The Hail Mary: A Closer Look
By Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
If there is one vocal prayer that is typically Catholic it is the Hail Mary. We say it so many times in different ways, but especially in the recitation of the Angelus and the Holy Rosary, and by now must have said it some thousands of times. As we know the present Hail Mary is really two prayers, one after the other: the Hail Mary properly so-called, and what not too many centuries ago was called the Holy Mary. Confessors would tell their penitents to recite, say, three or five or whatever the number of Holy Marys. We say it so many times almost subconsciously that if there is correspondingly any one vocal prayer that deserves to be looked at more closely it is this one. My plan is to take this prayer in sequence word for word, or better, term for term, in a prolonged meditation on what its sentiments really mean.
This is no casual greeting. It is more than a meaningless “hello” that the angel addressed to Mary at the Annunciation. The best rendition of the word “hail” is “rejoice,” “be happy,” and it contains a messianic reference to the joy that God had in store for man by becoming Man. It is, moreover, an imperative telling Mary to be joyful, that the dawn of man’s salvation was at hand.
The title “Mary” was Mary’s before she was so addressed by the angel. It means, among other things, “Lady,” corresponding to our English word, “Lord.” “Lord” for Christ; “Lady” for Mary. She is then the “Domina” even as He is the “Dominus.” It is, in fact, the revealed basis for Mary’s Queenship. She was to be the Mother of the Lord of the Universe and therefore the Queen of mankind. One of the most popular devotions in France, I am told for some time now is devotion to Mary, Queen of the Universe. Makes sense, if her Son is Lord of the Universe. That is what the title “Mary” means.
Full of Grace
Our version of the Hail Mary is based on the Vulgate translation of the Bible. As you know this translation was done by St. Jerome in the early fifth century on order of Pope St. Damasus I. It is the one and only translation that has been formally approved by an Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church. Not only approved but declared by the Council to be authentic, that is, this translation (I am speaking of the whole Bible, including this passage) contains accurately the substance of God’s revelation to man. There are, as by now we know, many other translations of the corresponding Greek words in the New Testament text, for example, “so highly favored,” or just, “highly favored,” but these translations are merely verbal renditions of the Greek. They do not contain the fullness of doctrinal content that the Church considers to be contained in what is really meant by the words: gratia plena.
How, we ask, is Mary “full of grace”? She is full of grace first of all because she was conceived without Original Sin. Anyone who is in the possession of grace from the first moment of his or her conception would be without Original Sin. Mary was. Moreover, throughout life she received such an abundance of grace as no one except Christ ever had or will obtain. Again she received grace that not only began her life immaculate, but it kept her absolutely sinless. She remained free from the least even indeliberate venial sin all through life. Then, too, she received grace that kept all her desires totally under control. Unlike the rest of us, Mary had no unruly passions. She had desires, strong desires, but they were always totally submissive to reason under the influence of this fullness of grace. Finally, and most emphatically, she received the unique grace of being invited to become the Mother of the Author of grace. That is quite graceful!
The Lord Is With You
This is a direct quotation from the Archangel Gabriel. How, we ask, was the Lord with Mary? He was with her by the grace of His friendship which she enjoyed. Notice the Lord was not only near her or in her, but with her. He was also with her by the faith that she had in what God had revealed about His coming to redeem the human race. Saint Augustine, among other Fathers of the Church, tells us that Mary had first conceived God in spirit by faith before she conceived Him in the flesh in her body. It was her deep faith that especially, as far as we can use the language, invited the grace of becoming the Mother of Christ.
The Lord was with Mary, and remained with Mary, by His astounding Providence. God, we should tell ourselves, never gives any grace in isolation. He does not just, as it were, give grace and then walk away. The Lord was with her because He surrounded her with His care and arranged everything in her life to fulfill His providential purpose in her life. But, we should then add, the Lord was with Mary, because she was with Him. And this was already before the Incarnation. That “with” implies a conjunction. You are not really with somebody, whatever the preposition means, unless the person is correspondingly also with you.
She, we may safely believe, was always thinking about God. She was also with Him in will. She was always doing what He wanted. She was with Him in heart. As the Evangelists record Mary’s speech we do not hear her speaking very often. Yet, on the few occasions when a dialogue is recorded between Mary and her Son, she expresses the most tender, motherly affection. We may be sure she thought of God a lot, she did God’s will, and she was speaking to Him in sentiments of affection every time she could.
