There are three things contained in this salutation. The first is due to the angel, namely, Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, contributes the second, namely, blessed is the fruit of thy womb. The Church adds the third part, namely, Mary, for the angel did not say Hail Mary, but only Hail, full of grace. And this name Mary, according to its meaning fits the words of the angel, as will become evident.
With respect to the first, it should be known that in ancient times it was an especially great event when an angel appeared to men, so that men might show them reverence, for they deserve the greatest praise. It was written in praise of Abraham that he received angels hospitably and that he showed them reverence. But it was never heard that an angel showed reverence to a man until he saluted the blessed virgin, saying reverently, Hail.
The reason why in antiquity the angel did not reverence man but man the angel is that the angel was greater than man, and this in three respects. First, with respect to dignity, since the angel is of a spiritual nature. Psalm 103,4: who makes: the angels spirits. But man is of a corruptible nature, hence Abraham said (Genesis 18:27): I will speak to my Lord, whereas I am dust and ashes.
It was not then fitting that a spiritual and incorruptible creature should show reverence to a corruptible creature, namely, man. Second, with respect to familiarity with God. For the angel is a familiar of God, as assisting him. Daniel 7:10: thousands of thousands ministered to him, and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before him. But man is like an outsider, put at a distance from God through sin. Psalm 54:8: Lo, I have gone far off, flying away. Thus it was fitting that man should reverence the angel as one close to and familiar with the king. Third, he was preeminent because of the fullness of the splendor of divine grace: for angels partake most fully of the divine light. Job 25:3: Is there any numbering of his soldiers, and upon whom shall not his light arise?
Therefore he always appears with light. But men, although they partake something of the light of grace, it is but little, and with obscurity. Therefore it was not fitting that the angel should show reverence to man until someone should be found in human nature who exceeded the angels in those three respects. And this was the Blessed Virgin. In order to signify that she exceeded him in these three things, the angel wished to show her reverence; hence he said, Hail. So the Blessed Virgin exceeded the angels in these three. First, in fullness of grace, which the Blessed Virgin has more than any angel. It was to indicate this that the angel showed her reverence, saying, full of grace, as if to say: I will show you reverence because you excel me in the fullness of grace.
He says that the Blessed Virgin is full of grace with respect to three things. First, with respect to soul, which has every fullness of grace. For the grace of God is given for two reasons, namely, in order to act well, and to avoid evil. And with respect to these two the Blessed Virgin had most perfect grace. For more than any other holy person save Christ alone she avoided all sin. For sin is either original, and of this she was cleansed in the womb; or mortal or venial, and of these she was free. Hence the Canticle of Canticles 4:7: Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee. Augustine in On Nature and Grace writes: "The holy virgin Mary excepted, if all the holy men and women were here before us and were asked if they were without sin, they would cry out with one voice: 'If we should say we have no sin, we would delude ourselves and the truth is not in us."'
Except for this holy virgin, I say, of whom for the honor of the Lord, when sin is spoken of, I wish no question at all to be raised. For we know that more grace was brought together in her to conquer sin from every side that she merited in order to conceive and give birth to him in whom there was no sin. Christ excelled the Blessed Virgin in this, that he was conceived and born without original sin. The Blessed Virgin was conceived in original sin, but not born in it. She performed the works of all virtues whereas the saints exhibit particular ones, this one being humble, that one chaste, another merciful. Therefore they are given to us as examples of special virtues, for example, Blessed Nicholas as an example of mercy, and so on.
But the Blessed Virgin is an example of all virtues. You find in her the example of humility. Luke 1:38: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, and later in verse 48, he has looked on the humility of his servant; and of chastity: since I know not man, verse 34, and of all the virtues, as is fully obvious. The Blessed Virgin is thus full of grace both with respect to operation and with respect to the avoidance of evil. Second, she was full of grace with respect to the overflow of soul to flesh or body. For it is great thing for the saints to have enough grace to sanctify their soul; but the soul of the Blessed Virgin was so full that from it grace flowed into her body, in order that with it she might conceive the son of God.
Thus Hugh of St. Victor says: "Because the love of the Holy Spirit burned so ardently in her heart, she was able to do wonders in the flesh, so that from it might be born God and man." Luke 1:35: the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. Third, with respect to [grace's] distribution to all men. For it is a great thing in any saint that he has so much grace that it suffices for the salvation of many, but when enough is had for the salvation of all the men in the world, this is the greatest, and so it is with Christ and with the Blessed Virgin.
For in any peril you can obtain salvation from this glorious Virgin. Hence the Canticle of Canticles 4:4: a thousand bucklers (that is, protection against dangers) hang upon it. Again, in every work of virtue you will find her ready to help. Therefore, she herself says in Ecclesiasticus 24:25: In me is all the grace of the way, in me is all hope of life, and of virtue.
