Some of the most important things in life we can sometimes take for granted. Among them are, perhaps, real jewels of prayer that have been handed down for generations and centuries. On this Solemnity of St. Mary, Star of the Sea, here in Largs, I thought it might be useful if not helpful to take a closer look at one of those jewels of prayer and unpack it a little. I do it only to help us appreciate it more fully and deeply. All that I will say can’t possibly be thought of every time you say this prayer – and indeed I am only scratching the surface – but it will serve as a backdrop, a bit like wallroom paper in a well-furnished sitting room.
The prayer I mean is the Hail Mary. The first part of it is mainly based on both the Archangel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary at the Annunciation and St. Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary at the Visitation. What we now consider this first part of the Hail Mary was in fact the whole of the prayer for about 400 years. It first appeared around the year 1,000 AD and was recited by monks as part of the “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. The word “office” here has nothing to do with where your desk is, but means a series of prayers and psalms recited as a duty (“officium” in Latin) at fixed hours of the day, similar to what we call the Liturgy of the Hours today. The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a way of sanctifying the day in the presence of Our Lady, asking her protection and care as you praise and honour her.
The words “Mary” and “Jesus” in the Hail Mary (“Hail Mary, full of grace” and “the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”) were added to the prayer not long after the year 1,000. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us in his commentary on the Hail Mary that they were added to the biblical text (Gabriel’s and Elizabeth’s words) so as to identify clearly the persons concerned.
The second part of the Hail Mary only appeared in print for the first time in 1495. It was the notorious Italian Dominican Friar from Florence, Girolamo Savonarola, who put into writing the Hail Mary for the first time in the form that we pray it today. It then appeared after that for the first time in an official document of the Church in the Catechism of the Council of Trent in the mid-1500’s. Pope St. Pius V encouraged the faithful to pray it often and it was the same Pope who established the 15 standard mysteries of the Rosary until St. John Paul II added the further 5 mysteries of light in 2002. The Rosary itself goes back to St. Dominic in the 13th century but it only took on the form in which we pray it now at the time of the Council of Trent.
What all this tells us is that the Hail Mary is rooted in the bible, took form as a devotional prayer as piety towards Our Lady grew in the Church, was nurtured first by monastic life and then by the itinerant preachers, the Dominicans, and eventually was approved and promoted by a Council of the Church, Trent, and therefore by the Pope of that time, St. Pius V.
Let’s now meditate a little more profoundly on the Hail Mary itself.
“Hail, Mary, full of grace.” What the Archangel actually says is “Rejoice, the one who has been favoured with grace” or “who has had grace bestowed upon her”, or indeed, “who has been filled with grace.” It is true that the word, “rejoice” meant at the time “hail”, as a common greeting. But in St. Luke’s Gospel the theme of joy is very present, especially in the first two chapters telling of the infancy stories of John the Baptist and of Jesus. So, it makes perfect sense to say “rejoice” rather than just “hail.” Moreover, whilst “hail” is something which points to the person giving the greeting, “rejoice” focuses rather on the person being greeted. It is an invitation to joy and to rejoice – and no wonder, in light of what the Archangel then calls Mary: “the one who has been filled with grace.” And we will certainly hear Mary’s joy brimming over when she comes to say or sing her Magnificat to God in the presence of Elizabeth.
The description, “one who has been filled with grace” tells us what God sees in Mary’s heart and soul. For Gabriel is merely the messenger. His task is to tell Mary what God is saying to her. And what he is saying is that this young woman has been, and continues to be, replete with the gifts of God’s loving help and saving assistance, his grace. She was filled with grace from the first moment of her existence as the Church would later explain with the title “Immaculate Conception”, a title she herself used of herself when appearing to St. Bernadette at Lourdes. But the sense of these words means not only that Mary has been blessed with the fullness of grace in the past, but also that she has freely conserved it right up to the moment of the Annunciation and, as we know, will keep it intact all her life. So, God rejoices in his gifts to Mary, but he also rejoices in her gift to Him, her fidelity to his loving kindness. She has not lost or wasted the grace received, but guarded and treasured it even without at first knowing that she had it. The Lord now invites Mary to join in with God’s own joy over her. It’s a dialogue of joy, a bond of divine and human joy.
As if that were not enough, God tells Mary through Gabriel something even more astounding: “The Lord is with thee.” This is a loaded phrase. In the Old Testament, the sadness of God and of man is the separation between them because of sin. God’s whole purpose is to reverse that sad situation. It is to reunite humanity with himself. He begins this by sending a whole series of messengers to try and establish covenants between the chosen people and himself. You hear repeatedly in the Old Testament this desire of God: “you shall be my people and I will be your God.” It is God’s longing for humanity to come home, to return to the joy of being together again. One of the most intense expressions of this longing is when God calls himself through the prophets Emmanuel, which means, the Lord is with us. It’s as if he is saying that he wants to come home to us! He was with his people at the Exodus, in the Ark of the Covenant, in the Temple, but all of this was just a preparation pointing to a final presence: His presence in the incarnate Son of God, in the flesh. So, the words of the Angel, “the Lord is with thee” will have absolutely blown Mary away. As the Gospel tells us, in fact, Mary was deeply troubled by this greeting. As a pious Jewess, she will have understood the magnitude of what Gabriel was saying because that phrase is loaded with the history of the entire people of Israel. What Mary did not yet know was that the Lord was about to ask her to be the new Ark of the Covenant, the woman who would carry Emmanuel in her flesh. What Mary was hearing was that all of the promises and longings of God to be reunited, to be present with, his people were about to come to fulfilment in her: “the Lord is with thee.”
From the words of Gabriel, the Hail Mary now shifts to the words of Elizabeth: “Blessed art Thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” The Hail Mary omits the rest of the dialogue between Mary and the Angel, but these words of Elizabeth tell us that Gabriel got what he came for: Mary’s fiat, her consent to be the bearer of the Emmanuel and so the Mother of God. It is Elizabeth herself who tells us why Mary is blessed among woman. Interestingly, it is not in the first place because of the miracle of the incarnation, it is not due to Mary’s new dignity and title as Mother of her Lord. Rather, as Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who believed that what was promised her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” It is Mary’s faith which counts as her being blessed. And it is an unheard-of degree of faith into the bargain. It has been compared to Abraham’s faith, but it far surpasses the faith of any of the great patriarchs or prophets of the Old Testament or of any saints of the Church for that matter.
Firstly, there is the object of her faith: she believed that the Father would implant in her humble and holy womb his only Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, her faith is in the Trinity before anyone had ever heard about the Trinity, and faith in the Incarnation, Emmanuel, something beyond the mind of the holiest of Old Testament prophets. But her faith was also in all the other things which Gabriel spoke: that Jesus would inherit the throne of his forefather in the flesh, David, and would inherit a kingdom that would have no end. Given the magnitude of the object of her faith, it means that Mary’s personal act of faith, of trusting surrender to God, was far beyond anything ever known before or since. And what is more, her faith was not only in some future possibility but in the action of God here and now in her own life, indeed in her own life, her own body. She believed that God would act in her life, in her personal history, and it was her faith which, as it were, gave God permission to take that action. This is a lesson for us. If we want God to act in our life, even in our bodies, faith is what is required.
Elizabeth’s next words in the Hail Mary are: “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Elizabeth again explains what she means by that when she asks the rhetorical question of Mary, “Why should I be honoured with a visit from the Mother of my Lord?” The Holy Spirit in Elizabeth opened her mind to know that the fruit of Mary’s womb is both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s Lord. Elizabeth is effectively calling Mary the Mother of God-made-flesh. The child in Elizabeth’s own womb, the unborn John the Baptist, confirms this by jumping in her womb. As John would later say, “the Bridegroom’s friend rejoices when he hears the Bridegroom’s voice.” John heard the voice of Jesus in the voice of Mary as she greeted Elizabeth. Mary only ever speaks to us of Jesus. Her voice is his voice.
The second part of the Hail Mary takes our hearts and minds away from contemplating the texts of scripture in the first half and turns them directly towards Mary herself. No this is very important. You are meditating on the Scriptures in the first half, but now we are turning towards the person of Mary herself. Remember that she is a real person! She is not a “holy picture.” She is not be reduced to some sickly image of her. She is a powerful woman. She is someone to be reckoned with. She is the most faithful of the disciples. She is the most mature adult woman that ever existed. And she’s all ear for you and for me. So, when you turn to her in the second part of the Hail Mary, you are putting yourself in her presence and calling her to pay attention to you.
We first pray, “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” Holy means set apart for God. Every baptised person is by that fact objectively holy. We might not be subjectively holy. That is to say, we might not have made our own the baptisms of our baptism. Very few have, in fact. But objectively speaking we are holy, we are saints. In the early Church, those who were baptised were called saints. We think of saints as people who have been canonised and are in heaven. But by baptism, we are set apart for God, we are sanctified, we are saints. Consecrated persons or things are persons and things set aside for God’s purposes and service. This tells you what our life is about as baptised members of Christ. It is to live for God and serve God. By the fact of her Immaculate Conception, by virtue of her unparalleled faith, by virtue of living in such intimate closeness to Jesus, from Bethlehem to Calvary and beyond to the throne of God, Mary is holy par excellence. It is not a holiness that removes her from us but that turns her towards us, because in the final analysis holiness is the nature of God and that nature is Divine Love. Next to God himself, it is Mary who most embodies that love. And in Mary it will have the same purpose: to love divinely is to seek salvation for those you love, it is to stir generosity of heart, to draw to repentance and to the repulsion of sin. Mary is not in this some kind of rival to the Trinity. It would be perverse to think that. On the contrary, God channels his love and grace through many different people, such as our families and other good people who have influenced us, but the most glorious of them all is Holy Mary, “Maria Santissima”, as the Italians love to call her.
Then we call her Mother of God! What a title that is! What a privileged grace! She is Mother of the Son of God made flesh. In the flesh she gave human birth not just to the humanity taken on by the divine Son. The divine Son himself was united to that humanity from the moment of conception, and so the same divine Son passed the nine months in her womb which the true humanity he had made his own demanded. To give birth in the flesh to the Son of God did not mean that she created the Son of God, but quite simply that she gave birth to him. That “him”, that person born of her in a human nature, was and is the only-begotten Son of the Father and so truly she is the Mother of God. In a very real way, the Church’s teaching about Mary as Mother of God confirms the reality of the human nature which Jesus Christ took from Mary and will retain for ever. In the early Church, in fact, this title was solemnly given to Our Lady not so much to honour her as to reinforce the dogma of Christ’s true humanity.
So it is that these few words, “Holy Mary, Mother of God” contain a wealth of truth and grace which feed our faith and protect it from sliding into the wrong understanding of both the true humanity of Christ and the true divine motherhood of Mary.
Finally, we come to the last words of the Hail Mary: “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” We are sinners. This is a simple fact. It goes against the grain of our pride, which is a sin already. It insults the emancipated post-Christian man or woman who has gullibly believed the evil spirit’s deceit that there is no such thing as sin, or if there is, I never commit it because I have also chosen to believe the lies of a warped conscience. People who claim not to be sinners have no claim on Mary’s prayers. We must humbly, that is truthfully and honestly, recognise before her that we are sinners, otherwise she cannot help us, simply because we consider that we don’t need her help anyway. But, once we recognise we are sinners, the doors of her heart open wide. It can also happen, though, that it is precisely because we are sinners that we think she won’t hear us or doesn’t want to hear us. We are ashamed to go to her. Nothing could be further from the truth! It’s precisely when we have fallen into sin and are maybe stuck in it that we should go to her all the more. We are not saying, “pray for us saints” but “pray for us sinners”! Her help increases, it does not decrease, the more we are in sin and want out of it. Is it not only human that a mother will feel all the more compassion for one of her children who is sick? Will she who stood at the foot of the Cross and heard her Son pray for forgiveness for those who murdered him and who pardoned a man who had been a sinner all his life, will she not reach out to the gravest of sinners with her mother’s heart, in imitation of her Son? Of course she will!
