Reflection on the Hail Mary
“Blessed Are You Among Women” -- Meditating on the Prayer, “The Hail Mary”
Hail, Full of Grace
Every year I go on retreat with Father Jerry Caron. On our first full day of retreat I decide to go to confession to start everything off right. And you know something? Father Jerry is a hard penancer! Father Jerry gave me as a penance; “Say one ‘Hail Mary,’ but very slow, and think about all the words.’ I did that stinking penance for almost an hour!
After twenty-five minutes I had just gotten past, “Hail, full of Grace the Lord is with you.” And so I griped to him afterwards. I said, “You know I was saying that stupid penance of yours for fifty minutes!”
And he said, “Well that’s not my fault. Yell at the Holy Spirit!”
And I said, “Well at least I have my homily for the feast of the Immaculate Conception all written in my head.”
And Father Jerry said, “Well then, what the heck are you complaining about?!” Which was ironic because ‘complaining too much,’ had been at the top of the list of the things that I had confessed. Oh well, better luck next time.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mother. Mary conceived without Original Sin. Article of the faith. OK. In the past I’ve spoken of the Ark of the Covenant and demonstrated how Mary is the Ark of the new covenant. The Ark of the Old Covenant is actually a pre-image of the Blessed Mother and not the other way around. And since Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant she must be without sin, because, since God is radical holiness, he cannot in pure spirit, come into contact with sin, and so he cannot take on human flesh from a sinful container. Therefore Mary MUST have been without sin. Fine. I stand by all that.
BUT, to understand why Mary was conceived without sin, I don’t even think we need to get that complicated, because I think the archangel Gabriel reveals it all in that simple greeting to Mary at the Incarnation. “Hail, full of Grace! The Lord is with you.” Gabriel calls Mary, (in essence, names Mary) “full of Grace,” and that title alone implies that Mary is without sin.
How can that be?
Well, what is sin?
Well, sin is when we do bad things. No, that’s the effect of sin. What is sin?
Well, sin is when we turn away from God and turn toward the creature. No, that’s the result of sin. What is sin?
Well sin is a spiritual infection, a cancer, icky black gunk, that clogs up our souls and keeps us from doing things right. NO! That is the actually the most common misconception about sin.
Sin is NOT a spiritual infection. Sin is NOT a spiritual cancer. Sin is NOT the presence of something that should NOT be there.
Rather, sin is the result of a lack of something that should be there. What is that?
And so if sin is a lack of Grace, if someone is addressed by an angel of God as “full of Grace,” what must NOT be there? SIN!! And note, Gabriel calls Mary “full” of Grace, not becoming full of Grace, not filling with Grace. But FULL of Grace. Past tense. This is a done deal. Mary is FULL of Grace. So if Mary is full of grace, there’s no room for sin; ergo Immaculate Conception.
Well then, how did Mary get to be full of Grace? Glad you asked. Gabriel’s next words answer that. “The Lord is with you.” That’s what Grace is, brothers and sisters, the presence of God! Grace literally means, “God’s life within us.” So to be full of Grace means precisely to be full of the presence of God.
How do we receive Grace? Through the sacraments.
How did Mary receive Grace? Through the sacraments. Whoa, now! Hold on Father Mike! You’re blowing smoke! Mary didn’t receive sacraments!
She certainly did! Mary received THE Sacrament. Jesus is the eternal Sacrament. Jesus is the Living Sacrament through which all the sacraments are life giving. And she was in a constant state of physical communion with the living, eternal Sacrament for nine months. Think of this for a moment.
Let’s say someone starts receiving Holy Communion at the age of reason, seven years old, and this person goes to church every day of their life, and receives the Eucharist every day of their life, until they die at the ripe old age of ninety seven years old.
Ninety years of continual, daily, reception of the Eucharist. We believe that when we receive the Eucharist; the actual Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, we are in a state of physical union with God, for approximately two minutes. Now, taking for granted that all conditions are perfect; that a person actually lives to be ninety seven, and is able to come to Mass everyday, and they never get sick and miss a day, or they’re never in a state of sin where they should not receive, or receive unworthily; such a person would have been in a state of physical union with God for approximately forty days of their life. (No, I did NOT stack the numbers to come out to forty. That was a coincidence.)
