier and more efficient than having someone in between. There is, however, a very compelling reason to pray to Mary. We need a loving mother to intercede for us and take our prayers to the Lord when the Lord is not hearing our prayers…and in some cases, He will not.
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” (Habakkuk 1:2). The idea of a loving and forgiving God often leads us to forget there are times when God will not hear or honor our prayers. Sin separates us from the Father so He will not listen…”It is your crimes that separate you from your God, it is your sins that make him hide his face so that he does not hear you” (Isaiah 59:2). Sometimes our lack of faith gets in the way…”one who doubts must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7). The Father does not hear our prayer for forgiveness if we have not forgiven (Mark 11:25). The way a husband treats his wife can even be a hindrance to prayer…”husbands should live with your wives in understanding, showing honor to the weaker female sex, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7). The list goes on.
When our transgressions offend the Father and He turns His face from us, our Mother is there with understanding and compassion. We can ask her to pray for us, and she will go to her Son, and the Son will lead his lost sheep back to the Father. Her intercession is never-ending and she is holy beyond anyone on earth that we could ask to pray for us. Whatever our state of sin, Mary hears all prayers and takes them to her Son, who goes to the Father.
The Hail Mary
“The Churches developed their prayer to the holy Mother of God, centering it on the person of Christ manifested in his mysteries.” (Catechism, 2675)
“The greeting of the angel Gabriel opens this prayer. It is God Himself who, through his angel as intermediary, greets Mary.” (Catechism, 2676 referring to Luke 1:28)
The word angel comes from the Greek word ?γγελος (angelos) and literally translates as “messenger”. In ancient times, the angelos of a king was received as the embodiment of the individual they represented. Gabriel was God’s messenger and the embodiment of God to Mary. When Gabriel spoke, he spoke the words God gave to him, not his own interpretation of God’s message. Understanding the concept of an angelos and the true source of Gabriel’s words is key to understanding a lot about our devotion to Mary.
In the original text of Scripture, the word “Hail” comes from the Greek word Χα?ρε (khaire). This word was used as a greeting of profound honor reserved for royalty. An interesting fact about the use of this word in the New Testament is it appears on only three occasions: Gabriel’s greeting to Mary…When Judas betrays Jesus (“Hail Rabbi”, Matthew 26:47) and when the guards mock Jesus (“Hail king of the Jews”, Matthew 27:29). Gabriel’s (thus God’s) greeting bestows upon her the royalty of Her Son and ties her to the Passion and Death of Jesus. From the first word of Gabriel’s greeting to Mary we learn that Catholics did not invent honoring our Blessed Mother, God did…by His greeting through His messenger.
This helps us begin to understand why Mary became confused at the greeting. Although she was from the line of David, she considered herself to be nothing more than a lowly handmaid of God (Luke 1:48). Mary would certainly be troubled and unsure of a royal greeting when she did not consider herself to be royalty.
Full of grace
“Our prayer dares to take up this greeting to Mary with the regard God had for the lowliness of his humble servant and to exult in the joy he finds in her.” (Catechism, 2676)
In the original Greek text of Scripture, Gabriel’s actual greeting was “Χα?ρε κεχαριτωμ?νη”. We know Χα?ρε means “Hail”. Let’s look into the next word. It is very unique and has a very deep meaning.
κεχαριτωμ?νη (kecharitomene) is translated in some Bibles as “full of grace” and in other Bibles as “favored one”. Both are loosely correct, but neither reveals the true meaning of the word. Grammatically, the word is of the past perfect tense, meaning that the action of giving grace had already occurred. God’s grace was not going to happen with the conception of Jesus. God’s grace had already been accomplished.
What makes the greeting of Gabriel even more interesting is that he did not say “Hail, you are kecharitomene” but rather “Hail kecharitomene.” Gabriel used the word as a title for Mary, along the lines of “Hail Rabbi” or “Hail King”. Gabriel was not describing the state of Mary’s grace or telling her that she was full of grace. This further explains why Mary was troubled and confused by the greeting. Gabriel greeted her with a title, not by her name.
What is most interesting about this word, though, is it does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament. This word, this title, is uniquely given to Mary and nobody else. It was given to her by the Father through His messenger. There are those who might disagree, but the greeting of Gabriel is a strong basis for the Immaculate Conception.
The Lord is with you
“Mary is full of grace because the Lord is with her. The grace with which she is filled is the presence of him who is the source of all grace...Mary is wholly given over to Him who has come to dwell in her.” (Catechism, 2676)
The source of Mary’s grace is the Lord. To honor Mary by acknowledging her grace is to magnify the Lord, who is the source of her grace. His grace came to her at her own conception, freeing her from Original Sin. This is why Mary, who remained sinless, still needed a Savior. The Lord’s grace was with Mary her entire life, protecting her from sin so she could be a holy dwelling place for the Lord. In the Old Testament, God’s holy dwelling was the Ark of the Covenant. Mary’s womb is the new Ark of the Covenant, where the glory of God’s Son would dwell.