Blessed Are You Among Women
We turn now from what the angel said to Mary to how she was greeted by her kinswoman Elizabeth at the Visitation. Said Elizabeth: “Of all women you are the most blessed.” What does this mean? It means first of all that Mary was unique among all women in becoming a mother without losing her virginity. Mary was unique because she was the Mother of the Messiah. Mary was especially unique among women because the Child she carried in her womb was her Creator. When she gave birth to Christ she could tell Him, or speaking of Him, say: “This is my body,” because it was of her that He took on human flesh. So that we teach and we believe: caro Jesu, caro Mariae. When God decided to become man He chose to take His flesh of a woman. Surely that Mother was unique.
But Elizabeth does not say merely that Mary was unique among women. That is not what Luke tells us. Elizabeth calls Mary “blessed” which means “happy.” This is two greetings of “happiness” in a row, all in the same chapter of Luke – one from the angel, the other from her relative. Our Lady, then, was the happiest of women, in order to reassure us that God wants us already in this life to be happy. And what is the condition of happiness? The one perfectly verified by Mary. It was her humble acceptance of God’s will, her submission to His mysterious, and how mysterious, designs.
The greatest problem with God’s mysteries is not really that we cannot wrap our finite minds around the infinitely mysterious God; the problem is that some of God’s mysteries have to be lived. Mary lived in mystery which means that she lived God’s will without ever fully understanding why. And the two dramatic occasions when she asked questions-remember? – one at the Annunciation and the other at the finding in the Temple, reveal for all times what we need especially to learn from this happiest of women – that she walked in darkness. The darkness of faith! Sure she believed, but that is what faith means – you believe without fully understanding. Mary’s joy, therefore, was a result of Mary’s conformity to the will of God. Need we add, there is no other means available to man in this valley of tears to be happy. The secret is to do His will without demanding an explanation from God.
And Blessed Is The Fruit Of Your Womb, Jesus
Elizabeth said not only that Mary was happy, but that the Child in her womb was happy, too. So He was because already in the womb Christ’s humanity was substantially united to the Word of God. Already when enveloped in the flesh in His Mother and yet unborn, Christ as Man enjoyed the beatific vision of the Trinity. Who would not be happy in beholding the face of God? Mystics have written eloquently about Christ’s hidden life but let us remind ourselves that this hidden life began in the womb. His happiness in this hiding is a lesson for all of us who find being unknown or unrecognized or forgotten so hard to take. Recently in a small gathering of religious when soft drinks were being served, I noticed one of the members of the party was overlooked. He held back for a few minutes, but then you could tell how humiliated and embarrassed he was that just thoughtlessly nobody served him. How human! How real! How we dread to be ignored. How we want, oh how we want, to be known.
But like His Mother, Christ too was doing the will of God. He was happy because He was doing it. Here we touch on the touchstone of the experience of sanctity. No one in his right mind, who has strived well or not so well to do God’s will, will deny that that will can be costly, it can make demands on human generosity and self sacrifice. So we ask, what is the compensation? No one does anything unless they get something out of it. What do the great saints and friends of God, what – let us be frank – what do they get out of doing God’s will? How I like this passage from Ignatius: “The highest reward that a servant of Jesus should expect in this world from human beings is what his Master received from His own contemporaries: opposition, crucifixion, and death.” But does God give something to those who serve Him? Yes! But this yes you do not talk about. This yes you must experience. It is the experience of joy that no one else can give except God and He gives to no one except to those who are doing His will and in the exact measure in which they do it.
Mary has many titles in the Litany of our Lady. She has more titles in the churches in Rome, and still more in the Byzantine Liturgy. I never counted them, but I am told there is a different feast with a different title for our Lady for every day in the Byzantine calendar. Yet this one title, “Holy Mary,” has been given to her by the Church because she was the holiest of human beings; she was the holiest of creatures, always after Christ, who is God.
She practiced all the virtues to a sublime degree. She never sinned, but, and I think this bears some emphasis, she was mainly holy not so much by what she did, because as far as we can tell she did not do anything extraordinary; she was mainly so holy because of what she was. She possessed the grace of God. We should emphasize this further, that her holiness was not only because she was the Mother of Christ, indeed, the Mother of God, but because she was in the friendship of God and this kind of holiness we all have access to, and please God, we all possess, trusting that we are in His friendship. This essential sanctity which we share in common with Mary we have because we are in the state of grace.
To be noted, however, is that when we address Mary as holy, we are not only speaking of her holiness then. When is that? When she still lived on earth. We are also talking to Mary and addressing her as holy now. She is holy because she now possesses in Heaven a treasury of glory comparable to the fullness of grace she had on earth.