That’s the best possible scenario any of us could possibly hope for; and still, we’d have that union with God for only forty days of our entire lives. Mary was in a state of constant, 24 / 7 physical union with the Living Sacrament, the Eternal Logos, the Divine Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, for nine months straight! Approximately 270 days! How could she not be full of Grace? How could she not be sinless?
Oh, Father Mike, we got you now! You put your foot in it this time, because the angel says this to Mary before she conceived! So how can you say she received that Grace from her communion with the Living and Eternal Sacrament?
Because we always have to remember that while we think in linear terms, God is not bound or restricted by time. And if Jesus is the eternal Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, than his actions in the present, affect the future AND the past. This must be, because if it isn’t, Jesus isn’t eternal, and if Jesus is not eternal his sacrifice on Calvary could only atone for those who died before him. And if that’s the case, our faith is pointless because we have not been redeemed from our sins and we have no hope of salvation when we die.
If Jesus is God, then Jesus must be eternal, and his present affects the future and the past, so Mary could be full of Grace, from her communion with the Living Sacrament, before the Incarnation ever took place.
As for us, we cannot be full of Grace. That gift was reserved to Mary alone. All we can hope is to be filling with Grace, and for that to happen we have to be communing with the sacraments. Remember, in the best possible scenario, we can only hope to be physically united to God approximately forty days over our entire lives. Most of us won’t reach a fraction of that time because we won’t live that long, or we don’t go to Mass everyday, or we go to confession so rarely that our sins block the grace God is trying to give us.
And so I put the question to all of you; isn’t two minutes of physical contact with the living and eternal God worth sitting through a Mass? Isn’t two minutes of physical contact with our Creator worth going to confession often, to make certain nothing interferes with that Grace?
Brothers and sisters, let us pray today that Mary, our mother and patroness, prays and intercedes for us, so we may all become filled with Grace.
Mary, full of Grace, pray for us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last year, if you remember, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I preached on the meaning of “Hail, full of Grace.” This year I’m preaching on the meaning of, “The Lord is with you.”
What does it mean when the angel says to Mary that she is ‘full of Grace,’? The literal meaning of Grace is ‘God’s life within us,’ so Mary is quite literally full of Grace, that she is filled with the presence of God’s incarnate Word. And being full of that Grace means the Lord is with her, because Grace cannot exist outside of the presence of God. Where God’s life is, God is!
So being full of Grace means that Mary will never be alone; God will always be with her. And this is significant. Let’s go back to Genesis.
Isn’t it ironic that our first reading on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is always this passage from the book of Genesis in which God admonishes Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit and in which he declares that humans and the serpent will always be enemies? This reading is part of the Mass of the Immaculate Conception because we can’t understand the Incarnation if we don’t understand Genesis and all its ramifications.
What happens as soon as God makes Adam? He says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” And so he makes woman, Eve, from Adam. And that’s also important. Now many feminists don’ like that passage because they think it’s some kind of statement about a woman being subservient to a man, and perhaps even this passage was construed that way a long time. That is an error. That is NOT the meaning of that passage.
Eve is built from Adam’s rib to demonstrate that the two of them were part of each other. The two of them were made for each other. The two of them were intimately connected with one another by sharing the same flesh, because that’s what WE were made for, intimacy with one another and with the Lord. That’s why God doesn’t create Adam and Eve the same way he creates everything else in Genesis. God speaks the rest of creation into existence. “Let there be…” BOOM, and it was. Adam and Eve are different. He touches them. He forms them, because he wants to be intimate with them and He wants them to be intimate with each other.
And what I’m saying about Eve is verified with the interaction with the serpent. Who’s the strong one during the interaction? EVE! Who’s the wimp? ADAM! Who’s answering all the serpent’s questions? EVE! Who’s silent? ADAM! When they’re finally succumbing to the desire to want to be gods, who takes the fruit? EVE. Who blindly takes it from her? ADAM. When God confronts them, who does he call? Adam. Who does Adam blame? Eve AND God. “The woman, who YOU put here with me.” So it’s her fault and your fault God, not mine!
