The prayer we call the "Hail Mary" has evolved over time. The first two sentences (beginning with the angel's greeting and closing with Elizabeth's words, "blessed is the fruit of thy womb") are taken directly from the Scripture (Lk. 1:28). The name of Jesus, to identify Mary's Son, was added in the 13th Century, and the closing petitions, in which we acknowledge Mary as the Mother of God, and beg her prayers, were added in the 16th Century.
The opening words of the Hail Mary were part of the Church's public worship by the 7th Century, and St. Gregory the Great included them as the Offertory verse for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. However, these words did not assume the form of a separate prayer until several centuries later, probably an outgrowth of monastic spirituality. By the end of the 12th Century, however, the bishop of Paris ordered his clergy to make certain the faithful were as well acquainted with the "Salutation of the Blessed Virgin" as they were with the words of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer.
Initially, the words "Hail Mary," etc. retained their character as a greeting, so the words often accompanied a genuflection or bow to honor the Blessed Virgin. As these exercises took more formal shape, we can probably see a connection with the form of the Rosary that we know today. One 12th Century saint repeated the words 150 times each day, kneeling one hundred times, and prostrating for fifty. St. Louis of France (1226-1270) knelt, stood, and then knelt again as he said the prayer. His biographers state he repeated this action fifty times each night, in addition to his other prayers.
Because such activity can soon become tiring, the Hail Mary often assumed a penitential character when monastic communities adopted the practice of attaching physical action to the prayer. Nevertheless, the practice was apparently widespread, and those who embraced it felt it reflected, on earth, the ceaseless hymns of praise the saints and angels offer in heaven.
The Hail Mary began to assume its present form in the 14th and 15th centuries, as individuals added some sort of petition to the angel's words of greeting. Initially, the words of petition reflected the personal devotion of those who said the prayer, but a prayer for help at the time of death gradually became the norm. The form of today's prayer can be found in breviaries used in religious communities as early as 1514.
The catechism of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) embraced the "Hail Mary" as we know it, applauding it as the organic effort of the Church to complete what the Scripture initiated. Most rightly has the Church of God added to this thanksgiving, petition also and the invocation of the most holy Mother of God, thereby implying that we should piously and suppliantly have recourse to her in order that by her intercession she may reconcile God with us sinners and obtain for us the blessings we need both for this present life and for the life which has no end.
After the Council, in 1568, the "Hail Mary" in its present form appeared in the Roman Breviary. (This information is summarized from The Catholic Encyclopedia.)
Scripture records numerous instances of angelic visits, and the honor paid to angels by our ancestors in the faith. However, the angel's greeting to Mary, "Hail, full of grace," is unique, the very first instance of an angel showing reverence to a human being. To understand the magnitude of the angel's paying homage to Mary, we must understand how far superior angels are to us.
Angels are pure, spiritual beings. Because they have no material component, as we do, angels are not subject to the corruption and decay that will destroy our mortal frame. Furthermore, the angel's intellectual powers surpass ours. The human mind learns by steps, proceeding from one truth to another, and often making mistakes in the process. Angels, by contrast, understand truth immediately and completely.
Although equality with angels is promised God's saints (S.T., Ia 62.5), this everlasting happiness is something we look forward to, yet our progress in grace is often impeded by our bodily senses. An angel's immaterial nature is not subject to such distraction, so angels are able to love God without hindrance. Thus, Scripture speaks of angels standing before God and ministering to Him. Our human experience of sin reveals how far we are from God, at least occasionally.
Grace moves both men and angels to love God. However, because nothing stands between angels and their vision of God, the angels share God's love more fully than we can hope to, in this life.
Because angels surpass mankind in dignity, grace and nearness to Our Creator, they are worthy of our honor. We depend upon angels to assist us, but we do not expect them to pay us tribute. In the Virgin Mary, however, the angels discovered a human being whose closeness to God was greater than theirs. Reasonably, then, the angel honored Mary by saying, "Hail, full of grace!" which expressed the angel's respect and awe when faced with Mary's excellence.
God's gift of grace enables us to do good and avoid evil. By sparing Mary the stain of Original Sin, God gave her a greater measure of grace than any saint other than Christ, Himself. St Augustine turns to the Scripture to express this beautifully
When we read the lives of the saints we discover that certain individuals were known for particular good works; Mary excels in all virtue. For example, she shows her humility when she replies to the angel, "I am the handmaid of the Lord," and her chastity when she asserts she has had no relations with a man.
