Summary: In light of the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), this sermon explore the graces and blessedness embodied in Mary, and the implication of the same such grace and blessing in our own lives.
Avé María, grátia pléna, Dóminus técum.
Benedícta tu in muliéribus, et benedíctus frúctus véntris túi, Iésus.
Sáncta María, Máter Déi, óra pro nóbis peccatóribus, nunc et in hóra mórtis nóstrae. Ámen.
We are familiar with these words of “Ave Maria,” most likely because of Franz Schubert’s beautiful musical setting of this prayer. However, have you ever made the connection that this Latin prayer translates into English as what we call the “Hail Mary”?
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.
Of course, those familiar with the Catholic tradition know this prayer by heart, but we Protestants are less familiar with its words. And yet, listen again: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Does that sound familiar? If so, it’s because the first two lines of this prayer come straight out of the scripture reading you heard only moments ago! In his gospel, Luke records four canticles or psalms, which are songs of faith. And he puts them on the lips of people in the Christmas story. These are what might be called the first carols of Christmas, and they reveal to us the amazing, world-altering, life-changing work that God was to begin in his Son, Jesus Christ. This morning, the words we study are spoken by the messenger, Gabriel, and by Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. They are not one of those four psalms, but overtime, these words become that, “Ave Maria.”
“Hail Mary, full of grace” is the Olde English translation of the greeting of the angel Gabriel when he approached Mary. “Rejoice, favored one!” And of course, we heard his next words, “the Lord is with you!” Then, when Mary went to see Elizabeth, the baby John leapt in her womb, and she cried out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you carry.” These words from Gabriel and Elizabeth quickly became a part of the church’s liturgy, and by a little after the year 1,000, the final line had been added and it became the prayer of devotion to Mary that we know now, adapted many times over in art and song.
Indeed, the words of Gabriel and Elizabeth in this account of what is called the annunciation, the announcement of Jesus’ pending birth, are not in the form of a psalm, but what these two people say about Mary tells us a great deal about God and God’s work with his people. So this morning, as we continue our look at the first carols of Christmas, we will use the words from this passage, the words of the “Hail Mary”, to consider what it means to be both “full of grace” and “blessed.”
Much like Joseph, who we considered last week, Mary is of humble origins. She, too, lived in Nazareth. It is most likely that the folks living in Nazareth made their homes in caves. This was not a bustling trade center, it was just a tiny village. The life expectancy in that part of the world at that time was around 35 years. And at the time the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, she would have been only fourteen or fifteen years old; not exactly the “type” of person one would expect to bear and raise the ruler of the world. Still, there was something about this woman Mary that drew God to her as the chosen vessel for his Son. Considering the angel’s greeting as he approached Mary, I think it’s fair to say that the God of all grace saw in Mary a woman full of grace.
But what does that mean? What does it look like to be a person who is full of grace? Well, it’s a bit hard to determine that from Mary herself, simply by virtue of the fact that her appearances and words in the gospels are extremely limited. Still, there are other places in the gospels where stories are told of people who are full of grace. The story of the good Samaritan is probably the most well-known example, but there are many others as well. Just read the stories of Jesus’ interactions with people throughout his ministry. Jesus is grace personified. And there are modern-day examples, too.
Did you all hear that story a couple of years ago about the police officer in New York City? He was working the second shift in Manhattan, sort of making his rounds one cold winter evening when he spotted a homeless man sitting across the street in front of a shoe store. The officer approached the man to ask him to move away from the store, but when he got across the street, he noticed the man wasn’t wearing any socks or shoes. Suddenly, the officer’s plans changed. You see, it had been bitterly cold in New York for over a week. The highs during the days were only in the mid-20s, and at night, with the wind chill, it fell well below 0. Maybe the homeless man had chosen that spot outside the shoe store on purpose, or maybe it was just where he landed when his cold, tired feet gave out that night. But in any case, it worked out well for the police officer, who went into the store and bought the man several pairs of warm socks and some heavy duty boots. We know this story because a tourist passing by snapped a photo when the police officer came out of the store and knelt down to help the man put on the new socks and shoes. And we remember this story because it is about a man full of grace.