When God confronts Eve, what does she do? Tells the whole truth. Throughout the entire interaction EVE is the strong one. Adam is the epitome of a wimpy husband, and this is why this event is recorded in scripture as “Adam’s sin,” not “Eve’s sin,” because Adam didn’t just disobey God, but he also failed in his vocation.
Why wasn’t Adam conversing with the serpent? Why wasn’t Adam supporting his wife? It wasn’t that hard! All he had to say was, “Come on, Eve, let’s go. I was in the mood for grapefruit anyway.” THIS is why the fall happened. God created Eve out of the same flesh as Adam so they could be present to one another, and Adam failed to be present to his wife in her weakest moment! She was alone! Oh, Adam was there, but he didn’t let his presence be felt to her. That’s why the Lord said, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” because God knew the devil’s temptations are too strong to resist alone. We need the support of community. We need to share intimacy with people of good conscience to stay on the straight and narrow.
And when I say “share intimacy,” I’m not referring to physical intimacy outside of married couples. There are many ways to be intimate with people. Go to any kind of support group or twelve step program and you will witness intimacy. You will witness covenant.
I understand this keenly as a priest, because as Bishop Tobin points out in his first book, “Without a Doubt,” a priest is called to be simultaneously celibate AND intimate. Sex can be an expression of intimacy. That is the ideal for sexual relationships, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Perfect strangers can have sex and exchange NO intimacy what so ever.
A celibate MUST be intimate. A celibate must be intimate with God AND his flock, because if he isn’t, he won’t stay celibate for very long. Whenever you hear of a priest in a sex scandal, or leaving the priesthood to get married, do not think it was misguided intimacy. Rather it was a failure in intimacy!
So Original Sin happens because of a failure of intimacy. What happens next? Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves. They quite literally hide their intimacy (their intimate parts) from one another.
What do they do next? They hide from God. God created us for intimacy with him and each other. The shattering of BOTH of those things is the immediate result of sin. And sin continues to have the same two primary effects today; it destroys our intimacy with God and destroys our intimacy with each other.
And both of those things are repaired because of the Immaculate Conception. Because Mary is quite literally, full of Grace, and the Lord is with her, the Word of God enters her womb through the Holy Spirit, and God and Mary become intimate. The intimacy between God and man is restored.
That intimacy is extended to us through the Eucharist. It isn’t a perfect intimacy, and won’t be until we get to heaven, but the gap between God and us is bridged again, because now through the Eucharist, we share flesh with God.
From the cross, Jesus says to Mary, “Woman, behold your son,” then to John, the beloved disciple, “Son behold your Mother.” Jesus calls Mary “Woman,” by the same word that Eve is described in Genesis. So just as Eve was the physical mother of us all, Mary is now the Spiritual Mother of us all. This is extended to us through the Church. Through the Church we are family again.
The devil has no power over us anymore, brothers and sisters, because now, none of us has a reason to be alone again. Through the Eucharist we have intimacy with God, and through the Church we have intimacy with one another. The only thing that disrupts that intimacy is sin, and we have a sacrament for that, too.
Now, because of the Immaculate Conception, through the Eucharist we too can be filling with Grace. Now, because of the Immaculate Conception, through the Church, the Lord is with us also.
Blessed Are You Among Women
Whenever the word “blessed,” is used in scripture, it means a few things. Primarily it means unity with God, or a special relationship to God. Now the words “blessed are you among women,” are NOT spoken by the archangel Gabriel at the Incarnation. Rather they are spoken by Elizabeth, when Mary travels to assist her in her pregnancy.
Now it’s interesting the way this unfolds. Mary travels to the hill country and greets Elizabeth as she enters the house. As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the infant in her womb, Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, leaps. Elizabeth is then filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaims these words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
So the first part of the prayer, “The Hail Mary,” is a composition of what Gabriel names her, and what Elizabeth names her.
Just as Gabriel names Mary, “full of Grace” when he first encounters her, so Elizabeth names her “Blessed are you” when she first encounters her.