Grace on earth is a condition for glory. The degree of grace is a measure of glory. Though the expression would sound odd, we could legitimately say, instead of speaking of Mary as full of grace, that being now in Heaven she is full of glory. She is the most fully glorified of God’s creatures, always after her own divine Son. This holiness of our Lady is not only to be praised. It is also to be invoked. She is so powerful in Heaven as our intercessor because she is so close to God. The closer a person is to God, the more holy he is. This is another word for holiness: closeness to God. Mary is the closest to God. Because she is that close to God, that is, so holy, she is more powerful before the throne of God than any other angel or saint.
Moreover, Mary’s holiness is not only to be admired and invoked. It is also to be imitated. She is our model of holiness. She is, as the spiritual writers tell us, the imitatrix Christi, the imitator of Christ. Perfect! She is the one who faithfully mirrored His sanctity in the many virtues she practiced. But let us note with Mary, though undoubtedly she practiced the moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, it was especially her practice of what we call the theological virtue of charity that made her so like Christ in spirit, because she loved Him, who was like her in body, because He was her Son.
Mother Of God
Already Elizabeth addressed Mary as “the Mother of my Lord.” And so the Church has been doing ever since. She was God’s Mother because she conceived and gave birth to Jesus Christ who is God, that is why she was immaculately conceived. When God gives a vocation He always plans ahead of time. Knowing that she was to become the Ark of the Covenant and the first Tabernacle of the Most High. He prepared her body and soul already at her conception. That is also why she was eventually assumed into Heaven not only in soul, but also in body. Makes supernatural sense that she might be in the flesh in the company of the Word of God to whom she had given flesh.
This title “Mother of God” is the index of a true faith. By this standard in the early centuries heresy was identified. Those who admitted that Mary was the Mother of God were those who believed that her Son was God. So it has been ever since. Only those, how well I know in dealing for so many years with our separated brethren on their theological faculties, only those really believe in Christ’s divinity, who simply and unqualifiedly accept Mary’s divine maternity. Anyone who has reservations about Mary being the Mother of God, has reservations about her Son being the Infinite God.
Pray For Us Sinners Now And At The Hour Of Our Death
This closing invocation to the Blessed Virgin is at once a confession and a plea. It is a confession that we, unlike Mary, are all sinners. Remember the description of the episodes surrounding the apparitions of our Lady to St. Bernadette at Lourdes when our Lady would recite the rosary with Bernadette? Remember what Mary did as far as Bernadette could tell? She would skip saying the Hail Mary, quite correctly. Whatever other reason she had, she could not possibly invoke herself. But most of all she could not possibly call herself what she was not, a sinner. We are! We are, unlike Mary, sinners by inheritance. We have been conceived, let us use the word, “maculately.” We have been conceived with a “macula,” the stain of the sin that the whole human race except Christ and His Mother, we believe, has inherited.
We are, moreover, sinners by environment. No doubt the society in which Mary lived was in its own way also a sinful society, but unlike Mary we have been not only stained by sin when we came into the world, we have further been stained by the sin of the people around us. We have especially been stained and are sinners by commission, by having offended the God against whom every offense is a sin. We, then, confess that we are sinners.
But besides being a confession, it is a plea. The plea is that Mary might intercede with Christ for us. First of all, now – right now – as we sinners are frightened by the memory of our past sins, as we struggle with ourselves and with others to keep out of sin. One of the hardest things in dealing with people is to keep from becoming entangled in their sins. So we pray that we might be helped now.
We end by asking that we might be protected at the hour of our death. This is our daily and many times daily prayer for final perseverance. Let’s be clear in what we are saying. The Church bids us believe that we need to pray for the gift of final perseverance which is not by itself merited even by a lifetime of virtue.
Just because a person has lived a good life does not, by itself, guarantee dying in God’s friendship. Over and above this, we must pray for the extraordinary grace that the moment before we enter eternity we receive the gift of dying in the friendship of God. This grace will be given, but not because we have earned it by living a good life. In other words, virtue alone is no promise of dying in the state of grace. We must moreover pray for the grace of a happy death. It is the single greatest grace that any human being can receive. No other can compare with it. And this grace, the Church tells us, must be constantly and earnestly prayed for. That is what we are praying for and confidently hope for because we are asking the Mother of the God who will judge us the moment we die. We are asking her to ask her Son to be merciful. He will be because He loves her. Mary always obtains whatever she wants, provided we have the faith to trust her and the humility to admit our need.
Taken from the chapter entitled, “The Hail Mary” from Father John A. Hardon’s book, Theology of Prayer.
Copyright © 2000 Inter Mirifica. Used with permission.
Previously published in The Tilma, Summer 2003.