The Hail Mary
Taken from the Fountain of Catholic Knowledge
OFFICE OF CATHOLIC PUBLICATIONS, Imprimatur, 1877
and from THE CATECHIST, by the Very Rev. Canon Howe, Imprimatur, 1898
The Ave Maria, or Angelical Salutation, is the most beautiful and popular of all the prayers which Christians address to the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is no little child who cannot say it, and when a mother first teaches her children to pray she always adds to the "Our Father," "Hail! Mary."
The whole prayer may be described as a tribute of love. Who, therefore, has composed it? The first part was spoken by the Archangel Gabriel, and the second part was added by the Holy Catholic Church.
Let us consider the occasion, the circumstances, and the time at which the angelical salutation was given to Christians.
Mary was at Nazareth, and was praying one day in a little grotto which formed part of the humble home of Joseph, her espoused husband. It was the 25th of March. Suddenly Mary saw before her an Angel surrounded with light. "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee," said this messenger from God; "blessed art thou among women." And as the Blessed Virgin was troubled at this salutation, and wondered what it could mean, the Archangel added, "Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive and shalt bring forth a Son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus" (that is to say, Saviour). "He shall be called the Son of the Most High, and of His kingdom there shall be no end." And then Mary answered the Angel, "How shall this be done, because I know not man?" (The blessed Virgin and St. Joseph had both made a vow of perpetual virginity.) But the Angel said to Mary, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God, because no word shall be impossible with God." Then Mary answered "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word," and the Angel disappered. Thus the Immaculate Virgin became the Mother of God. And nine months after, on the 25th of December, in the stable at Bethlehem, she brought miraculously into the world Jesus, her Divine Son. If the first part of the Hail Mary came from Heaven, so surely did the last; for it is in the name and by the power of God that the Catholic Church speaks unto men; and it was the Church, inspired by the Holy Ghost, Whom the year 431 commanded that this simple and beautiful prayer should be added to the angelical salutation: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
The circumstances which occasioned this addition to be made were these: An Archbishop of Constantinople named Nestorius having dared both in preaching and in writing to attack the Divine maternity of the Blessed Virgin, many of the orthodox bishops appealed to the Pope, St. Celestine, and what his judgment was we may easily suppose. At first he tried with great forbearance to lead the heretic Nestorius, back to the truth, by clearly demonstrating that, the Divine nature and the human nature being united in Jesus Christ in one only Person, Who was both God and man, and thus inseparable and at the same time the Son of God and the Son of Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ must be truly and necessarily the Mother of God. Nestorius was entirely indifferent to these efforts of the Pope, and he was therefore obliged to have recourse to more rigorous measures. He condemned Nestorius as a heretic and an abettor of heresy; he excommunicated him, degraded him from his ecclesiastical dignities, and convoked a general council of bishops to judge the guilty man. This council met at Ephesus in the year 431. The solemn assemblies were held in the ancient church of St. Mary, the first, it is said, ever erected to the honor of the Virgin Mother. Nothing could be more solemn than the meeting at which the Fathers judged Nestorius. From the dawn of day they consulted, the doors of the church being closed. An immense crowd collected outside. The night came, and the doors were still unopened. . . . At last the meeting ended; the bishops appeared upon the steps of the portico, three Papal legates at their head. One of them, St. Cyril of Alexandria, read and proclaimed the sentence in the midst of an unbroken silence: "Mary is truly the Mother of God. Whoever says otherwise is a heretic and excommunicated. Anathema to Nestorius!" Exclamations of joy rose upon all sides.
The bishops were led home in triumph, incense was burned, and the whole city was brilliantly illuminated. In remembrance of this great decision the Council of Ephesus commanded that the words "Holy Mary, Mother of God," etc., should be added to the angelical salutation.
Thus, for one blasphemy against the Blessed Virgin, innumerable praises have gone up to Heaven during fourteen centuries, and God wonderfully brought good out of evil to the glory of His holy Name!
Nestorius, excommunicated and degraded like Judas from his episcopate, went into a desert to die, cursed by God and men. He died impenitent, and even while he lived, upon that sacrilegious tongue which had blasphemed the Mother of God a special curse descended in a very marked and terrible way.
Such is the origin of the Ave Maria. But in order that we may be moved to love this prayer, to say it often and attentively and with an ever-increasing fervor, let us reverently consider the words.