But this is not from Elizabeth’s prompting. Both of these are acts of the Spirit. The Lord obviously tells the angel what to say to Mary. Elizabeth speaking in the Spirit is a little more complex. Elizabeth first hears Mary’s voice. She hears the voice of she who has been Immaculately conceived. She hears the voice of the sinless virgin, who is presently pregnant with God, the Incarnate word. She hears this and there’s an immediate response.
Is that response from her? No, that immediate response is from her son, Elizabeth’s son, who is to be the herald, the prophet of that Incarnate word. Prophets did not speak or act on their own accord. If they did, they got in trouble. They had to be prompted by the Spirit first. So when Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, John hears it also, and leaps for joy.
It’s ironic that we always picture John the Baptist as the original fire and brimstone preacher, but the first time we ever see him is in an act of praise. When John leaps for joy, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and John, being in her womb, is de facto filled with the Spirit also. In that moment, John the Baptist becomes a prophet, and since John doesn’t have a voice to prophesy with, his mother, Elizabeth, does it for him. “Blessed are you among women.”
You know folks, I don’t understand how some Catholics and some Christians not only don’t have a problem with abortion themselves, but they try to pretend that God doesn’t have a problem with it either. I hear statements like, “Well, Jesus never explicitly said abortion was wrong.” You’re right. He didn’t. But Jesus didn’t say many things were wrong explicitly. Jesus never once says that rape is wrong in the scriptures. Does that mean rape is OK with God then, because Jesus didn’t explicitly condemn it? That reasoning is foolish.
All throughout the scriptures we see many examples of the intimacy between mother and child, even before the child is born, and that intimacy is used as a comparison by the prophets to describe God’s intimacy to his people. To not see that is to not know scripture, or to blatantly ignore it.
So Mary is blessed, but why is she blessed? A woman once calls out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” That’s almost a repeat of what Elizabeth says. Jesus responds though, “Blessed rather, are those that hear the Word of God and keep it.”
What? Is Jesus disagreeing with this woman’s statement? Is Jesus saying here that Mary is not blessed? No, but at the same time, he doesn’t want people to lose sight of the big picture. The reason why Mary is blessed is the same reason why each one of us can be blessed. Mary heard the Word of God and always kept it. Mary is the perfect disciple. She is always pondering the events in the life of her son, the Word of God.
Jesus is having dinner at the house of a leading Pharisee, and one of the other guests says to him, “Blessed is he who eats in the kingdom of God.” Seems straight forward enough. What does Jesus do? He breaks out into a parable about a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son, and he sends word to all the invited guests to come to the feast, but they all have lame excuses for backing out. They are all preoccupied with ‘good’ things, but earthly things.
In a rage, the king tells his servants to un-invite all the invited guests, and get all kinds of people off the street and in the marketplace to fill his hall. When there’s still more room he orders his servants to go into the countryside and byroads to fill his banquet hall, because “none of those I invited will taste any of my feast.”
What did the invited guests do that so offended the king? They made a commitment that they didn’t see through. They placed other things as more important than the invitation extended to them. Mary reacted oppositely. She always responded with a willingness to do God’s will, even to Calvary.
Where do we see the word “blessed” most often used? The beatitudes of course. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the lowly. Blessed are the pure of heart. Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness. If you look at all of those beatitudes, they all apply to Mary. She lived them all. That’s why she was blessed, and that’s how we can be blessed as well.
But note, it’s not “blessed are you among people, or believers, or humans, or creation.” It’s “blessed are you among women.” Why particularly women? Because Mary fulfills every vocation of woman perfectly. Mary is virgin, consecrated to the Lord, yet Mary is also the wife of Joseph, betrothed in marriage. Mary is daughter of the Most High, yet Mary is also Mother of the Most High.
Mary is also sister to the saint and the sinner. Note, who stands with Mary at the crucifixion. Mary Magdalene, and Mary the wife of Clophas. Ever wonder if there was a significance to having three Mary’s at Calvary? Mary the wife of Clophas, is Mary’s cousin, her blood relative. Mary Magdalene is the repentant sinner, now related to Mary through the blood of the Lamb. Mary is sister to them both.
All of these things make Mary blessed, and they are all tied together through the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus.
Mary Immaculate, most blessed among women, pray for us that following your example, we too may be truly blessed.
--Father Michael Anthony Sisco