Blessed are you among women
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42)
This was Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary. Elizabeth was the first of many generations to call Mary blessed. When we pray the Hail Mary, we do not bless Mary. Only the Father can bestow blessings. We join Elizabeth in calling Mary blessed, fulfilling Mary’s own prophetic words “from now on will all ages call me blessed.” (Luke 1:48)
This greeting is comparable to words the Lord spoke to Abraham. Because of Abraham’s faith, the Lord told him “I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.” (Genesis 3:2-3). Mary is blessed by the Lord and she is also a blessing to all the families of the earth who are blessed through her Son.
Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus
“The Hail Mary reaches its high point in the words ‘blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’” (Catechism, 435)
The name of Jesus is at the heart of all Christian prayer. “There is no other way of Christian prayer than Christ. Whether our prayer is communal or personal, vocal or interior, it has access to the Father only if we pray ‘in the name’ of Jesus.” (Catechism, 2664) Jesus is the reason we Hail Mary. Jesus is the reason Mary is full of grace. Jesus is the reason Mary is blessed among women. Jesus is the reason we honor Mary, because she gave us our Savior.
Mary is holy, but not because she remained sinless. The word “holy” is often misunderstood. It usually invokes thoughts of piety and righteousness, or someone with a halo around their head. In the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the word used for holy was ??????? (qadosh), meaning “set apart”. In like manner, the Greek text of the New Testament uses the word ?γιον (hagion), also meaning “set apart”. Being holy is not a state of being sinless. Being holy is the deep desire to be set apart from the world and the things of the world.
Mary was set apart from the world for the glory of God to bring His Son into the world. God chose Mary for His divine purpose and Mary chose to be set apart from the world to fulfill God’s purpose. God commands us to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16, Leviticus 19:2). The Lord calls each of us to a divine purpose. When we choose to be holy, set apart from the world, we can resist temptations of sin and fulfill the Lord’s divine purpose for our own life.
Mother of God
“With Elizabeth we marvel, ‘and why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’ Because she gives us Jesus, her son, Mary is Mother of God and our mother." (Catechism, 2677)
To call Mary the Mother of God is confusing to some. They would argue that Mary cannot be the Mother of God because she did not create God, she did not exist before Jesus and she did not give Jesus His divinity. They prefer to call Mary Theotokos, or God-bearer. A simple, but incorrect, interpretation of Theotokos is that Mary was the bearer of Christ’s human nature only and not His divine nature. But, disregarding all confusion, we can truly say Mary is the Mother of God.
By definition, a mother is the female parent who conceives and gives birth to a person. A woman becomes a mother when a person is conceived within her womb. Mary conceived and bore Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity. At birth, Jesus as God assumed a human nature. However, at birth Jesus did not become disconnected with the Holy Trinity. He was still consubstantial with the Father. Jesus was not a human person with a divine nature, He was a divine person with a human nature. To say Mary is the Mother of God is not to say she created God or gave Jesus His divine nature. Mary gave birth to Jesus, a divine person with a human nature. Mary is the Mother of God.
Mary is also our mother. A child who is adopted calls the woman parent “mother”. In this respect, the child is not saying the woman gave birth to them. Rather, it indicates the woman has authority and responsibility over the adopted child in raising them. It is a sign of honor and respect given to the woman by the child and an affirmation the child is truly part of the family. We are adopted children of God. “He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:5) and “to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Mary did not give birth to us, but as adopted children of God, the Mother of God is also our mother.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
“We can entrust all our cares and petitions to her [Mary]: she prays for us as she prayed for herself: ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ By entrusting ourselves to her prayer, we abandon ourselves to the will of God together with her: ‘Thy will be done.’" (Catechism, 2677)
We do not offer our petitions to Mary instead of Jesus. We do not pray to Mary expecting her to wield some motherly power over Jesus to get Him to change his mind or do her bidding. We simply ask for her intercession. Mary intercedes for us in the perfect will of Jesus. Her prayer is according to the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.”
”By asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the ‘Mother of Mercy’. We give ourselves over to her now, in the Today of our lives. And our trust broadens further, already at the present moment, to surrender ‘the hour of our death’ wholly to her care. May she be there as she was at her son's death on the cross. May she welcome us as our mother at the hour of our passing to lead us to her son, Jesus, in paradise.” (Catechism, 2677)
The Hail Mary is a prayer based on Luke Chapter 1. It is a prayer that honors Mary, but is intended to magnify the great works of the Father done in and through Mary. It is a prayer about Jesus. It glorifies Jesus, the blessed fruit of her womb. It calls out to our Holy Mother, the Mother of God, for help and intercession. We trust Mary to lead us to her Son and pray for us when we are lost. We believe Mary loves us as she loves her own Son and will care for our spiritual well-being now and at the hour of our death. AMEN!