The salutation, Ave, is both an exclamation of love and a mark of reverence toward the Blessed Virgin; we should therefore say "Hail!" with love and confidence, because Mary is our good and tender Mother, the Refuge and Advocate of sinners, the Mother of mercy; and with the deepest veneration, because she is the most holy Queen of Heaven and earth, and the glorious Mother of God.
In Hebrew the name of Mary signifies queen; it also signifies sea of bittemess and illuminatrix. The Blessed Virgin is indeed the Queen of Angels, of Saints, and of men; on Calvary she endured the most bitter sorrow; and, lastly, she has given to the world Jesus Christ, the light of truth and holiness.
The Angel Gabriel did not pronounce the name of Mary . . . The Church has added it, first, out of love for this sweet name; and, next, to show more clearly that the title "full of grace" could only be given to Mary. The words in the original are still more expressive than in the translation. They signify formed in grace; made, or innate with grace. Mary is perfectly and entirely in the grace of God, and without any stain of Original or actual sin by the effects of which grace is destroyed. It is to this singular privilege of complete and perfect sanctity that she owes the title of Immaculate.
"The Lord is with thee." These words are given by God as a proof of the perfect union of the Creator with His creature. God the Father is with Mary as the bridegroom with his well-beloved spouse; God the Son is with her as a son is with his mother; God the Holy Ghost is with her as a king, in his palace, as a master in his own domains, as God in His own temple, as the soul is in the body and with the body.
"The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women." These words of the Archangel were also spoken to Mary by St. Elizabeth on the day of the Visitation. Mary is the one woman above all other women, and it was she of whom God spoke to Adam and Eve when, in promising a Saviour, He said that He would make a complete separation between the devil and her. Mary is the woman, expected for four thousand years, who was predestined to the ineffable glory of giving its Divine Redeemer to the human race.
St. Elizabeth added, "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb." And the Church has added here the name of Jesus, so that there should be found in this prayer the three great names, God, Jesus, Mary: God, the Creator and Lord of all, and our own last end; Jesus, God made man, the Saviour of the world; Mary, the bond of union between Heaven and earth.
He is blessed, the Divine Son of Mary, for God has poured forth on Him without measure all grace and benediction; and not only is eternally blessed; He is for all the source of life and benediction, and there can be no blessing but throught Him.
Holy Mary! Holy, indeed, and more than holy; for the Church bestows on her an honor far higher than that which is rendered to the Saints. She does not adore Mary; that would be a sacrilegious idolatry; God alone, Jesus alone, may be adored. But the Blessed Virgin merits and receives from the Church a special worship, peculiar to herself, called hyperdulia, which means honor above all honor. Above Mary there is only Jesus Christ, only God. Below her, at an immense distance, are Seraphim, Cherubin, Archangels, Angels, and all the Saints.
Mother of God! What a title, what glory! How great the power over the Sacred Heart of Jesus which His Own Mother must possess! How good it is to ask her prayers! "A single look from her," said the great St. Bernard, "disarms the wrath of Divine justice; and when she pleads in our favor the graces of the Almighty flow downward like a mighty river." Let us therefore say with perfect confidence, "O Mother of God, and our Mother, turn thine eyes of mercy toward us. Pray for us sinners! We do not deserve to be heard by our Father Who is in Heaven, but thou, His holy, His well-beloved Mother, thou wilt be heard; and the title we give thee most dear to thy heart is, "Refuge of Sinners."
"Holy Mother, pray for us now, during the whole of our life on earth; pray for us at the moment of temptation. Obtain for us purity, humility, meekness, a lively faith, and final perseverance. Defend us from the devil, our enemy; guard us from sin today, tomorrow, at every instant of our life, and especially at the hour of our death. Amen."
That is the decisive moment. It is upon that last hour that our whole eternity depends; it is then that we shall need especially the help of the Blessed Mother of God. Let us have confidence; she will not fail us then. At that supreme moment Mary will come to us if, during life, we have been faithful in asking her help. "Behold me, my child," she will say, "I am with thee; thou hast called me. How often hast thou said to me, Hail! full of grace. And now, my child, I greet thee, full of the grace of my Divine Son, Who is about to reward thee with eternal glory. Thou hast said to me, The Lord is With thee; He is with thee also, O my child! and thou shalt be with Him throughout the blissful ages of eternity. Thou hast blessed me, and hast blessed the Name of Jesus my Son; and I have blessed thee, and have accompanied thee all through life with constant benedictions; I have obtained for thee the grace of a happy death, and at this terrible moment I bless thee yet again. Have confidence, thy Mother is with thee; thou hast made me thy advocate and thy refuge. Poor sinner! thou hast done well to seek in my bosom an asylum against the justice of thy God! He has appointed me the Mother of mercy, and I have obtained mercy for thee. Come, therefore, soul beloved of my Son, even now is that last hour of which thou hast spoken every time that thou hast prayed to me; I change for thee its terrors into a calm, sweet hope. Child of Mary, child of God, enter into the joy of thy Lord!"
