Saturday, June 22, 2013

Why Do Catholics Pray the "Hail Mary"?


Well, it’s not one of the most common questions that Catholics get asked, but it’s closely related to a very common question, and in reality, it is the more appropriate form of that more common question [why do you “worship” Mary?].

First and foremost, let’s clear the air really quickly:

1) Catholics do NOT* worship Mary. (*In truth, we need to define “worship” (latria, dulia, hyper-dulia) if we are going to address this more deeply than what I’ll cover here. But for purposes of talking to normal people with a normal vocabulary in post-18th century English speaking dialog…no, we do not worship Mary.)

2) Asking for prayers from the “dead” is NOT the same as asking prayers from those who have passed on before us…at least according to Jesus and Paul and John. In Scripture, the “dead” are those damned, or otherwise “dead” or not with us and might be used as mediums (see Deut 18:10-11) while the others are referred to as “saints” or children of God, or members of Christ’s Kingdom, or those “who have fallen asleep”, etc… Asking departed brothers and sisters, who are more alive than ever in God’s Presence, is not the same as “necromancy”, nor does it contradict Christ as our One Mediator. And there are a host of Scripture passages to back that up (Rom 8:35-39, Rom 15:30, Rev 5:8, Mk 12:26-27, Mk 9:4, Rev 6:9-11, 1Tim 2:1-7, 1Pet 2:5, Jn 21:15-16, Eph 4:11, etc…).

Okay, so why the “Hail Mary” then? Sure, we are allowed, and even encouraged and even told to pray for one another and ask one another for prayers. And sure, it can be a noble thing to ask the woman who carried God in her womb to pray to Jesus for us. But why the prayer itself…the words, per se?

Well, let’s look at them.

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.

The first two parts should be obvious…but unfortunately, they are not that obvious to a great many folks (including myself until I had to explain to someone else). Let’s look at the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you! (Lk 1:26-28)

Now, some more recent Bible translations render the words “full of grace” as “highly favored daughter” or something along those lines. We can look another time why “full of grace” is more correct. For now, if you doubt that it’s appropriate, I encourage you to research the Greek work “kecharitomene”, which is the word found in the original Greek translations of Scripture.

So then, the first part of the “Hail Mary” is right out of the Scriptures. Is there any reason why we should not quote/repeat what Scripture says?

How about the second part? “Blessed are you…”?

41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! (Lk 1:41-42)

There it is…word for word. The only thing different is that we call on His name here…”Jesus”. We identify exactly WHO the Fruit of Mary’s womb is…it’s Jesus! And just in case there are any doubts as to whether it’s really Jesus, Scripture goes on to tell us:

43 And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Lk 1:43-45)

What was spoken to her from the Lord that was being fulfilled? Well, the Angel Gabriel helps us out there:

31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever;
and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 And Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” 35 And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Lk 1:31-35)

It’s pretty clear then, for the first 2 parts of the “Hail Mary”; they are straight out of the Scriptures…a recounting of what took place those 2,000 years ago when our Lord took on flesh for our salvation. But what about the other half? And why do we continue to repeat it?

The other half does two things: 1) it addresses Mary personally for who she is (cf. Lk 1:31-35, 43-45), and 2) asks her to pray for us…just like we ask everyone else to pray for us…only it’s Jesus’ Mom instead of the average fella’ we meet or know. And assuming that Jesus is God [and He IS], well then, it’s a completely accurate statement to call Mary the “Mother of God”…the “Theotokos”...the “God-bearer”.

So why repeat it? It’s partly for the same reason we repeat the Psalms or any other part of Scripture…because it’s God’s Word (at least the first half). And partly because God’s Word records Mary as saying that we would. Scripture records Mary as saying, “…My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:46-48). If “all generations” are to call her “blessed”, that kinda tells me that ALL generations are supposed to do it…which means we actually have to do it…which involves actually doing it…which, in practice, involves some amount of repeating it more than once (so that future generations will continue to do it).

Why do Catholics pray the “Hail Mary”? Because it is Scripture, and because Scripture said that we would, in some way, continue to call Mary blessed. And what better way to call her blessed than to repeat what the Scriptures say? And who better to ask to pray for us [whether we ask our kinfolks, our friends, or even our own moms] than the mom who carried God in her womb?

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