"Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee"
The Ave Maria
The Ave Maria is also called the Angelical Salutation, because it commences with the words of the archangel.
It has always been customary among Christians to imitate the example of the Archangel Gabriel, and salute our Blessed Lady in his words. The devotion to Mary was not introduced by the decree of a council, nor at the behest of any Pope; at all times the faithful have been wont to pay their devout homage to the Queen of heaven. She herself foresaw that this would be so; that all generations would call her blessed (Luke i. 48).
1. The Ave Maria consists of three parts: The salutation of the Archangel Gabriel, the greeting of Elizabeth, and the words of the Church.
The salutation of the archangel runs thus: "Hail, full of grace the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women" (Luke i. 28). The greeting of Elizabeth is this: "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb " (v. 42). The remaining words were added by the Church. The first and second parts are an ascription of praise, the third part is a supplication. The first and second parts were recited by the faithful in the earliest ages of Christianity in their present form, while the concluding words were varied. St. Athanasius used to add: " Pray for us, Patron and Lady, Queen and Mother of God." From the time of the Reformation, it was customary to end with the words: " Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us." The final clause now in use dates from the reign of Pope St. Pius V, who directed it to be printed in all the authorized prayer-books. After the heretic Nestorius denied the right of the Blessed Virgin to the title of Mother of God, the Ave Maria was more frequently on the lips of Christians than it was in earlier times. And when, in the thirteenth century, other sects arose who refused to give the saints the veneration due to them, the devotion to Our Lady assumed a more and more prominent place, and from that time forth the Ave Maria became an invariable adjunct to the Pater Noster in all the public services of the Church.
2. The Ave Maria is a most potent prayer, and one which is full of meaning.
The Ave Maria is especially efficacious in time of temptation; many saints recommend the faithful to recite it, when evil thoughts assail them. By the words: "Hail Mary" we testify our reverence for the Mother of God.
It is the part of the inferior to salute the superior. Mary is the Mother of the King of kings, she is the Queen of angels and saints, and yet our Mother also. The highest veneration of angels and men is due to her, and therefore we ought reverently to salute her. The words Ave Maria indicate that Mary is a second, a happier Eve; she is the Mother of mankind. Ave is a play on the name Eva, the order of the letters being reversed. Thus the words of the archangel seem to signify: " Eve was full of sin, thou art full of grace; the devil was with Eve, God is with thee; Eve was cursed among women, thou art blessed among women; Eve gave birth to the accursed Cain, whereas the fruit of thy womb is the blessed Jesus."
The words: "full of grace" have this signification: "Thou hast received the graces of the Holy Ghost in a higher degree than all the saints together."
As the moon gives more light than all the hosts of stars, so the Mother of God possesses the supernatural light of the Holy Ghost to a greater extent than all the saints. The full plenitude of grace was poured out on her, whereas it was bestowed but partially on all the other saints. So richly was Mary endowed with grace that she approaches more nearly than any other being to the Author of all grace. God might have created a greater heaven, a greater earth, but a greater Mother than Mary He could not create. The name Mary means sea; she is indeed an ocean of grace. The angel said to her: " Thou hast found grace with God." Only that which was lost can be found: Mary had not lost grace, therefore she found what man had lost. Let those then who have by their sins lost the grace of God, hasten to Mary, that they may recover it at her hands.
The words: " The Lord is with thee," have this signification: "Thou art united, body and soul with God in the closest union."
In the Temple at Jerusalem, which was outwardly of a dazzling whiteness, and inwardly overlaid with gold. God was continually present in a luminous cloud. The Temple was a type of the Mother of God, for in her the Incarnate God dwelt, making her the temple of the Deity. In celebrating Holy Mass, the priest turns seven times to the people with the words: Dominus vobiscum; thus wishing them the closest union with the Godhead, through the sanctifying grace of the Holy Ghost. Of old such forms of greeting were customary; Saul made use of similar words when dismissing David before his contest with Goliath (1 Kings xvii. 37); David when dying, addressed Solomon in the same manner (1 Par. xxii. 11); and Tobias did the same when his son was starting on his journey (Tob. v. 21).
The words: "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus," have this signification: " Thou art the most blessed among women because thy child Jesus waa supremely blessed."
As a tree is considered good if it bears good fruit, so Mary is lauded for the sake of her Son. She is the tree of life in paradise, and Christ is the fruit of that tree. All the angels of God adore the Child that was born of her (Heb. i. 6). Mothers who have had good children have always been. called blessed; witness the woman, who after listening to Our Lord's discourse, lifted up her voice to extol His Mother (Luke xi. 27). It is not because Mary was blessed that her Child was blessed, but the contrary. He, the Author and Source of all grace, filled her with benediction. Christ is not said to be blessed among men, as Mary is among women, because He is the Creator of all men, and cannot be placed in comparison with His creatures. When Judith appeared before King Ozias after slaying Holofernes, he declared her to be blessed above all women on the earth (Judith xiii. 23). How much more does Mary merit this praise, since she cooperated in the redemption of the whole human race. Both the Archangel Gabriel and St. Elizabeth addressed the same words to her to indicate that she was to receive homage alike from angels and men.
At the close of the Ave Maria we entreat the Mother of God to pray for us in the hour of death, for then above all other times we have most need of assistance.
At the hour of death, in addition to physical suffering, we shall perhaps have to sustain violent assaults of temptation. " How vehemently," exclaims St. Bonaventure, " does the devil attack man in his last hour, and for this reason, because so short a time is left for him to accomplish his work." The uncertainty of our salvation also causes us terrible anxiety at the hour of death. In all these tribulations, Mary is our surest helper, for she is " the Health of the sick, the Comforter of the afflicted, the Refuge of sinners." When she appears beside the dying, all evil enemies take to flight. Many a one who was devout to the Mother of God, owed it to her that he was reconciled with God on his deathbed, that he had the last sacraments, or received other supernatural aid. She even appeared in person to several saints. " Mary," says St. Jerome, " assists her faithful servants in death; she goes to meet them on their way to heaven, she prevails upon the Judge of all men to give them a merciful sentence." We speak of ourselves as sinners, to render the Mother of God more inclined to listen to us.
Mary is most ready to interest herself on behalf of sinners; she knows what it cost her divine Son to redeem mankind and restore to our fallen race the graces we had lost. It would seem as if Mary did not estimate at its true value the sacrifice of Christ, if she had no great love for sinners. There is no sinner fallen so low that the Mother of God would not willingly befriend him were he to invoke her aid with a real intention to amend. God has committed judgment to His Son, grace and mercy to His Mother's hands.