EFFICACY OF THE HAIL MARY
In the year 1604 there were in the city of Flanders two young students who, instead of attending to the acquistion of learning, sought only the indulgence of the appetite and the gratification of their unchaste passions. One night they went to a house of ill-fame; after some time, one of them, called Richard, returned home, and the other remained. After having reached his house, Richard, while undressing to go to bed, remembered that he had not said the three Hail Marys which he was accustomed to recite every day in honour of the Blessed Virgin. Being oppressed with sleep, he felt a great repugnance to say them; however, he did violence to himself and recited the usual Hail Marys, without devotion, and half asleep. He went to bed, and during his sleep, he saw before him his companion, presenting a deformed and hideous appearance. "Who are you?" said Richard. "Do you not know me?" replied the other. "How," rejoined Richard, "have you undergone such a change? You look like a demon." "Ah! unhappy me," exclaimed the other, "I am damned. In leaving that infamous house I was strangled. My body lies in the street, and my soul is in Hell. Know that the same chastisement awaited you, but the Blessed Virgin, on account of your little devotion of reciting the Hail Marys, has saved you from it." Richard, shedding a torrent of tears, fell prostrate on the ground, to thank Mary, his deliverer, and resolved on a change of life for the future. -----S. Alphonsus.
S. ALPHONSUS AND THE HAIL MARY
S. Alphonsus called the Hail Mary the delicious word of the Saints. He never experienced pleasure equal to that he felt when saying this prayer; and in reciting it at the beginning of the Office, he often shed sweet tears of joy, and in his sermons constantly spoke of its power to his audience. -----Catechisme on Exemples.
S. EDMUND AND THE HAIL MARY
S. Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been brought up with a great devotion to the Most Holy Virgin. When sending him to Paris to make his studies, his mother recommended him never to let a day pass without having recourse to his Divine Protectress. That virtuous mother often wrote to him to avoid bad company, and to frequent the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist; often, too, she sent him instruments of penance, to repress, she said, the bad inclinations that might injure his virtue. The holy young man, docile to the counsels of his mother, always showed himself most zealous for the glory of Mary. He went several times a day to prostrate himself before one of her statues; and to mark his engagement in the service of the Queen of Angels, he placed on the finger of one of her statues a ring, on which he had caused to be engraved the whole of the Angelical Salutation. You shall see how agreeable that devotion, so sincere, and so persevering, was to the Blessed Virgin. After the death of the blessed Edmund, it was remarked that the same prayer was engraved on his episcopal ring, to which that prayer communicated a virtue so efficaious and miraculous, that it was subsequently used to operate a great number of cures. If we do not engrave the words of the Hail Mary on a ring, let us engrave them on our hearts, and that will be still better. -----Noel.
THE CRIMINAL AND THE HAIL MARY
A man condemned to death, in Germany, refused to hear speak of Confession. A Jesuit Father employed all manner of means to convert him: prayers, tears, penances, exhortations -----but to no effect. At length he said to him: "Let us say the Hail Mary together." The prisoner, to get rid of his visitor, consented, and no sooner had he done so than tears began to fall from his eyes, he made his Confession, full of contrition and humility, and would only die with a statue of Our Lady in his hands. -----Catechisme en Exemples.
THE COUNCIL OF EPHESUS
To refute and condemn the errors of Nestorius, who denied the Divine" maternity of Mary, the Council of Ephesus was held in the year 431. The population of the town and neighbourhood betook themselves to the square in front of the Church where the Council was being held, and there they remained nearly the whole day, impatient to learn the results. When at length, in the evening, it became known that Nestorius was condemned and anathematized, and that the doctrine of the Church formally declared Mary to be the Mother of God, the enthusiasm of the multitude was unbounded-----they cried out aloud: "Mary is indeed the Mother of God; Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!" It was already dark, and the men lit torches to take to their homes the Fathers of the Council. The whole town was illuminated, and signs of true faith and joy were everywhere visible, as proof of their love and devotion to Mary. -----Tillemont.
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