And what is it we sinners ask of her? To pray for us. How easily we ask or promise prayers. If we are asked to pray for someone, maybe we will just recall a name at some vague point in the day, when we are saying the Our Father. It is good, of course, to ask for and promise prayers to one another. But we all know how fitful and sleepy and scatter-brained our praying can be, sinners that we are. When, however, we talk about the prayers of Holy Mary, Mother of God, that is something far different! That is the real deal. When we ask her to pray for us, she intercedes before her Son on our behalf. Consider what that means. Her Immaculate Heart carries your name, your petition. She ponders over it as she pondered over what she saw and heard on this earth. She separates the wheat from the weed in our petition. She then envelopes and penetrates it with her maternal love. Then she presents it in as pleasing a form as possible to her Son and asks Him to grant whatever his divine wisdom and providence knows best. But remember that she is not speaking to some distant God, but to the Son she bore in her womb and suckled at her breasts, whom she washed and clothed and taught how to walk and talk and, yes, to pray. It is the Son at whose side she stood on the way of the Cross and whose every pain and sorrow she shared as no-one bar God the Father and God the Spirit would ever share. Mary’s prayer for us takes our petition and invests it with all of the love, holiness, obedience, humility, compassion and tenderness of her relationship with her Son. We would be fools not to bring every thought and movement of our minds and hearts to her, however sinful, given the power and effectiveness of her intercession. She is restless to help us, eager to hear us, delighted to see us, moved with pity for our suffering and sins, anxious to allay our fears and soothe our bodies and souls. To pray for her intercession is to give joy to her Immaculate Heart. It’s also basic Catholic common sense.
“Now and at the hour of our death” – yes, and every second in between! We are asking for her ongoing intercession throughout our lives. As she was with Jesus from conception to Ascension, and beyond, so, as our Mother in the order of grace, she walks by our side from conception to death, and beyond. We don’t see her, but presence does not depend on sight. We don’t hear her, but communication does not depend on hearing. What matters is that she sees and hear us, which she most certainly does, at all times. Assumed into heaven, she shares in some real way in Christ’s presence to the whole of creation. Otherwise, how could we call on her in any place and at any time? It’s because she is always there. The challenge is for us to learn to be present to her – again, at all times. To live in friendship with her, to ask her to guide and counsel you, just to talk to her as you would to your own mother on this earth and pour out your troubles and problems before her, this is to live in her presence and to benefit from that great, great love that she has for you, even when you do not think of her. There is nothing you cannot tell her or share with her. There is nothing that will put her off you or get her angry. She might send you something to shake you up or wake you up, from time to time, but what is that if not loving you?
Supremely at life’s end, Mary is close to every person who wants her. She knows very well that the evil spirit will try to cause discouragement and even despair as death draws nigh, accusing you of things from the past, tempting you to give up on mercy. But Mary is the arch-enemy of the Evil One (and he is no match for her!) and, with her at your side, you will have nothing to fear. She will crush its head. Mary will instead comfort you and encourage you, she will bring you peace of soul and trust in the infinite mercy of Christ. The closer you are to her now the greater will be the comfort she can bring you when you are in your final hours. The more familiar you are with her now, the more easily you will recognise her face and her voice when you pass through the doorway of death.
My brothers and sisters, the Hail Mary is a compendium of faith, of friendship and of genuine devotion. Those who understand nothing, those who are cynics, will laugh at the thought of the Hail Mary. But we who have been given the grace to know and love the Mother of God, the Blessed among women, the Maria Santissima, know that the Hail Mary places our hands in hers, our hearts in hers, our lives in her hands and, yes, our death also in her hands. And so, with great love and deep gratitude to God for giving us so great a Mother, so strong an example of faith, so true a friend in this life and the next, let us say with great devotion:
Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among woman, 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.