Mother’s day is usually celebrated the second Sunday in May. Today, however, the church commemorates the ultimate Mother, St. Mary, the Mother of Our Lord Christ. Mary has always had a special place in the hearts church members throughout the centuries. Whether she is venerated as remaining ever the virgin through an “Immaculate Conception,” or thought to have appeared at Lourdes or in various other times and places, or whether she is thought to be the “Queen of Heaven,” Mary remains Theotokos, the God-bearer. She was at the center of one of the greatest Christological crises in the history of the church. But no one can diminish the fact that she is the most blessed among women. And Mary never claimed anything more for herself, according to Scripture. She is mentioned just a handful of times in the Gospels in connection with the Birth of Christ, the Flight into Egypt, the Passover in the Temple, Jesus’ death, to name a few. Tradition holds that she followed John to Ephesus where she died. She is truly the things legends are made of for some say that she even was assumed bodily into heaven like Elijah, or Enoch. Yet Scripture does not bear witness to this speculation. And indeed, much of what we have about Mary in the traditions of the church are based on speculation and private revelation, like those matters noted above.
What we do have revealed in Holy Scripture, is the portrait of a true, earthly mother who brought her son, the God-man into this world, and watched Him leave it, hanging on a dreadful, bloody Cross. We are shown an example of true faith, faith that is bestowed upon us only by the Holy Spirit, in accepting the gift of bearing the salvation of the world inside of her, while secretly carrying in her heart her entire life with her Son the knowledge, the aching suspicion that, if the prophecies were true, if the sacrifices pointed to the Lamb of God, she held Him in her arms, and she would watch Him leave this world and this life. A blessing and a curse. Gospel and Law.
The Hail Mary
Many things have been written about Mary. The nicest come from Scripture. The Hail Mary, for example,as it is commonly known, is a prayer that developed over time in the church. It is taken from the Angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, as he announced to her the favor that God chose to bestow upon her to bear His Son into this world (Luke 1:28). The second part of the prayer is taken from the greeting Mary received from her cousin Elizabeth when her yet unborn child leapt in her womb in the presence of Mary and his God (Luke 1:42). These parts came into common use in the church by about 1050 AD according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. It was used as a salutation, greeting, or expression of honor to Mary, but not as a prayer. The third part of the prayer is a request to Mary to pray for sinners as if she would have some special influence with her son. This was added some time later, probably by some Italian monks in the 1490s. It has become more commonly known now as a prayer. Id. The text reads as follows:
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our 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.
Interestingly, during the protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, did not advocate doing away with the prayer among the faithful. He included it in an early prayer book he prepared in 1522 response to the rapid and confused development of the Reformation during his exile in Wartburg Castle. It was also included in each subsequent printing. He retained the first two parts as historically used by the Church. Here is what he has this to say about the “Hail Mary:”
The Hail Mary
Take note of this: no one should put his trust or confidence in the Mother of God or in her merits, for such trust is worthy of God alone and is the lofty service due only to him. Rather praise and thank God through Mary and the grace given her. Laud and love her simply as the one who, without merit, obtained such blessings from God, sheerly out of his mercy, as she herself testifies in the Magnificat [Luke 1:46–55].
It is very much the same when I am moved by a view of the heavens, the sun, and all creation to exalt him who created everything, bringing all this into my prayer and praise, saying: O God, Author of such a beautiful and perfect creation, grant to me.… Similarly, our prayer should include the Mother of God as we say: O God, what a noble person you have created in her! May she be blessed! And so on. And you who honored her so highly, grant also to me.…
Let not our hearts cleave to her, but through her penetrate to Christ and to God himself. Thus what the Hail Mary says is that all glory should be given to God, using these words: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee [Luke 1:28]; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
You see that these words are not concerned with prayer but purely with giving praise and honor. Similarly there is no petition in the first words of the Lord’s Prayer but rather praise and glorification that God is our Father and that he is in heaven. Therefore we should make the Hail Mary neither a prayer nor an invocation because it is improper to interpret the words beyond what they mean in themselves and beyond the meaning given them by the Holy Spirit.
But there are two things we can do. First, we can use the Hail Mary as a meditation in which we recite what grace God has V 43, p 40 given her. Second, we should add a wish that everyone may know and respect her [as one blessed by God].
In the first place, she is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin—something exceedingly great. For God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil.
In the second place, God is with her, meaning that all she did or left undone is divine and the action of God in her. Moreover, God guarded and protected her from all that might be hurtful to her.
In the third place, she is blessed above all other women, not only because she gave birth without labor, pain, and injury to herself, not as Eve and all other women, but because by the Holy Spirit and without sin, she became fertile, conceived, and gave birth in a way granted to no other woman.
In the fourth place, her giving birth is blessed in that it was spared the curse upon all children of Eve who are conceived in sin [Ps. 51:5] and born to deserve death and damnation. Only the fruit of her body is blessed, and through this birth we are all blessed.
Furthermore, a prayer or wish is to be added—our prayer for all who speak evil against this Fruit and the Mother. But who is it that speaks evil of this Fruit and the Mother? Any who persecute and speak evil against his work, the gospel, and the Christian faith, as Jews and papists are now doing.
The conclusion of this is that in the present no one speaks evil of this Mother and her Fruit as much as those who bless her with many rosaries and constantly mouth the Hail Mary. These, more than any others, speak evil against Christ’s word and faith in the worst way.
Therefore, notice that this Mother and her Fruit are blessed in a twofold way—bodily and spiritually. Bodily with lips and the words of the Hail Mary; such persons blaspheme and speak evil of her most dangerously. And spiritually [one blesses her] in one’s heart by praise and benediction for her child, Christ—for all his words, deeds, and sufferings. And no one does this except he who has the true Christian faith because without such faith no heart is good but is by nature stuffed full of evil speech and blasphemy against God and all his saints. For that reason he who has no faith is advised to refrain from saying the Haft Mary and all other prayers because to such a person the words apply: Let his prayer be sin [Ps. 109:7].
Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 43: Luther’s works, vol. 43 : Devotional Writings II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (39). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
It is an interesting commentary, and a view that we tend to lose sight of when we shy away from things that are too traditional or “Romish.” And yet, we lose some of the fulness of the faith, or it becomes obscured under layers of dust or accretions of superstition or denominational differences. Whatever your thoughts on the matter, the words from the first section are taken directly from Scripture. As such, they are the proclamation of God on the matter. They are the greetings given to Mary by the Holy Messenger sent by God to proclaim to her personally and directly the Good News that the salvation of the world would come to and through her. It is a greeting of honor from a barren cousin acknowledging the miraculous power of God at work in them. It is the revelation of the salvation of the world to two women, and confirmed and expressed in these words to one another. For as sin and life came into the world through a woman. And for this very reason, the church, the Bride of Christ, gives birth to disciples. Surely this is a Hall of Fame moment about which to be excited. It is the thing that legends are made of, and Mary, of all people, deserves that honor. Yet she expresses it best in her own, humble words, in one of the best known hymns of Christendom, The Magnificat found inLuke 1:46-55 (ESV):
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Today (or yesterday, by the time this gets posted and read) I thank God for the Gospel proclamation to Mary, and for the Theotokos. She is truly blessed among women, and we are blessed, as is she, through the Son she bore.