November 15, 2011
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among 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.
As a person with a Protestant upbringing (which by "upbringing" I refer to any combination of home life, church teachings, and cultural/societal impressions), participating in some Catholic practices can feel, at the very least, a bit subversive. It can feel like a downright guilty secret. There is so much I am trying to learn and understand in my studies of the Catholic faith and traditions, that no single blog could hold the insights I have gained. So let me begin with the Hail Mary prayer, which is central to the Rosary.
I was vaguely familiar with this prayer before but had no idea of its origins. The first section comes straight from the Gospel of Luke. "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" is the greeting the angel Gabriel gave Mary at the Annunciation (announcement of God's plan for her to become the mother of Jesus). Some translations read "Rejoice, highly favored one," but I am going to refer to the 1st translation to discuss the deeper elements Catholics believe this greeting implies.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was born free from the stain of original sin caused by the disobedience of Adam and Eve. "Full of grace" implies that in Mary both sin and the fullness of God's grace could not have dwelled. The next part of the first section is another quote from Luke by Elizabeth when Mary visited her after the Annunciation, and Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist and Mary was pregnant with Jesus. "Blessed art thou among women" tells us that Mary was in a uniquely favored position with God. I don't think most Protestants would object to the beginning section of this prayer. In fact, Protestant reformer Martin Luther did not.
It is the petition to Mary in the 2nd section that gets sticky, so let's look at that. Is "Holy Mary" an accurate description? Catholics identify Mary with the Ark of the Covenant, which held the covenant (the ten commandments) between the Hebrews and God. It is considered a type that foreshadows Jesus as the new covenant and Mary as the vessel that contains Him. How could such a person not be sacred?
In Missing Mary, Catholic writer Charlene Spretnak argues that growing God-the-Son from her very flesh would have changed Mary ontologically, moving her "...into a space that did not exist before: For eternity she is more than human but less than divine, a unique mediator intimately linked with both humans and the divine." She goes on to say, "...a woman is subtly but irrevocably changed after growing a person inside herself. Mary, it follows, must have experienced far more of a transformation than usual since the being in her womb was God." Indeed, modern genetics tell us that a mother and her baby in the womb literally share blood, and that some of the baby's DNA is transferred to the mother and can remain there forever. Without doubt, Mary is holy.
Centuries ago the nature of Jesus as both entirely human and entirely divine was hotly debated. The Catholic church strengthened the faith in Jesus' divinity by giving Mary the title Mother of God, which explicitly points to Jesus being one with God the Father. She is not the mother of the Trinity, but of God-the-Son, who is indeed God in human form. Martin Luther also did not object to this title. The honor of Mary's title points us to the true nature of God, which leads us to the "Pray for us sinners" part. This is asking Mary to pray for you just like you might ask a friend to do for you in your time of need. Mary is the mother of all of us, as Jesus gave her as mother to John at the cross before his death, symbolizing giving Mary to the Church as her mother as well.
Mary is thought of as Intercessor and Advocate. An illustration of this comes from the wedding at Cana. This is where Jesus performed his first miracle, at the prompting of his mother. He seems to rebuke Mary, saying that his hour has not yet come. His reluctance could be read as the understanding that this miracle will be the first to bring attention to his Godly powers, which will inevitably lead to his crucifixion. In the garden at Gethsemane, Jesus prays to his Father that if there is any other way, "take this cup from me."
Mary, as Jesus' mother, knew him better than anyone else but God. She would have anticipated his reluctance to intervene in the problem with the wine. She guided him and brought him up, influencing the person he became. He honored her wisdom and listened to her. And she gently prompted him to his first miracle. She also instructed the servants to do what Jesus tells them, which leaves an example for the rest of us.
Also, in those days, running out of wine would have reflected very badly on the wedding host, a great embarrassment. Mary's actions here are of intercession between humans and Jesus and points to her deep compassion.
The "Hail Mary" prayer, in its seeming simplicity, reminds one of these events in the life of Jesus and encourages contemplation of the deeper mysteries of Christianity. Mary always points back to her son, and we can't really think of the Son without honoring the Mother.