The Bible and the Hail Mary

In between the feasts of the Assumption (Aug. 15) and the Coronation (Aug. 22), and weeks away from the Nativity of Mary (Sept. 8) and Our Lady Mother of Sorrows (Sept. 15), it is a perfect time to ask how Mary was “blessed among women,” which we are reminded of in each “Hail Mary” we pray.

[Click here for “Benedictine College Goes Big to Honor Mary”]

The first thing to note about the “Hail Mary” is that it comes right out of Scripture. The heart of the prayer comes from the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary (“Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you,” Luke 1:28) and Elizabeth’s response to Mary in the visitation (“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” Luke 1:42). In what follows, we will reflect upon the biblical meaning packed into these phrases.

The Lord is with You

The phrase “the Lord is with you” (or its near equivalent) resonates deeply throughout the Bible, occurring at key junctions in salvation history — where one is at the cusp of some great moment in the progress of redemption. The phrase ensures God’s presence and assistance in carrying out a special mission that will have far-reaching implications. Thus, the phrase occurs with Moses when he hesitates to accept his mission to lead Israel out of slavery (Exodus 3:12); it occurs with Joshua as he prepares to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land (Joshua 1:5); it occurs with Gideon as he continues the on-going work of Joshua, protecting the people both physically and spiritually from pagan influences (Judges 6:12). It occurs with Jeremiah, as he begins his difficult (and unpopular) prophetic ministry of calling the people to repentance, as the Babylonian threat looms imminently in the late seventh century BC (Jeremiah 1:8). And it occurs with Zerubbabel who begins the arduous process of rebuilding the Temple and the city (and the renewal of their faith) after the exile in the late sixth century BC (Haggai 1:132:4).

In other words, this phrase “the Lord is with you” signals to the biblically-minded reader a momentous stage in salvation history; and the “yes” of the individual will have momentous consequences for the unfolding of God’s great plan of salvation. With this in mind, Gabriel’s words to Mary (“the Lord is with you”) should resonate thunderously for the reader—making us aware of the absolutely pivotal moment taking place.

Blessed Among Women

The phrase “Blessed among women” also has biblical precedents. It occurs where some heroic woman has defeated an enemy of God’s people — and has done so by striking a mortal blow to the head. In Judges 4 and 5, Jael drives a tent peg through the temple of Sisera (Judges 4:21). And in the next chapter, we read: “Most blessed of women be Jael.” Similarly, Judith strikes down Holofernes, severing his head from his body (Judith 13:7-8). Then Uzziah praises her saying, “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth” (Judith 13:18).

The fact that this phrase (“blessed among women”) shows up in conjunction with the striking of the head of the enemies of God’s people draws us back to Genesis 3:15, a passage known by the Tradition as the protoevangelium, the “first Gospel”—the first promise of redemption: “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This saying foretells a time when a woman and her seed would crush the head of Satan himself, ultimately referring to Mary and Jesus.

These are the resonances we should hear when Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:42). Mary is here presented as the New Eve, the woman who would bear the seed who would defeat the Devil once and for all. And as Eve participated in the work of Adam’s downfall, so too this New Eve will participate in the work of the New Adam. Her participation begins here in the Annunciation in her great “yes” to God on behalf of all humanity; it continues in her faithfulness at the Cross where she unites her will to God’s will and offers her Son to the Father on behalf of all humanity; and it continues in her constant maternal love and prayers for each of us, as she earnestly seeks to lead us to her Son.

How can we grow closer to Mary, thereby growing closer to our Lord Jesus Christ?

This appeared at Ascension Press.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.