12/19/21 Homily: The "Hail Mary"
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
Our gospel passage today is brief but incredibly rich in meaning, especially with regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I want to take some time to speak about the most famous of Marian prayers; namely, the Hail Mary. And then, I’ll speak briefly on the voice of Mary.
First, the Hail Mary: The Hail Mary is one of the first prayers that Catholics commit to memory. It’s close to the heart of every devout Catholic. It’s perhaps the most frequently prayed prayer, especially for those who regularly pray the Rosary, to the point where Catholics can be mis-characterized as worshippers of Mary. We are not.
We worship only God alone. We adore God alone. We pray to Mary not in adoration, but with devotion; loving devotion as her sons and daughters and as junior disciples who follow after her example.
Above all, the Hail Mary is a biblical prayer. The first words of it come from the archangel Gabriel’s greeting: “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you”. We insert Mary’s name in there, but biblically, Gabriel addresses Mary as the One Who has been and is filled with Grace as if that is her proper name; an allusion to her Immaculate Conception, as we discussed on that Solemnity.
The archangel Gabriel is a messenger from God. And so, that entire line of prayer is God-approved. And so is the second. The second line of the Hail Mary is: Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. That phrase is identical to one we hear in our gospel passage today, except that in our prayers, we also invoke the Name of Jesus.
And so, no Christian should ever be ashamed to pray to Mary with those words. They are divinely inspired. As we heard, when Mary greeted Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit, prompting her to cry out the words she did. And so, nothing we've said in the Hail Mary is as of yet, controversial. We simply repeat the words that were spoken either by the archangel or by a woman filled with the Holy Spirit.
It’s the next line that can at times give some Christians pause: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Now, asking Mary to pray for us is no different than when we ask for prayers from each other. But that title of, Mother of God, can be alarming to certain sensibilities. Nevertheless, that title is also supported by scripture, especially in today’s passage. To quote Elizabeth, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
To be clear, when Elizabeth speaks of the Lord, she’s referring to God. As you may already know, the Israelites and Jews almost never spoke the Name of God out loud; that Name that God revealed to Moses, nearly 1500 years before the birth of Christ. That Holy Name is: Yahweh.
In the sacred writings of Israel—in Hebrew—God’s Name is written with four consonants: Y-H-W-H. But no vowels are indicated in any way. His name was literally unutterable.
When someone publicly read from a sacred scroll and came across God’s Name, he wouldn’t say Yahweh; he’d say, Adonai, which means, “My Lord.” Elizabeth is doing that here: “How is it that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” She’s not referring to any earthly authority, but to the only God. “How is it the Mother of my God should come to me?”
Again, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit in that moment. And every word that she speaks here in the presence of Christ are prompted by the Holy Spirit who inspires her.
This relates to Mary's essential role in today’s passage and in our own lives. Recall in our passage how both Elizabeth and John (who will become John the Baptist) reacted to the presence of Jesus Christ.
Elizabeth said to Mary: “For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leapt for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Mary had only recently conceived the child Jesus. From outward appearances, perhaps no one would have guessed that Mary was pregnant, and no one could reasonably conclude on their own that the child is God. But Elizabeth is certain of both by hearing Mary, even before she saw her. And her spirit groans from within her, and her son, John, leaps with joy before his Master.
It was Mary’s voice that triggered that response. When’s Mary’s voice resounded in that moment, Christ’s presence was revealed to them. This has never changed. Mary still reveals Jesus to all whom she loves, and who seek her intercession in prayer.
Mary is also a symbol of the Church. Our gospel scene is a microcosm of what we experience today. The Catholic Church brings and reveals Jesus to us. Christ becomes present through the Church’s voice.
When a priest at Mass utters the words: “This is my Body; this is my Blood,” bread and wine are transformed into the body and body, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. He becomes truly present among us.
Our spirits should groan within us with loving adoration. Like John, our hearts should leap with joy at his real presence. That’s true with all of the sacraments. The voice of the Church makes Christ present. At baptism, when the minister speaks the words, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and applies water to a catechumen, Christ truly becomes present within that person.
Christ becomes present and is revealed through the voice of the Church, above all in the Eucharist. Through the grace of the Mass—in hearing the voice of the Church—may we rejoice at the real presence of Christ.
Master, MS, "The Visitation," 1506 [wikipedia]