This greatest rollercoaster of a prayer is one that you already know
There is a prayer said by Catholics that takes you on a rollercoaster ride through salvation history. It contains phrases that originate in God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, corroborated by God the Son, spoken through angels and issuing from the lips of the most ordinary of people. It may be just a few words long, but it is a prayer that captures the essence of Christian discipleship. And just when you think that the most important words have already been said, then the prayer utters a title that has been revealed to the Church through the Holy Spirit, a title that, more than any other, deepens our understanding of the nature of Christ himself.
That remarkable prayer, of course, is the Hail Mary. The Our Father was given to us by Jesus himself and has no equal as a model for Christian prayer. But the Hail Mary has such richness that it is no wonder than successive generations of Catholics have found in the Rosary a constant source of life and inspiration. Now, if you sometimes find saying the Hail Mary a bit of a drudge, please stay with us we consider some of its phrases. Hopefully you will begin to discover that to pray this prayer is to drink from a well that is inexhaustible.
1. Hail Mary, full of grace! The Angel Gabriel was sent by God the Father to Mary to utter these words. As we all know, the word “angel” means messenger, and Gabriel is a messenger of the most faithful and reliable kind. Faithful messengers don’t add to the message that has been entrusted to them. They don’t modify it so that it becomes more palatable to its hearers. And the content of their messages is completely different to the often cheap commentaries we find on Instagram and Twitter. You won’t hear any “fake news” from an angel of God. They transmit their message exactly as it has been given to them by the Lord. That is why St John Paul II said that the title “full of grace” is the name given to Mary by God the Father himself.
But what do the angel’s words mean? Is God, saying, “Hi Mary, you’re a great person! Fancy becoming the mother of the redeemer?” No! Something much more solemn and profound is being said, something that resonates with the whole history of mankind since the moment of the Fall. As is often noted by the Scripture scholars, the term “full of grace” in the original Greek of Luke’s Gospel - Kercharitomene – is actually a perfect past participle. "It is permissible, on Greek grammatical and linguistic grounds, to paraphrase kecharitomene as completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace" (Blass and DeBrunner, Greek Grammar of the New Testament). What God the Father is saying to Mary through Gabriel is nothing less than the revelation that she has been immaculately conceived, that she has been set apart in a unique way for a unique mission.
Now this revelation is the fulfilment of the promises of the Old Testament. Through a long history, God prepared a people through whom the Saviour would come into the world. The greeting, “Hail, full of grace”, tells us that the time of preparation has come to its perfect completion. But why does it come to completion in Mary? Is she arbitrarily elected by God? God is all powerful and could choose anyone to become his mother, right? He could pour his grace into any vessel and turn it into a fitting receptacle for his Son, surely? No! One thing we can be sure of in the spiritual life is that God respects our freedom and asks for our cooperation. This immaculate vessel that is Mary could not be brought to perfection without her own cooperation - "So take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given. whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them” (Luke 8,18) – Mary is the one who listens to the word of God with unwavering attention and acts on it faithfully. How do we know this? Well, God the Father had had his say, now it is time for the Holy Spirit to speak!
2. Blessed are you among women. When Mary enters the house and greets her cousin, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth spontaneously cries these words aloud under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Now Elizabeth, being an ordinary human being, is not a faithful messenger in the same way that Gabriel is. What she says has been inspired by the Holy Spirit, but these inspirations have passed through the complex human person that is Elizabeth, with all of her particular characteristics. However, this lady is also a saint, so it is not too much of a stretch to say that these final phrases of the first part of the Hail Mary are the words of the Holy Spirit himself.