Although many saints are known for the penances they imposed on their bodies, the saints' true claim to holiness lies in the holiness of their souls. By contrast, Mary was so filled with grace that it filled her body, making her flesh fit to bear God's Son. One medieval theologian wrote "The Holy Ghost so kindled in her heart the fire of divine love that it worked wonders in her flesh... that she gave birth to God made man."
Our theology teaches no gift is given simply to enrich the one who receives it. Thus, we honor the saints because their virtues are a source of inspiration for others. Mary surpasses all the saints in virtue so the grace her Son gives through her is immense enough to save all mankind.
Mary's participation in the Incarnation gives her a unique place in relation to the Blessed Trinity. God's Son is her son, something that can be said of no other individual, and the union between Mary and God the Father exceeds the intimacy of God with any other creature.
In giving birth to Jesus, Mary gives flesh and blood to God's Word. Christ is Lord of creation - even Lord of the angels - but He is Mary's Son, a relation no one else can know. Because the Incarnation is the work of the Holy Spirit, Mary enjoys a union with the Trinity unknown to any of the saints or angels.
In the Old Testament, the most significant woman in a kingdom was not the king's wife, for rulers could have many wives; the highest honor was paid the king's mother. We pay Mary similar honor in our devotion. When Elizabeth greets Mary, she asks, "why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Lk 1:43) The words, "Mother of my Lord," echo the title given the queen-mother in Scripture. They are also the basis for one of the most common titles by which we address the Blessed Virgin. Because Mary is Mother of our Lord, she is "Our Lady."
Mary is often called a "New Eve" because God spared her the punishments He pronounced on the wife of Adam. Chief among these is the mortality, which consigns our bodies to the dust from which they were created. Mary is "blessed" in herself because she was spared the punishments God imposed on mankind, but she is also blessed by the actions of her life - giving us Our Savoir, showing us the supreme example of Christian virtue, and, in her Assumption, giving us a promise of the glory that God's love calls us to enjoy.
The notion of "fruit" provides further reason for considering Mary the New Eve. The first Eve ate fruit which, she was promised, would make her like God. Instead, through her disobedience, she became unlike God and was sent out of the earthly Paradise. Eve's children have suffered the same fate for millennia. Mary reverses the Original Sin. By sharing her Fruit - Jesus Christ - with the world, she invites us to reclaim the image and identity we lost in the Garden. "When He shall appear, we shall be like Him," St. John promises, "for we shall see Him as He is" (1 Jn 3:2). Our baptism unites us with Christ and, through Him, to the Father, restoring in us the likeness of God sacrificed to sin.
The book of Genesis tells us "the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes" (Gen. 3:6). Once they tasted it, however, our First Parents realized, in an instant, the fruit of the tree was neither useful nor pleasant. Instead, it brought them shame and exile. The Fruit of Mary's womb is both the summit of our humanity and food for our salvation, useful and beautiful. Eve discovered no pleasure in the fruit she ate, and ultimately we find as little pleasure in sin. In the Fruit Mary gives us, however, we find blessing, hope, and promise.
The Hail Mary, as St. Thomas Aquinas knew it, and as he preached upon it during Lent in 1273, ends with acknowledgement of Our Savior, the blessed fruit of Mary's womb. Surely, these words from the Scripture are sufficient, and perfect in their simplicity. Why, we may ask, has the Church added to the "Angelic Salutation" we find in the gospel?
Academic study will undoubtedly reveal manifold answers to this question, but human need can tell us as much. As children, we are taught that beauty is as beauty does, and the Hail Mary is a prayer that God will enable us to live up to the image in which we have been created.
One of the Church's hymns honors Mary by saying, "Mary, mother meek and mild, blessed was she in her Child." When we pray the Hail Mary we begin by acknowledging Mary's unique and honored place in our humanity. But as we continue the prayer, we realize that Mary is not simply blessed in who she is, but in what she has done. In the Hail Mary we ask for the grace to discover, as Mary did, all that our human frame is capable of - if we are willing to place ourselves in God's hands and surrender to God's will.
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