And the angel, coming in, said to her, “Hail, gratia plena, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 1:28)
With the exception of the Douay Rheims edition, English translation Bibles render this verse “Hail, O favored one . . .” and most (except the King James) leave out the phrase “blessed art thou among women.” The Latin Vulgate, translated directly from the original Greek by St Jerome in the 3rd-4th century (340-420) has Luke 1:28 as “et ingressus angelus ad eam dixit have gratia plena Dominus tecum benedicta tu in mulieribus” Mulieribus being either “among women” or “of famous women.”
My point is not to show that the “Hail Mary” prayer comes to us from the Gospels, although given Luke 1:42 where Mary’s relative Elizabeth greets her with the same words of the angel “blessed are thou among women,” and adds “blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” the prayer is certainly there in form.
What I would like to focus on instead is gratia plena, “full of grace.”
The angel Gabriel’s words can be read as a poetic greeting, but as with all of the literary genres of Sacred Scripture there is an underlying significance to our faith. In the context of “faith seeking understanding” (St Anselm’s definition of theology) I would like to explore the angel’s greeting of gratia plena in relation to the Incarnation. In St Luke’s account of the encounter between Mary and St Gabriel, the scene concludes with “And the angel answering, said to her: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (v36) . . . and Mary said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her (v38.) Verse 39 begins Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth.
The great mystery of our faith happens between verse 38 and 39, in the space of a textual space ‘ ‘ between two sentences, the supernatural event that the angel announced, that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, happened. The Divine Person, the Son of God, united divine nature and human nature and the “visible image of the invisible God” (cf. Col 1:15) Jesus Christ was conceived in the virgin womb of Mary.
The Incarnation (take a deep breath) unites us, in a real and substantial way, to God through the union of the two natures in the one Divine Person of Christ. He is one with us (consubstantial) in our common human nature just as He is (consubstantial) One with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the common Divine Nature of the Holy Trinity. This means that there is no distance between us and Jesus, just as there is no distance between Him and the Father and the Holy Spirit and no distance between you and I, and, by the Incarnation, through Christ there is no distance between us and the Trinity. He sits and the Right Hand of the Father in Divine and human nature, Body and Blood Soul, and Divinity. The Sacred Heart of Jesus, of which we have great devotion, is a human heart living and beating in the bosom of God. The union of Divine and human nature is a metaphysical bond (real and substantial) that goes beyond an association by our assent of faith (“I believe.”) But “how can this be” (to paraphrase Mary’s words.) “Nothing is impossible with God” says the angel, and so do we. The answer to the question is simple, yet our faith seeks understanding so we press on.
In the work of Matthias J. Scheeben, a 19th century theologian (~1862) we get a glimpse of this mystery. First a concept that, although we say “I know that”, is often under estimated in understanding what we believe. The concept comes to us in a locution in which God says to St Catherine of Sienna, “I am God and you are not.” He is God and we are not; He is the Creator and we are His creatures in His creation; He is Divine and we are human; He supernatural, we natural; in simple form, God is totally other. Scheeben begins with a simple premise based on this concept. In speaking of the relation of Divine and human nature, that one is not the other, we want to understand, not only that the two are different, but they are opposed, and yet, in the Incarnation, they are united. Difference, opposition, and union.
Consider this for a moment. My simple analogy. We have all experienced the joy of blowing bubbles from a soapy liquid through a plastic ring on a stick. When the fun begins the bubbles come in contact with the surfaces around us and they pop and sometimes two bubbles come together in the air and become a double bubble, or even a triple bubble. The bubbles are consubstantial, the bubbles and the surfaces are not. After a while however, those surfaces become coated with the soapy liquid from the residue of the popped bubbles and the later bubbles come to rest on the coated surfaces a remain intact. The bubbles and the dry surfaces are different, opposed, and yet union is eventually achieved. They are different and opposed by nature, but by applying some of the nature of the one to the other union is possible. “All things are possible with God.”
Scheeben reminds us that Grace is a substance of Divine nature, it is the “stuff of God.” The young girl, Mary, redeemed of Original Sin by her Son before her conception in the womb of her mother St Ann, was full of grace, gratia plena.
“Hail Mary, gratia plena, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art thou among women.”
“The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore the Holy One which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” . . . and Mary said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.”
And the angel departed from her.
Difference, opposition, union, by the Grace of God.