What Elizabeth says afterwards, though, is absolutely riveting: “Blessed is she who believed that the Lord’s word to her would be fulfilled”. When God blesses someone, he does so first and foremost because he is the source and the initiator of all grace. But we Catholics know that something is expected of us as well; we are asked to cooperate with grace. The Holy Spirit, through Elizabeth, is revealing something of fundamental importance for our understanding of Mary: the fact that God has blessed her in such an extraordinary way cannot be understood without taking into account her fidelity to God’s word. It is not just that God chose a girl indiscriminately and blessed her beyond belief. Or that the Lord could have chosen any girl anywhere and showered her with blessings to such an extent that she would have become worthy to become the mother of God. No. It doesn’t work like that. The girl who would become the mother of the Christ had to cooperate with grace in a unique way, and that is what Mary did. Through the mouth of Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit has told us so.
As if this were not enough, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus himself, corroborates the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The incident in the Gospels is a famous one.
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12, 46-50)
Quite often, this passage is interpreted as a rebuke given by Jesus to his mother and cousins (By the way, the Greek word used for “brother” in this text is the exact same one used to refer to cousins and kinsmen in general. We have no sound biblical reason for believing that Mary had other sons. Consider how Jesus entrusts his mother to John from the cross, something he would not have needed to do if Mary had other children). So is Jesus really rebuking Mary here? Is he saying, “She is no-one special. Any of you who do the will of God is equally my mother”. But there is something about this reading of the text that jars with simple common sense. In the brilliant series of Marian reflections given at the Wednesday audiences during 1995-7, Pope John Paul II reflected on this passage. Yes, Jesus might well be delivering a sort of rebuke to his cousins: “If you want to have a fraternal relationship with me, then you need to start relying on your obedience to God’s word, not on a blood relationship”. And this could well be summarized by saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister”. But Jesus adds “ . . brother and sister and mother (!)” This is the part that is strange! My fidelity to God’s word might certainly make me a brother or sister of Christ, but no amount of fidelity can make me his mother! Only one person in history has had that privilege, and Jesus is telling us here that it is a privilege granted because of her fidelity to God’s word. What Jesus is really saying, then, is: “If you want a fraternal relationship with me, then keep my Father’s word, like my mother does and has done”.
In a separate homily, John Paul II points to a similar affirmation made by Jesus in another place. As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Luke 11, 27-28.
As John Paul II remarks, “Jesus, in answering the woman in the crowd who proclaimed his mother blessed, discloses the true reason for Mary's blessedness: her adherence to God's will, which led her to accept the divine motherhood.” You can read the full homily here: http://totus2us.com/vocation/mary-most-holy/jpii-catechesis/the-annunciation/
3. Blessed is the fruit of your womb. At the Last Supper Jesus said, “Abide in me, as I abide in you. Just as no branch can bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me” (John 15,4). The quality of the fruit that we produce is a measure of our adherence to Christ. If we consider that the fruit that Mary bears is nothing less than the Son of God himself, then how perfectly she must have adhered to him!
The entire Old Testament is the story of a people striving for righteousness before God. It is the story of a people blessed by God but who fail, for the most part, to produce fruits worthy of that blessing. In the midst of these recurring breaches of the covenant, the prophets speak of a future time of unheard of blessings. “Sing and rejoice O daughter of Zion, for behold I come and I will dwell in your midst, says the Lord” (Zechariah 2,10). Through the fidelity of Mary to the word spoken to her by the Lord, Mary brings to fruition the blessing that surpasses all blessings.
4. Holy Mary, Mother of God. Now that the first part of the prayer is over, the rest is going to be fairly bland in comparison, right? I mean, we have just had words issuing from the various persons of the Blessed Trinity, transmitted by angels, encapsulating in themselves the entire spirituality of the Old and New Testaments. Now, we’re going to finish with a simple invocation to Mary to pray for us. It’s downhill all the way from here on, surely? Not quite.
