The Hail Mary Explained for Protestants: Part One the Angelic Salutation

Mrs Cooper:   [Walking into a Catholic chapel] Oh, this one’s sweet. You know, for your rosary rattlers.

The Big Bang Theory The Rhinitis Revelation 2011

If there is one thing that tends to unite many Protestants it’s their dislike of the Catholic faith.  One may go from being a Lutheran, to a Methodist to a Baptist to a Congregationalist and it will produce nary a reaction from any other protestant.  But if a Protestant goes from any of these denominations to the Catholic Faith the shock and horror this produces never ceases to amaze.

And of the various Catholic Devotions none seem to promote more of a visceral reaction that the Holy Rosary and the primary prayer of it the Hail Mary:

Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee

Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of your womb,  Jesus.

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners.

Now, and at the hour of our death, Amen.

Nothing seems to set Protestants into a fit like this prayer.   As St. Louis De Montfort described it in his classic book The Secret of the Rosary:

They still say the Our Father but never the Hail Mary; they would rather wear a poisonous snake around their necks than wear a scapular or carry a rosary.

I’ve always found this fact to be one of the oddest things about the Protestant version of Christianity as the Hail Mary is built in its entirety of words that most Protestants would consider the building blocks of Christianity itself.

So this being the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Hail Mary being the most common prayer of the rosary (said 10 times in a decade, 53 times if saying one set of mysteries, or 203 times in a full Rosary, 206 using my methods) this is an excellent time to take a close look at the Hail Mary piece by piece and explain why it is a prayer every Christian should use with pleasure.  I will do this in several parts so lets begin with

Part one:  The Angelic Salutation:

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

If one studies various books on the Hail Mary you will see that it is often referred to as the “Angelic Salutation”.  This make a whole lot of sense because this prayer begins literally with the salutation of an angel.  Now throughout the Bible there are many occasions when angels appear, usually to deliver a message, or a perform a specific task.  Most angels like the one who frees Peter (Acts 12)  are unnamed.  The named angels (Michael, Raphael, Gabriel) are rarely seen and the use of named angel to deliver this message emphasises its significance but ,   just as important as the actual words being said, is what is goes on in this encounter.  Let’s examine it in four parts:

A:  The substance of the Angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary.

As I’ve said the Hail Mary or the Angelic Salutation literally begins with the salutation of Gabriel the Angel:

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.  And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Luke 1:26-28

For my protestant friends here is the King James Version

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,  To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.  And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

Now the simple fact that this opening is directly biblical should, in itself make it acceptable to any Christian of any denomination but the words being said makes the point even better.  For reasons that will shortly become apparent let’s examine these words in a way one might normally not, in reverse order.

Gabriel closes with:  “Blessed are thou among women.”.  This singles Mary out from her entire gender as important, but that in itself isn’t a big deal.  While this puts her above half the earth’s population women were pretty much property at the time so that only suggests she is first among the lowly, but let’s continue to go back.

Gabriel precedes this with “The Lord is with you.”  This echoes the words of the unnamed Angel who greeted Gideon the same way  (Judges 6:12) So it establishes her parity with one of the Judges of Israel.  That’s rather significant,  but even beyond this while Gideon’s angel is unnamed this greeting to Mary is made by a named Angel who stands before God.  Thus Mary is not just equal to the great Judge Gideon, but superior to him.

This is preceded by “favored one”  Now one might think that being visited by an angel alone would make such a statement superfluous after all who is more favored than a person visited by God’s angel?   But the explicit statement of this denotes rank, you are favored, you are special, but consider that this is the only time in the entire bible that this description is given by an angel to any person.  Thus makes Mary Unique not just above a Judge or the Judges of Israel but above everyone.

Finally this entire greeting from Gabriel begins with the formal HAIL, this signifies a person of authority and is usually given by an inferior to a superior.  Gabriel having established Mary above humans, establishes her above himself.

All of this is entirely in keeping with a Royal Style, a person of rank with multiple titles is addressed by their highest first, and then by their lower ranks and honors in decreasing order.

Thus Gabriel in that initial salutation immediately establishes Mary’s rank, above women, above judges, above creatures and above himself.

B:  The submission of the Angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary

While it’s one thing to argue that the greeting of Gabriel suggests his inferiority to Mary, it’s the contrast between his actions in her presence vs his previous  conversation with Zechariah, the husband of her cousin Elizabeth that really puts the exclamation mark on Mary’s rank in the eternal hierarchy.

