Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke (1:26-38)
Blessed art thou amongst women,
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.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
The Dominicans have a motto, which runs, "Contemplare et contemplata allis tradere," that is: "To contemplate and then pass on the fruits of this contemplation." The other Dominican motto, simply "Veritas," lets us know what we are to contemplate, and what we are to pass on. It is this motto that prompts me to write this series on the Rosary--not primarily for an apologetic purpose, but for the sake of passing on the fruits of my own contemplation of the Mysteries of the lives of Jesus and Mary.
When the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary, his announcement brings the message that Something in the world is changing. God's way of dealing, of interacting, with humanity, is radically changing. What the prophets had foretold is now coming to pass--in this very moment, this small space!
The angel comes to Mary, bowing before her with the greeting, "Hail, Full of Grace! The Lord is with you!" Mary is troubled at this greeting, wondering what it could mean--and indeed, we too must pause and consider the angel's greeting, and what it means: for it is a mystery within a mystery.
Throughout history, artists have often painted this scene, and in so doing, many, such as Fra Angelico, present a startling arrangement: Gabriel is bowing to Mary! While St. Luke does not record Gabriel's posture before Mary, and while no angel has ever bowed in the presence of a mere human before or since, this artistic depiction nevertheless expresses several profound and related truths: The first is the uniqueness of the greeting and what it signifies--that Mary is unique among all of God's creatures. She is "Full of Grace". Second, the depiction of the kneeling angel is completely parallel to truth gleaned directly from Luke's Gospel: that is that Mary is the New Ark of the Covenant. The third is that, while all apparitions of angels to people are extraordinary and unique circumstances, this one far surpasses them all, as it announces the New and Definitive Covenant in which God will save His people, in Jesus Christ.
First, then, Gabriel's depiction as kneeling before Mary at the Annunciation visually and poetically echoes the truth that no angel has ever, before or since, addressed a human being in such a way. St. Thomas Aquinas writes,
With respect to the first, it should be known that in ancient times it was an especially great event when an angel appeared to men, so that men might show them reverence, for they deserve the greatest praise. It was written in praise of Abraham that he received angels hospitably and that he showed them reverence. But it was never heard that an angel showed reverence to a man until he saluted the Blessed Virgin, saying reverently, Hail. (Follow the link for the rest of his discourse.)The uniqueness of Gabriel's greeting, his Ave, is followed by the "name" by which he addresses Mary: for while the Church has added the word "Mary" to the Hail Mary, Gabriel simply says, "Hail, Full of Grace." Before he ever calls her by her given name, the angel has, in effect, renamed her.
Biblically speaking, names are very important. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we see how a person's name reflects their character--and more, when God chooses to rename a person, that new name represents something specific to that person's vocation and destiny. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Jacob. His name literally means "Deceiver" or "Supplanter", and he lived up to it throughout his life--from swindling his brother out of his birthright to actually dressing up as his brother to deceive his father. But then, after having to pay severely for his deceptions in order to make peace with his brother and come home, he meets "the Angel of the Lord" on the way, with whom he wrestles. At the end of the struggle, the Angel blesses him with a new name, "Israel": "Prince of God". This new name becomes his new call, and henceforward the call of all his descendants in the nation of Israel--to reign with God, in covenant with Him.
Right off the bat, it is not as Mary that Gabriel addresses Our Lady, but as "Full of Grace". God is giving her, as it were, a new name, and revealing to her exactly why it is that she is unique, and what her calling and destiny are. In the original Greek in which St. Luke wrote, the word used by Gabriel is "kecharitomene", which is a rather tricky term to translate. Jerome put it as gratia plena in his Vulgate, which the Douay-Rheims translates "Full of Grace", and which is the most popular version of it in the minds of Catholics, due to the Hail Mary's use of it. Other translations, such as the NRSV quoted above, put it as "favoured" or "highly favoured". There really is no one word or two words that can adequately sum up this single Greek word, so let's pause briefly to dive into it:
The root word is Charitoo, a verb meaning "to bestow grace". What is grace? It has been defined as "God's unmerited favour", and this is certainly true. There is nothing we can do to deserve grace, or as St. Paul says, "otherwise grace is no more grace" (Romans 11:6). However, simply defining grace as "God's favour" seems to be an inadequate definition, when examined according to its use in Scripture. One brief example will show my meaning. Christ tells St. Paul (in 2 Corinthians 12:9), "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." Grace, in this Hebraistic parallelism, is equated with the power of God. It goes beyond simply "favour", though it certainly includes that. Rather, it is the very power, the very life of God, which energises us and makes us holy. The grace of God, then, is the antithesis of sin.
The particular construction of this word gives more depth to its meaning. The second thing to note is that it is in the passive voice. That is, Mary isn't the one bestowing grace. She is the one receiving the grace bestowed. God is giving His power, His life, His grace, to Mary. Finally, the verb "charitoo" is in the perfect past tense. That is, the action of bestowing Grace was completed once and for all at a definite time in the past, and its effects continue into the present and onward, never needing to be repeated. Thus, when Gabriel says to Mary, "Hail, Full-of-Grace", he is saying to her, "Rejoice, you who have once and for all received the fullness of the life and power of God in a remarkable way!" If as we said, Grace is the antithesis for sin, in the Angel's greeting, and renaming, of Mary, we have a basis for the ancient Church teaching of Mary's sinlessness--which, as we'll reflect on further in the next mystery, does not therefore negate Mary's need for a Saviour, but rather shows how extraordinary and unique her salvation really was.
This belief in Mary being preserved from the stain of original sin (which the Church has dogmatically declared to have taken place at her conception, which is the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception), as I said above in the discussion of Names, shows us Mary's calling and her destiny: She is the Ark of the New Covenant.