In the early fifth century, the Church was racked by a dispute centring on the teaching of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople. He taught that Mary could be given the title Christotokos (Christ-bearer), but not Theotokos (God-bearer). The Council of Ephesus met in 431 and condemned the teachings of Nestorius, declaring that Mary can and ought to be given the title “Mother of God”. None of this sounds very exciting, does it? After all, we call Mary “Mother of God” all the time, and sometimes we think little of it. But this decision by the council of Ephesus is of fundamental importance for the development of our understating of the person of Jesus. Before the council, some theologians believed that Christ could be thought of as being a union of two persons, one human and the other divine. Jesus suffered in his human person, but his divine person was not in any way affected by his passion and death. The Council of Ephesus rejected this belief as heretical, something that seriously contradicted our belief in the authentic incarnation of the Son of God, the Word who became flesh. It is correct to think of Jesus as having two natures, human and divine – the council affirmed – but to claim that he has two persons would be to introduce a schizophrenia into Christ that would not square with the radical fact of the incarnation.
So when we say, “Mother of God”, we are not just saying something about Mary. We are saying something even more radical about Jesus. This Marian title is a clear and unambiguous affirmation that the incarnation of the Son of God was real, that he has united himself to our nature so that we can be assumed into the life of the Trinity. Like all Marian doctrines, this affirmation on the nature of the maternity of Mary says more about God and how he redeems us than it does about the humble girl from Nazareth.
Oh, and by the way, the Council of Ephesus was an ecumenical council of the Church founded by Christ on Peter and the Apostles. As such, its declarations can be considered to be guided in a special and unique way by the Holy Spirit. Thus, like the first part of the Hail Mary, the opening words of the second part, “Holy Mary, Mother of God”, have an unequivocal origin in the activity of the Holy Spirit.
5. “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”. Great contemporary American apologists like Scott Hahn and Matthew Leonard have pointed out that, in the Old Testament, the mother of the king had a special role in interceding with her son for the needs of others. At the wedding feast of Cana we see a quite spectacular example of this maternal intercession. Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine”. As has been pointed out by others, Mary here sums up the history of the Old Testament in four words. The nuptial relationship with God was broken in the Garden of Eden when Eve listened to the words of the serpent. As a result, death and division entered the world. What should have been a marriage feast becomes a life of pain and tears – a fruitless encounter in which the “wine” is missing.
Jesus replies in the most curious of ways: “Woman, what has that to do with me? My hour has not yet come”. Apart from Jesus' words to his mother from the cross, there is no other example in the Bible or in ancient Greek literature where a son refers to his mother as “woman”. The implication is clear: Jesus wishes to call our attention to the woman of the Garden of Eden who by her disobedience to God’s word spoiled the nuptial feast between God and humanity.
And how does Mary respond to being called “woman”? Does she take offence? Or does she realize with humility the glory of her calling? She replies, “Do whatever he tells you”. In the original Greek, the rendering is more like, “Receive whatever word he gives you and act upon it”. In this way, Mary shows herself to be nothing less than the New Eve, the antithesis of our first parents in the garden. Unlike the old Eve, Mary has always adhered to the word spoken to her by God, and now she exhorts all God’s servants to do likewise. The result? Jesus takes the water of our obedience and turns it into over 700 bottles of the finest wine! The sheer abundance of this feat manifests the glorious fruitfulness of the cooperation between the New Adam and the New Eve. God’s nuptial relationship with us is being restored. The restoration is ongoing in the activity of the Church and our participation in the sacraments.
If Mary is the New Eve, then she is our mother in a way that far transcends the motherhood of the original Eve. Mary has the selflessness, love and solicitous care of all mothers, but purified by her cooperation with God to a heroic degree that will not be equalled in any other mortal being. Like all mothers, she is attentive to our needs. She shows this at Cana and she continues today from heaven. Her special mission in heaven is to pray for us sinners, to lead us to her Son.
From the cross, Jesus entrusts his mother to John, the beloved disciple, and the beloved disciple, in turn, is entrusted to Mary: “Behold your mother!” These words must resound in the hearts of all who aspire to be beloved disciples of Jesus. Just as she was the mother of Jesus according to the flesh, so she has been given to us as our heavenly mother, to make us into images of Jesus according to the Spirit.
So when you pray the Hail Mary, consider the extent to which you are immersing yourself into the history of God's saving action among his people. Pray it well - and often!