She is full of grace, therefore, and exceeds the angels in fullness of grace, and because of this she is fittingly called Mary which means illumined in herself, hence Isaiah 58:11: and will fill the soul with brightness; and she will be a light for others, meaning the whole world; and therefore she is likened to the sun and moon. Second, she excels the angels in divine familiarity. As an indication of this, the angel said: the Lord is with thee, as if he said: therefore I show reverence to you because you are more familiar with God than I, for the Lord is with thee; Lord, he says, both Father and the same Son, something no angel nor creature has. Luke 1:35: And therefore the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. Isaiah 12:6: Rejoice and praise, O thou habitation of Sion: for great is he that is in the midst of thee, the Holy One of Israel.
The Lord is with the Blessed Virgin differently than he is with the angel; he is with her as her son, but with the angel as Lord: the Lord the Holy Spirit, as in the temple, hence she is called the temple of the Lord, the sacred place of the Holy Spirit, who conceived of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35 ): the spirit of the Most High shall come upon you. So it is that the Blessed Virgin is more familiar with God than the angel, because with her is the Lord Father, the Lord Son and the Lord Holy Spirit, that is, the whole trinity is with her. Thus it is sung of her: noble resting place of the whole Trinity. To have said of her, the Lord is with thee, is the most noble thing that could be said of her. Rightly then does the angel revere the Blessed Virgin, because she is the mother of the Lord, and therefore mistress herself. The name Mary thus becomes her and in the Syrian tongue it means mistress.
Third, she exceeds the angels in her purity, for the Blessed Virgin was not only pure in herself, but she also obtained purity for others. For she was most pure with respect to guilt, because neither mortal nor venial sin could be imputed to this virgin, and she was equally pure with respect to punishment.
Three curses come to men because of sin: the first to woman, who will conceive with stain, bear with heaviness and give birth in sorrow. But the Blessed Virgin was immune to this, because she conceived without sin, bore in comfort and joyfully gave birth to the Savior. Isaiah 35:2: It shall bud forth and blossom, and shall rejoice with joy and praise. The second curse is the man's, who must earn his bread with the sweat of his brow. The Blessed Virgin was immune to this, because as the Apostle says in l Corinthians 7:32: He who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord. The third is common to men and women, namely that into dust they shall return. The Blessed Virgin was free of this, because she was assumed in the body into heaven. For we believe that after death she was raised up and borne to heaven. Psalm 131:8: Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place, thou and the ark of thy majesty.
Therefore she was immune to every curse, and thereby blessed amongst women, for she alone put away the curse and carried the blessing, and the door of paradise opened; therefore the name Mary becomes her, which is interpreted Star of the Sea, because just as sailors are directed to port by the star of the sea, so Christians are directed by Mary to glory.
The sinner sometimes seeks in a thing what cannot be attained there, but the just man attains it. Proverbs 13:22: the substance of the sinner is kept for the just. Thus Eve sought in the fruit and did not find there all the things that she desired, but the Blessed Virgin finds in her fruit everything that Eve desired. For Eve desired three things from the fruit. The first what the devil falsely promised her, that they would be as gods, knowing good and evil. You will be, that liar said, like gods, as is read in Genesis 3:5. And he lies because he is a liar, and the father of lies. Eve was not made like God when she ate the fruit, but unlike, because by sinning she receded from God her salvation and was expelled from paradise.
But this is what the Blessed Virgin and all Christians find in the fruit of her womb, because by Christ they are united with and made like unto God. 1 John 3:2: when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him just as he is. The second thing that Eve desired in the fruit was pleasure, because it is good to eat; but she did not find it and immediately knew that she was naked, and felt sorrow. But in the fruit of the Virgin we find sweetness and salvation. John 6:55: he who eats my flesh has life eternal. Third, the fruit of Eve was beautiful in appearance, but more beautiful is the fruit of the Virgin on whom the angels desire to gaze. Psalm 44:3: Thou art beautiful above the sons of men; this is because he is the splendor of his Father's glory.
Eve could not find in her fruit what no sinner can find in his sin. Therefore, what we desire, we should seek in the fruit of the Virgin. Here is a fruit blessed by God, because he has so filled him with every grace that it comes to us by showing him reverence. Ephesians 1:3: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing on high in Christ. By the angels, Apocalypse 7:12: Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength to our God. The Apostle, Philippians 2:11: and every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father. Psalm 117:26: Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.
So therefore is the Virgin blessed, but far more blessed is the fruit of her womb.
1 St. Thomas says Mary was cleansed of original sin in the womb, rather than conceived without original sin. He wrote long before the definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and, unlike Duns Scotus, did not think it of faith.
This article was taken from the May-June 1996 issue of "Catholic Dossier". Catholic Dossier is published bi-monthly by Ignatius Press.