4th Sunday of Advent
Preached December 24, 2017; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art though 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.
The Our Father, taught to us be Jesus himself, is without doubt the most perfect prayer, but I would dare to suggest that the Hail Mary, which comes to us from Holy Spirit through the inspired word of God and the Church, is the most beautiful prayer.
The prayer is divided neatly into two parts, with the holy name of Mary at the beginning of each part, and the holy name of Jesus, enclosed in the center of the prayer as in the womb of the Virgin.
The beginning of the prayer comes from the words of the Gospel we have heard today; whenever we recite this prayer we take upon our lips the words with which the angel Gabriel greeted the Virgin: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. This has been called ‘the angelic salutation’. The only addition we make is the holy name of Mary.
The first part of the prayer continues with the words, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. These words were first pronounced by Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, after she heard the greeting of Mary, after her infant son leapt for joy in her womb at the presence of the Savior, and after she herself had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Again the only addition we make to the words of Scripture is to add the holy name of Jesus.
The second part of the prayer comes from the Church. If, in the first part of the prayer, God himself, through the angel and through Elizabeth, shows us who Mary is, then in the second part of the prayer the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, makes a fitting response. That is how prayer should be, listening to the word of God and making a fitting response.
Now that we have learned the origin of the prayer, let me make some observations on the meaning of the prayer.
Full of grace. Mary does not just receive this fullness of grace when greeted by the angel, these words identify Mary; she is precisely the one who is characterized as being ‘full of grace’.
The Greek word employed by the evangelist is ‘kecharitoméne’. Literally this word would translate as ‘having been graced’ or even ‘having been transformed by grace’. The verb ‘charito’ is found only one other place in the New Testament, in the first chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. (Eph 1:3-10) There St. Paul writes about the grace we have all received.
In a hymn of thanksgiving, which many scholars believe was taken from the sacred liturgy of the time, St. Paul gives thanks to God for having blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. He then goes on to describe those spiritual blessings.
First he speaks about how, before the creation of the world, God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in his sight in love.
Then he speaks about how God predestined us for adoption as sons, through Jesus Christ and into Jesus Christ. That is the adoption comes to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection and it consists in sharing in the sonship of the only begotten Son of God, being conformed to him.
All this is according God’s will of good pleasure and has as its goal the praise of the glory of his grace with which he has graced us (there is the verb ‘charito’) in the beloved. (Eph 1:6)
All these spiritual blessings are given to us through the forgiveness of sins that we have received through the blood of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul writes here of the spiritual blessings meant for all who believe in Jesus Christ; spiritual blessings that are meant to transform us from being sinners into being holy and blameless (immaculate) in the sight of God, sharing the life of God himself through Jesus Christ. That is the grace with which he has graced us.
When the angel greets Mary with the word ‘kecharitoméne’ – ‘full of grace’ – he is revealing not only that she had already received those spiritual blessings, that grace, in the maximum degree, but that indeed it is her very identity, she was never without it, she is truly the Immaculate One in the sight of God, redeemed beforehand and conceived without sin.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
To understand the full importance of Elizabeth’s inspired words we need to go back to the very beginning of the Bible, when God pronounces judgment on the ancient serpent, the devil, after the sin of Adam, and makes the first promise of salvation to mankind.
God said: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel. (Gen 3:15)
The word ‘enmity’ needs to be understood in the strongest way possible. The serpent and the woman have no part with each other. These words come after the first woman Eve made friends with the devil by listening to his seductive voice. God now punishes the serpent by revealing to him that there will be another woman whom he will not be able to touch in the least, who will be his implacable foe and the source of his downfall.
But it is not just a woman, but a woman and her offspring, her male child, who will vanquish the devil, just as the devil vanquished the first woman and her husband.
The human race began with a man and a woman, husband and wife, who were immaculate, full of grace, holy and blameless in the sight of God, but who listened to the serpent’s temptation, rebelled against God, lost their grace, and marred the first creation with all the ugliness of sin.
By speaking to the serpent of a new woman and her offspring, her male child, God announces that he will not let the serpent prevail, that he will renew his creation, that he will bring into the world a new Adam and a new Eve, who instead of being husband and wife, will be son and mother. This indeed is the conclusion of the hymn from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: to recapitulate all things, in heaven and on earth, in Christ. (Eph 1:10)
When Elizabeth declares, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, she is in effect saying to Mary, “You are that woman. You are the new Eve. You are the Immaculate One in whom the devil has no part. And the male child whom you carry in your womb is the new Adam who will crush the head of the serpent at the very moment the serpent strikes at the heel of his humanity by having him nailed to the Cross.”
When Elizabeth declares, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, she is announcing the beginning of the new creation.
The words of the angel and Elizabeth brought great joy to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and when we, her children take these words upon our lips with love and reverence, reminding her and ourselves of this decisive moment in the history of salvation, that also brings her great joy.
Then, after having greeted Immaculate Mary with these inspired words, after recognizing her great dignity and central role in God’s plan of salvation, we join the whole Church in calling on her intercession, saying, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
We all start off life as sinners, children of Adam and Eve, belonging to the old creation that was marred by their sin and is destined to death; we call upon Mary, the Holy Mother of God, the beginning of the new sinless creation. We ask her that we too might belong to the new creation, that we might be freed from our sins, that we might be filled with every heavenly blessing, that our lives might be transformed by grace, that we might become as she is, holy and blameless in God’s sight, so that finally, at the hour of our death, we will be ready to enter into the life of his eternal and heavenly kingdom.