Consider the scene Luke 15-17:  Zechariah has just been told his prayers have been heard.  His elderly wife will conceive by him and his son will have the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah.  That’ pretty good news for and old priest but an incredible thing to believe so Zechariah quite rationally asks:  How?

Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”  And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel,  who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news.  But now you will be speechless and unable to talk  until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”

Luke 1:18-20

Despite being not only a priest (Luke 1:5) and a man:  righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly (Luke 1:6b) when he asks the perfectly rational question:  “How?”  He is punished for the full term of his wife’s pregnancy for daring to question Gabriel words.

That’s a pretty severe punishment.

Contrast this reaction to Zachariah question vs how he replies to the virgin Mary who in verse 34 asks:

 “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

Does Gabriel ask how dare this mere woman question the angel of God?  Does he note her youth and inexperience and demand she trust?  No.  Not only does Gabriel answer her question directly in verse 35 but he even offers variable tangible proof of his assertions in verses 36,37:

 “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.”  And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”

So Gabriel who stands before God, who smote a righteous priest for daring to question him, when standing before a person who in the 1st century had no standing or importance whatsoever deigns to submit himself to her, providing explanations when asked.  Just like a subordinate would.

C:  The Submission of Mary to the will of God:

While all of what has come before is of great importance when considering the relationship of Mary with God, the single most significant part comes not from the Gabriel’s greeting to Mary or even his answering of her questions.  It’s what follows that elevates Mary beyond everything else.

Consider Mary’s position.  She has just been told that it is God’s intention for her to conceive his son, but Mary being a product of her time and place knows very well where she stands in the pecking order in Jewish society and what turning up pregnant before her wedding means in 1st century Nazareth

1. As an unmarried woman found to be pregnant before her wedding and not by her betrothed the BEST CASE scenario would be a quiet divorce (Which was Joseph’s original plan see Matt 1:19) having the baby secretly and giving it up, keeping silent because if she repeated this tale she would  be considered a liar, a fool or a blasphemer subject to being stoned to death.  Again, this is her BEST CASE Scenario!

2.  Alternatively she might be divorced and not be able to keep the reason quiet marking her as an unclean woman the object of scorn and ridicule for the rest of her life forcing her to flee elsewhere with the ambition of living as a beggar or a whore.

3.  Of course she could just be publicly denounced as an adulteress and stoned to death according to the law of Moses.

All these are the reality of her times, yet given these very real possibilities what does she say:

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

She in one fell swoop declares her faith in the Lord, her trust that God will deliver her from any of those very likely scenarios before her.

Furthermore her statement makes an affirmative declaration that the child she will bear,  Jesus Christ,  is the son of God and by doing so gives birth to Christianity 9 months before the birth of Christ himself, even before his very conception.  She becomes by these words the very first Christian.

D:  Gabriel’s departure AFTER her consent

The final piece of this incredible puzzle comes in verse 38b and seems almost not worth mentioning:

 Then the angel departed from her.

I can hear the words now.  “Well of course the Angel left her, he’s an angel not a midwife or a lamaze coach.”  But there are three salient points worth noting here.

 1. At the beginning of the sequence in verse 26 Gabriel is referred to by name, but from the moment he proclaims the initial angelic salutation to this final verse, he is no longer named, he simply becomes “The Angel” while Mary is continually named each times she speaks.

2. If God considered Mary simple the object to be used to fulfill scripture Gabriel could have easily left after his explanation in verse 37 or even after his basic announcement after verse 33.  Instead he waits for her answer.  He waits while Mary, a mere creature decides if God design will take place through her or not.  This act makes Mary’s “Yes” not a formality but the necessary final ingredient for God’s plan to take place and his waiting for that “yes” is a formal acknowledgement by the powers of heaven in her unique role in the salvation of all of mankind

 3. Finally he does not leave till dismissed

This gives the final touch to the argument concerning Mary rank vs the Angels

So in summation in four parts we see  we see Mary:

Marked as holy by God (part 1)

Submitted to by the heavenly Angel (part 2 & 4) 

And giving affirmative consent to God submitting herself to his plan of Salvation (part 3)

and all of this starts with the opening phrases of the Angelic Salutation:  “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

It is the phrase that all Christianity begins with.


Next time:  Part 2:   The Human Confirmation


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