As Catholics, there is one prayer that most of us pray more than any other prayer – the Hail Mary. In saying just one Rosary, the Hail Mary is recited 53 times. Our practice of praying this prayer causes some consternation for people who do not understand it. We are often accused of practicing “vain repetition,” which we are warned against in Matthew 6:7: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Today we will break the Hail Mary into its parts to look at the significance of each one, and thus reveal how the Hail Mary is a loving devotion that honors the Lord Jesus and His mother in an appropriate way.
We will begin with the first part of the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” These opening lines of the prayer are taken directly from Scripture and are therefore divinely inspired. The words include the two times Mary is greeted in Scripture. First, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, “And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’…Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’” St. Thomas Aquinas (1275-1274) spent some time studying the Hail Mary and its meaning. He determined that the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is very important in illustrating who Mary is, why she’s important, and how it is a reflection of her son, Jesus. You see, in normal circumstances, angels are greater beings than humans in the order of creation and, as such, it would not be typical for an angel to greet a human being with such respect. St. Thomas cites three reasons for this: 1) Angels are greater than men in dignity because they are purely spiritual beings, while we exist in a corruptible body. 2) Angels are closer to God than humans are. Therefore, they have more direct and face to face knowledge of God, while we are further separated from God due to our sins. 3) Angels contain a larger amount of God’s grace than humans, which they reflect with a divine light. St. Thomas says that angels always appear clothed in light, but humans reflect that divine light in a lesser way. Therefore, Gabriel’s greeting of “Hail” was one indicating the angel’s subservience to this particular human being, Mary. The next question that naturally follows is: Why is this specific person so special that the angel greets her with such respect? It is because she is the vessel, the tabernacle, the new Ark of the Covenant, that would carry and nurture our Lord God, incarnate in the person of Jesus.
The second greeting in the Hail Mary is that of Elizabeth when Mary comes to visit her while Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John the Baptist. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Luke 1:41-42). There are two significant pieces to this greeting. The first is that, when Mary arrives, so does the Holy Spirit. He is her Divine Spouse, the source of conception for her Son, and her companion. How many times do you arrive at someone’s house and they are acutely aware that the Holy Spirit arrived with you? If you’re lucky, maybe once or twice, but this was Mary’s standard manner of arrival and Elizabeth couldn’t help herself, overcome by the arrival of the Spirit. The second important part of Elizabeth’s greeting is that it gives voice to the reason for the Holy Spirit’s presence—the person of Jesus, whom Mary is carrying in her womb. Elizabeth tells Mary that she is blessed because the fruit of her womb (Jesus) is blessed. Mary’s importance is directly connected to her Son, who happens to be the most important human in the history of humanity. So, the Angel and Elizabeth remind us that this isn’t just any woman walking around, rather she is the Mother of God and is worthy of such greetings.
Now that we have established the scriptural basis for the first half of the prayer, how do we view the accusation of vain repetition? What if we have a favorite scripture passage that we like to repeat to ourselves in times of trouble, like a particular Psalm for example? Or, what if you encourage yourself to pick up a particular cross by repeating the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39)? Or perhaps you have a favorite hymn based on Scripture that you like to sing throughout the day like, On Eagle’s Wings or Blest are They. Would any of these scenarios be considered vain repletion of scripture? Probably not. Likewise, our repetition of how Mary is greeted by others is not in vain either, because they remind us of who her Son is. Instead, it is a source of honor for Mary and praise for Jesus.
Now we’ll look at the second half of the Hail Mary prayer, which says: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” This half of the prayer is really nothing more than a petition for intercessory prayer on our behalf. We have very early evidence that it was common practice for Christians to ask Mary to pray for them because of her proximity to God. A painting was found in a cave from the third century with a prayer called the Sub Tuum Praesidium which reads:
We fly to thy protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin
Recognizing that Mary is seated in heaven next to her Son as the Queen Mother, Christians have always asked for her help in their times of need. The second half of the Hail Mary simply carries on that long-standing tradition. In reality, it is not much different from calling your own mother (or anyone else for that matter) on the phone and saying, “Hey, mom. You’ve always had a pretty good prayer life. Would you mind praying for me as I work through this situation?” If you can and do ask any other human for prayers, why would it suddenly be considered vain repetition to ask the same of the Mother of Jesus?
The final point that I would like to make about the Hail Mary is that the central word that joins the two halves together is “Jesus.”
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.
Jesus is the center, the central theme, of this beloved Catholic prayer. He is the center of the wheel from which all of the spokes find their beginning. We cannot honor Mary without properly knowing her Son and we cannot properly ask for her intercession without knowing her Son and her relationship with Him. While the Hail Mary prayer honors Mary, it is Christocentric in nature because none of it would make any sense if Jesus wasn’t found at the center of it all.
I have heard it asked, “Would a man repeating the words, ‘I love you’, to his wife everyday equate to vain repetition?” Of course not! It is not in vain because he sincerely means it and she sincerely wants to hear it more than one time over the duration of the marriage. More than likely, she’d prefer to hear it as often as possible. When we recite the Hail Mary 53 times in one Rosary we are simply saying, “I love you, Jesus. I love you, Mary” over and over again. This week, spend some time reflecting on the words of the Hail Mary and what they actually mean for us.
To receive articles and reflections like these directly to your inbox, please subscribe.
Read more about the four Marian dogmas and one doctrine:
****An in-depth examination of Mary’s role as Advocate under her spiritual motherhood