This notion of Mary as the New Ark will frequently come up in our meditations, and I will delve into more detail in the next Mystery, that of the Visitation. For now, I would just point out a few of the typological similarities:
- The Ark of the Covenant was the most holy item of the Jewish liturgical structure.
- The Ark of the Covenant held within it the Ten Commandments, the Manna, and Aaron's priestly rod which budded.
- The Ark of the Covenant was so holy that absolutely no one was able to touch it.
- The Ark of the Covenant was where God would meet with Moses, in the form of a Cloud (the Shekinah) hovering over the Ark between the two statues of kneeling angels.
There is more that could be said about the Ark of the Covenant, but we will wait on that for later meditations. Let us reflect on these, especially in the context of the Annunciation, and Mary's fulfilment of the Ark typology.
- Just as the Ark was the most holy of all of the Jewish temple furnishings, so is Mary, who as we discussed is "Full of Grace" and thus preserved from sin, the most holy of all God's creatures.
- Just as the Ark held the Law, the Manna, and the sign of Aaron's priesthood within it, Mary held in her womb Jesus, the Son of God, and the fulfilment of each of these types. He is the Divine Lawgiver, as well as God's Logos, the Word of God in the Flesh. He is the Bread of Life, who gives Himself to us in the Eucharist so that all who eat of Him shall not die, but have everlasting life. And He is our Great High Priest, who has made atonement for our sins, and reunited us to the Father.
- Just as the Ark could be touched by no man, so Mary, Ever-Virgin, was never intimately known. We see a hint of this even here in the Annunciation, that she knew that she was consecrated to Virginity even before the Annunciation of Gabriel, in her question to him, "How can this be, for I am a virgin?" It is not enough to say that this sets up simply the Virgin Birth of Christ, since it seems clear from her need to ask the question, even though she was already engaged to be married (v. 26). Had she intended to enter normal married relations with Joseph, her question would be absurd. That she asked how she could bear a child at all indicates that she expected to remain always a virgin.
- The final way in which Mary fulfils the type of the Ark of the Covenant at the same time explains the mysterious reason why artists throughout history have depicted Gabriel kneeling or bowing in her presence. This image echoes the two cherubim kneeling on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, between which God's manifest Glory would hover. This is further borne out in Gabriel's answer to Mary's question of how this could be, when he describes to her that the Holy Spirit will "overshadow" her in the power of God Most High. This term reminds us of the Cloud of Glory overshadowing the Ark, as well as the Holy Spirit's hovering over the waters of creation.
Mary then is the Ark of the New Covenant, which points us directly to the final truth of the Annunciation: that the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary is utterly and absolutely unique, as it heralds the beginning of the New Covenant which God had promised! We spoke briefly above about Jacob's name changing to Israel reflected his calling, as well as those of his descendants--to be princes with God. This Covenant with the people of Israel, however, was continually broken through their sinfulness. Because of this, God spoke these words to the prophet Jeremiah:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt--a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:27-34)This New Covenant is fulfilled and inaugurated through Jesus Christ, but before the New Covenant can take effect, the Ark of the Covenant must be restored.
What happened to the original Ark of the Covenant? Because of the sinfulness of the Israelites, the Northern Tribes were taken into exile by Assyria in 722 BC. Just a little more well behaved than their northern neighbours, the Southern nation of Judah was deported to Babylon in 586 BC, just as Jeremiah had predicted. Before this happened, though, Jeremiah took the Ark and hid it. This is recounted in 2 Maccabees:
One finds in the records that the prophet Jeremiah ordered those who were being deported to take some of the fire, as has been mentioned, and that the prophet, after giving them the law, instructed those who were being deported not to forget the commandments of the Lord, or to be led astray in their thoughts on seeing the gold and silver statues and their adornment. And with other similar words he exhorted them that the law should not depart from their hearts. It was also in the same document that the prophet, having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: "The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated." (2 Maccabees 2:1-8)As Jeremiah prophesied above, it would be in the New Covenant that God would show His Mercy, and here, he says that when this is done, so too will the Ark return, and God's glory and "the cloud" will appear. Thus we see the fulfilment of these things in Mary as the New Ark, over whom the glory of the Lord hovered, and she conceived of the New Covenant when she conceived Christ and bore Him in her womb: Christ--the Saviour who has brought the Mercy of God to all who will believe!
But note here the risk of God--the divine, omniscient risk-taker! He has chosen the lowly of this world, as Mary herself will express in the next meditation, in order to bring about His great Purpose! That is, God made Himself dependent on Mary's "Yes." Mary's Fiat in response to the Angel's message reveals yet another type which she fulfils, which will again be discussed at greater length as we progress: Mary is the New Eve. While Eve was tempted by a spirit and disobeyed God, Mary was asked by a spirit, and through her obedience, brought forth Christ to save the world. As the early Church Father, St. Irenaeus puts it,
[When Christ] became incarnate, and was made man, He recapitulated in Himself the long history of man, summing up and giving us salvation in order that we might receive again in Jesus Christ what we had lost in Adam--that is, the image and likeness of God....Thus, let us emulate the humility and the obedience of the New Eve, who has undone the curse of the First Eve, as Christ has undone the disobedience of the First Adam! Let us with reverence venerate the New Ark just as the ancient Israelites venerated the Old Ark, and recognise Mary as the sure path to meeting with Jesus, whom we honour and worship and adore above all else, forever and ever! Amen.
The knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. The knot which the virgin Eve tied by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary opened by her belief....
If the former disobeyed God, the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. And thus as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin. (from Quasten's Patrology, vol. 1, p. 296; Irenaeus' Against Heresies, 3.22.3 and 5.19.1, as quoted in Scott Hahn's Hail, Holy Queen, p. 42)
(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)