Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst 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. Amen.
Here we are, sat in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and the intercessor has started expecting us to pray to Mary… how blasphemous!
…and how mistaken.
The Hail Mary prayer is not a prayer to Mary, but a prayer with Our Blessed Lady. This is an important distinction, and often the source of much confusion. Many accuse Anglocatholics of worshipping Mary, of elevating her to be perhaps a fourth part of the Trinity, if that were either mathematically or theologically possible; and yet we all know that prayer can and should only be directed at God: usually the Father, but also on occasion, the Son or the Holy Spirit, for which it matters not because three are one and one is three without division or exception.
Most people would have no problem if I asked them to pray for me. The Hail Mary does the same, and is (as with all proper prayer) rooted in Scripture: taken from Luke 1:28 and Luke 1:42. They recall the words of the Angel Gabriel to Our Lady and address her with her first title: as one filled with grace. This is not her own grace, but the grace of God. We can never achieve anything by our own merits, but only through God, and so the Lord takes this normal, very young (12 or 13 years old) girl and fills her with grace so that she may become the bearer of God in flesh. Mary travels to her cousin Elizabeth, also blessed by God with the bearing of John the Baptist when she had been written off as fruitless by society, and we echo her words, that she is “blessed amongst women” because of the fruit of her womb. To cite words of Scripture cannot in any way be blasphemous, and certainly not when it speaks of the Incarnation: the stepping of God to this world, the seemingly remote becoming intimate.
Incarnation (literally en-fleshment – the wrapping in meat) is an outrageous concept – that God chooses for us to be poured out (Philippians 2:7) into the frail vessel of humanity is unique and challenging, for it shows the value that God places upon us, and the value and dignity that should be accorded to humanity and human life. Many think that the focus of the faith is on the Cross, conveniently forgetting the Resurrection, whereas perhaps we should be more focused on the alltogether more radical idea that God loved us so much that he gave his only Son (and therefore himself) to the World (John 3:16). So often we think that Scripture is about the Cross when perhaps it should be seen as about the Incarnation. There are many people who forget that Jesus was an actual person, who walked this earth and whose real life is attested to in many (non-Christian) historical records.
We then turn to ask Mary to pray for us, giving her the ancient title “Mother of God”, in Greek Theotokos – “God bearer” – a title accepted for her at the Council of Ephesus in 431 in recognition that she bore Christ who was both Divine and Human, and the mix of those two cannot be separated. It is said that S. Athanasius likened the mixing of God and Man as not like the mixing of Oil and Water, which separate, the more divine oil floating on the top of the mundane human water; but rather like the mixing of water and wine where the two become innately mixed. This is why the priest adds water to the wine in the chalice as s/he prepares the altar “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” You may wonder how God, present from before all time, can be Mothered by someone born in time, yet this is the paradox of the Incarnation, that the timeless one was born at a fixed point in human history: the immense and challenging privilege of bearing God into this world should be recognized as it is and rightly celebrated with honour. Honour and worship are different things, and the latter does not apply.
Asking someone filled with God’s grace to pray for us, recognizing that we are sinners, is therefore a logical step, and seeking that prayer for our present life and the end of our life isn’t such a bad idea therefore is it? Pray for me… I need God’s help, and as we are told, if more people pray for it, then we are strengthened by that prayer. God hears and answers all prayer, and more people praying for something doesn’t force God to listen to any given prayer, for each prayer is heard and responded to; but knowing that others are praying helps us. When someone says “I’m praying for you…” does that not give us confidence and strength? So, Mary, model of faith and devotion, taker-on of an incredible task to bring the Son of God into this world, first apostle, pray with me to God Almighty…