A couple of years ago the American Bishops introduced a slightly updated version of the lectionary. Most of us have probably not noticed great differences. However this Sunday, one verse may have caught your attention. In the previous version, the angel's greeting to Mary was translated, "Rejoice! O highly favored daughter." The current lectionary translates that verse more literally:
"Hail, full of grace!" (Lk 1:28)
Of course, we are familiar with those words. Catholics know them by heart. Many of us have said them all our lives, but perhaps don't have much idea of what they mean. A convert helped me appreciate them. Just like an immigrant can see aspects of a nation which a native takes for granted, so a convert can help us cradle Catholics understand our faith. Tim Staples, a Baptist minister who converted to Catholicism, did that for me.
Tim has a beautiful series of tapes on the Blessed Virgin Mary. As only an evangelical can do effectively, he devotes almost an entire lecture to a single word: "Hail" (Greek chaire). While it could be an ordinary greeting, it often indicated solemnity or exalted status as in the famous salute to the emperor: Ave, Caesar! ("Hail Caesar!") Tim points out that the word occurs only five other times in the Gospels, once when Judas greets Jesus in the garden ("Hail, Master!") and four times when the soldiers dressed Christ as a king and used it as part of their mockery. ("Hail, King of the Jews!")
But Gabriel was not mocking the maiden of Nazareth. Rather, he is recognizing her exalted status. This is quite astonishing when you think about it. In the order of creation, angels are as superior to us as we are to dogs. I love my dog, but I would not greet him, "Hail, Samwise!" Yet the angel does greet Mary in that manner.
Mary, of course, had done nothing to personally merit such a greeting. But something would be done to her, if she accepted. Although she had pledged herself to virginity, the "Power of the Most High" would overshadow her and the child conceived would be the Son of God. (Lk 1:35)
Two thousand years later we are still grappling with what this event means. Luke gives some help. He consciously compares the Virgin Mary to the Ark of God referred to in today's first reading. (2 Sam 7:2) I explained this comparison in a previous homily, but allow me to mention three parallels between the Visitation (Lk 1:39-45) and the ascent of the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:1-15):
1. As the ark is brought to Jerusalem, King David is overcome with awe saying, "How can the ark of the Lord come to me?" (v. 9)
2. The ark remains three months in the hill country near Jerusalem, bringing great blessings to the house of Obed-edom. (v.11)
3. King David leaps for joy - dancing before the ark. (v. 13)
Likewise, Elizabeth says to Mary, "Who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" She tells how the babe (John the Baptist) leaped in her womb as she became filled with the Holy Spirit. Finally Mary remains three months with her kinswoman before returning to her home.
If Elizabeth can call her young cousin "Mother of my Lord," and the angel salute her with the word "Hail," how much should we honor the Blessed Virgin?
Before you leave our church today, I invite you to look at the northeast colonnade. In its arch you will see depicted a wooden chest containing the two stone tablets of the Decalogue. It represents one of the most ancient titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary: "Ark of the Covenant." For the Israelites the Ark held the very presence of God. In these final days before Christmas we acknowledge that she, in the most literal sense, contains within herself the greatest possible treasure. We greet her:
"Hail, Mary, full of grace.
From Archives (Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
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(St. Michael, Defend Us)
Parish Picture Album
40th Anniversary Celebration
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru