Hail Mary

In the Old Testament, the standard protocol for angelic appearances is as follows: First, the angel appears. Then, the human to whom he appears either:

a) Does not realize he is an angel and so behaves as he would toward a fellow human being (that is, he makes the angel a nice meal and is hospitable — usually resulting in blessing; or else, like the residents of Sodom, practices such forms of inhospitality as attempted homosexual gang rape, resulting in unpleasantness for the humans).


b) Realizes from the get go that he is speaking to an angel and promptly melts into a puddle of terror. This impels the angel to issue the standard angelic greeting, “Fear not!” followed by sundry efforts to get the human to pull himself back together, buck up, and pay attention, since the angel (whose very title means “messenger”) is trying to deliver the Lord’s message to the sniveling human trembling with terror at the encounter. After some preliminary “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips!” self-reproaches; or a few “Wait! I am unworthy! Send my brother Aaron!” attempts to dodge the message; or some “Could you give me a sign. . . or two. . . or three because I’m really unsure of myself” stabs at putting things off, the human is sufficiently talked back down from his terror to be able to listen to the angel and begin stumbling through the mission he has been chosen for.

That’s the background behind the astonishing story of the Archangel Gabriel’s annunciation to the Blessed Virgin. For in Luke, what we see is the archangel humbled before the human, while the human is not afraid of him. She regards the angel with the same eyes as one who seems to be used to staring into the sun. It’s like she’s done this all her life; it’s as though she knows the One who sent him so well that she’s not dazzled by the presence of this lesser spiritual being. It’s like Gabriel isn’t kidding when he says, “The Lord is with you!” (Lk 1:28). So we do not get from Mary the normal breast-beating over her sinfulness. Indeed, it’s as though she’s not conscious of any sin on her part and feels nothing to be ashamed or abashed about. She is, to be sure, surprised and a bit fearful at the message, but not at the messenger.

Gabriel, for his part, does not greet her with the standard issue, “Fear not!” (a reasonable call, since she is not afraid of him). Instead, he says, “Hail!” Like “amen,” “hail” is a distinctly premodern word. We use it as a joke when we pantomime our kowtows to politicians we find ridiculous and puffed up or when we cheer exaggeratedly for a sports star. We would regard somebody who used it in ordinary conversation as we would somebody who said “thou” or wore Shakespearean garb. That’s because we live in a ruthlessly egalitarian age which has abandoned the snobbery and overt class consciousness of antiquity at the cost of its courtesy and courtliness.

Heaven preserves the courtesy without the snobbery. And so the angel Gabriel, a creature vastly superior to humans in the natural order, bows to a young peasant Jewish girl and speaks with the utmost reverence and courtesy in language reserved for greeting a monarch or Emperor. Normally, you said (if you were a Roman) “Hail, Caesar!” But Gabriel bows himself before a teenager in patched clothes from some ditchwater town in a forgotten backwater of Caesar’s great empire and addresses her as royalty. This superhuman being who has perhaps existed since before the Big Bang, who witnessed the breakup of Pangaea, the age of the dinosaurs, the formation of the Himalayas, and the long slow anguish of the human race since the Fall has come to this little shack of sticks and stones in Nazareth to declare to this delicate thing of water, protein, and spirit that she is to give to Gabriel’s God what Gabriel will never have: the flesh and blood of a man. And, even more astonishingly, she consents — without three years of continual training like Peter, without getting knocked off a horse like Paul, without any of the long preliminary hesitations and backpedalings that characterize Moses, Gideon, Isaiah or even her cousin Zechariah. She hits the ground running: ready, willing and able to say, “Be it unto me according to thy word!”

The name of this girl — for girl she was, and scarcely a woman — was Mary. It’s a name with a long and honorable pedigree in the Jewish tradition, harking back to Moses’ sister Miriam and to Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, an ancestor of David. Curiously, it means “bitter,” which is not the sort of thing upscale American parents are looking for as they peruse the baby books for English-sounding power names like “Madison” and “Tiffany” and dream of a daughter with a $500 suit, a cell phone glued to her ear, high cheek bones, severe glasses, a tough corporate handshake, and the sexual prowess to melt the heart of a competitor just enough so that he won’t see the hostile takeover till the barracuda’s jaws snap shut.

These are, after all, the things we celebrate these days in all the commanding heights of culture from NY to DC to LA. And they are a million miles from the weakness and vulnerability of a woman whose life was destined, by divine prophecy, to be bitter indeed. This is one of the reasons deranged feminism hates Mary so much. Mary’s self-surrendering virginity says, “It’s about love, not power.” To the power addict who can only conceive of a world neatly divided between the cunning and the stupid, Mary’s way is the way of death. So, for instance, Simone de Beauvoir recoils from such surrender when she writes of Mary:

For the first time in history the mother kneels before her son; she freely accepts her inferiority. This is the supreme masculine victory, consummated in the cult of the Virgin — it is the rehabilitation of woman through the accomplishment of her defeat.

For surrender is death, according to the world. And so the world produces men and women who distill the worship of power down to truly bitter dregs, to gain the whole world while losing their own souls. But Mary’s surrender to God leads to the mystery of total dependence on God — and the paradox of happiness through the bitter cross. The Son before whom she kneels is not some selfish boor of this fallen world, but the second Adam who undergoes a defeat far more profound than her own self-surrender so that He may exalt her to a glory above all other creatures. In Him and Him alone, power and love are reconciled, and we find not servility crushed by domination, but humility crowned with glory.

That’s why Gabriel bows to her. For, as Padre Pio said, angels envy us in this alone: that they cannot suffer with Christ as we can. Mary is hailed because the strange favor of God is with her, bestowing on her the bitterness of the Mother of Sorrows, whose heart will be pierced by the same lance that pierced the heart of her Son — and who will receive a glory second only to His when she sees Him risen and, in due time, herself shares in His risen life in the Assumption and takes her place above even Gabriel — who already sees and rejoices over it as he announces the Incarnation to her astonished ears.

That’s why the Tradition teaches us in the Hail Mary to first look at her with the eyes of the angels and see the holy envy she ignites in them. For where she is, we too will one day be, if we continue in faith in her Son as she did to the very end of ends.

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • Bill Sr.

    WOW! So, I’m loving her not only for her profound “holiness” but in essence also for her unbridled “humility”? Could we, her children along with the heavenly host, be more blessed and willing to follow her in love and appreciation to the first born of mankind’s Redemption? Through this understanding are we even more able to see ourselves as children of sorrow whose adoption offers us a depository for all suffering and earthly desires in exchange for a royal robe for the great wedding of Christ and his Church?

  • Laurie

    Reading your articles on here for the last few years, I trully believe your gift is when you write about Mary, the Our Father, etc. The way your spirituality and humility come across is very profound. Stop arguing political issues and concentrate on these. This is your greatest message. God Bless.

  • John C. M

    The word the angel uses for “hail” is chaire, which has as its root, “charis,” meaning “gift” or “grace.” But the name he uses is not “Mary” (that’s in the English and Latin prayer) but kecharitomene, which also has “charis” as its root. I doubt if this word appears anywhere else in Greek literature, but Greek is constructed so that you can have a unique word like this, and it is still intelligible to the hearers. Neither English nor Latin can precisely translate this word, the perfect passive participle in the vocative case. If you want to have some linguistic fun, try decomposing the word and finding a good translation.

    “Chaire, kecharitomene, ho Kyrios meta su” is good Greek, because they like alliteration. But what the underlying Aramaic is, we can only guess at. It must have been pretty remarkable to use, for perhaps the first and last time, a word like kecharitomene.

  • John C. M

    The problem with “confining one’s remarks to the spiritual” is that it confines the Church to its own special realm where it has no impact on our physical lives. But this is the way for the Church to marginalize itself. The secular, modernist forces would love it if we confined ourselves to purely ecclesial matters, but this would mean that the gospel is of no effect in the world.

    I was at the Univ. of Nottingham last summer, where I met the retired Anglican Bishop of Worchester. He described himself as an “applied theologian.” I think that is a good title. After all, Jesus himself was quite willing to take names and kick ass. He was an applied theologian.

  • Howard

    Those of us who have received the gift of children are often overcome with joy, and think little of the sacrifice and difficulties that will be necessary in raising them physically and spiritually. At the Annunciation, a fourteen-year old girl conversant with all the prophecies of the Messiah was fully aware of the superhuman efforts ahead of her in mothering the Son of God. Her Fiat was testimony to incredible courage.

  • George

    Thank you Mark Shea. Wonderful article. Wonderful insights. Knowing the scriptures with an intellect untainted by any dullness, she knew that the Mother of the Messiah would be the Woman of Sorrows.

  • Mark

    Great Article!! Hope to read more insightful articles
    on Mary here.

  • Rich

    These are needed, but your political acumen is needed as well. I appreciate both.

  • Mark P. Shea

    Reading your articles on here for the last few years, I trully believe your gift is when you write about Mary, the Our Father, etc. The way your spirituality and humility come across is very profound. Stop arguing political issues and concentrate on these. This is your greatest message. God Bless.

    “He has cast down the mighty in their arrogance and lifted up the meek and the lowly” is–in addition to being beautiful, a lovely sentiment on a greeting card, and one of those things good Catholics are supposed to know by heart–also a profoundly political statement. One cannot talk truly about Mary without noting that. We believe in an incarnational faith that has real implications for the world of dirty dishes and dirty politics, not a gnostic faith where we say sentimental and pious things about Mary but don’t involve ourselves in the nitty gritty of how the state interacts with the lives of human beings. So I feel bound, as best I can, to talk about that from time to time.

  • J.NormanSayles

    My version: …most blessed are thou of all women…

  • Christine

    At God’s Love and Mercy and our Lady’s true Humility and the Bitterness of her life.

    As a child I hated the fact that Mary was known as Our Lady of Sorrows. Being that I loved her, I never wanted her to be unhappy. I know now that Sorrow is a much more nuanced and deep emotion.

    Thanks Mark, your article will make my Rosary contemplations this week more rich.

    I hope you are having a good time in Australia. Maybe you can write about the critters one of these days. That is the one thing that has always scared me about Australia. Some of the critters are really ugly[smiley=shock] and they have tons and tons of reptiles. Sorry for the tangent.

  • Kamilla

    “For surrender is death, according to the world. And so the world produces men and women who distill the worship of power down to truly bitter dregs, to gain the whole world while losing their own souls.”

    Yes, surrender is death. But then we rise to new life. The pity is that the world has never understood what lies beyond death.

    Mark, thank you for a lovely article.


  • Dust


    I haven’t always agreed with some of your pieces but this, without a doubt, is your very best, ever. I think it may have something to do with the fact that we have the same Mother.


  • georgie-ann

    this has been a great way to demonstrate the actual difference between Mary & regular old humans,…surely her “specialness” shows/glows,…

  • Bill Sr.


    The invitation you extended to Mark is understandable coming from one so filled with loves abundant maternal compassion.

    On earth there is no greater confirmation of the value of life or greater gift to be cherished than a mothers love. By its very nature it surpasses all other imagined or designed goals of man.
    Our Creator knew this and chose that path to grant us salvation.

  • Turgonian

    Thank you so much for writing this, Mr. Innocent Sm– erm, Mr. Mark Shea. I should probably show this to my mother and every other Christian who finds Marian veneration problematic. You are awesome!

  • Nick Palmer

    …but a very moving piece of writing.

    Well done!

  • JACK

    Mary’s YES Changed the world. Since I find the word,
    kecharitomene amazing, I’ve come across a definition-
    description that I really like. I’ll try giving kudos
    later. Kecharitomene==”completely,perfectly,enduringly
    endowed with Grace

  • Marie

    “He has cast down the mighty in their arrogance and lifted up the meek and the lowly” is–(..) –a profoundly political statement…

    We believe in an incarnational faith that has real implications for the world of dirty dishes and dirty politics…

    I wholeheartedly agree and thank you very much for this great reflection on Our Blessed Mother. Aside from that profoundly political statement, Mary also said:

    “He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
    and has exalted the lowly.” — a profoundly social statement.

    “He has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.” — a profoundly economic statement.

    “He has given help to Israel, His servant, mindful of His mercy
    Even as He spoke to our fathers
    to Abraham and to his posterity forever.” – a profoundly faith-filled statement in God’s promise to the Patriarchs.

    Our Blessed Mother is truly the Queen of Angels, Queen of Patriarchs, and Queen of Prophets.

  • Jennifer

    I’ve read me some serious deBeauvoir–I even wrote a song in college that rhymed de Beauvoir with “driving a stick shift car”–and I must have blocked this as I have no memory of it.

    In answer to the idea that she chose defeat, which, as you imply, means, to de Beauvoir, that she chose death…

    “Set me like a seal upon thy heart…for Love is as strong as death.” (Solomon some number: some number.)

    It’s the only path to choose, when faced with the pure Love. Her son learned His mother’s lesson well.

    Beautiful piece, Mark.

  • Grandpa Tom

    Great article. For those who love Mary, I would recommend: “The World’s First Love – Mary, Mother of God.” Written by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Here is an excerpt from page 19-20: When Whistler painted the picture of his mother, did he not have the image of her in his mind before he ever gathered his colors on his palette? Why would we think God would do otherwise? When Whistler was complimented on the portrait of his mother, he said, “You know how it is; one tries to make one’s Mummy just as nice as he can.” When God became Man, He too, I believe, would make His Mother as nice as He could – and that would make her a perfect Mother.