"Dear Lord, give us rest tonight,
But if we must be wakeful, cheerful.
Caring only for our soul's salvation,
For Christ's sake. Amen"
--A Medieval Prayer at Bedtime--
It was at bedtime as a child that I learned Catholic prayers, primarily under my mother's tutelage. My mother did not teach us any prayer as highly stylized as the Medieval bedtime prayer quoted above. She kept things simple: first came the Prayer to the Guardian Angel; then came the Hail Mary.
Each member of the Knights of Columbus has received at least one Rosary as a gift. The degree to which our Order values the spiritual benefits of the Rosary is reflected in the Order's efforts to ensure that all members have one and in the Order's gentle but persistent request that Knights pray it often. The Rosary consists, of course, of 1 Apostles' Creed, 6 Our Fathers, 6 Glory Be's and 53 Hail Marys. Without question, the heart of the Rosary is the Hail Mary, a prayer most Knights probably learned from a parent. Let us, therefore, reflect briefly this month upon the Hail Mary.
Hail Mary, full of Grace,
The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
* * * * *
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Catholics in the 21st Century recite the Hail Mary as a single prayer. So why the typographical break above? Although many Catholics do not know it, the Hail Mary actually was written in two stages. The first stanza, which concerns Mary's fully graced status and her intimate motherly relationship with the Son of God, was written in the 12th Century. The Hail Mary remained in that form until after the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe from 1348-1352, killing 25 million people. Unaware of the true medical cause of the Plague (bites from infected insects living on the ubiquitous rodents of the era), 14th Century Catholic lay people viewed the Plague as God's wrathful judgment on a sinful world. As the Church progressed into the 15th and 16th Centuries, ordinary Catholics generally possessed a powerful fear of God's judgment and of condemnation to Hell that is virtually unknown to modern Christians. In
that spiritual environment, unfortunate developments such as the sale of indulgences, which offered salvation for a price rather than promoting true conversion of heart, become understandable, although not excusable. But not all developments during this fear-filled era were bad. For in the 15th Century, the second part of the Hail Mary was composed, asking the Blessed Mother to pray for us sinners throughout our lives and at the time of our deaths so that we might attain Heaven rather than the unthinkable alternative.
What do we proclaim when we say the Hail Mary? First, we "hail", i.e., praise Mary for being full of grace. This most brief statement recalls the Catholic doctrine that Mary was conceived without sin, remained sinless throughout her life and always conformed her human will to the will of God. Mary literally was filled to the brim with grace.
Since Mary was filled with God's grace, the Lord was "with" her, first spiritually and then physically, as she carried Jesus during nine months of pregnancy. Such a spiritual and physical honor makes her blessed above all other women (and men as well); and certainly the fruit of her womb, Jesus, was even more blessed than she.
Turning to the second part of the Hail Mary, we encounter the phrase, "Holy Mary, Mother of God." This phrase harkens back to the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th Centuries. During that time period, a heretical group from the Antioch region led by Nestorius denied that Mary could be given the title, "Mother of God." For the Nestorians, Jesus Christ was not one person with two natures, human and divine, but rather consisted of two different persons, human and divine, manifested in one body. The Nestorians, viewing Jesus as split or divided within himself, taught that Mary could only be the mother of Jesus' human person. At the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. and again at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., the Bishops of the Catholic Church and Pope Leo the Great rejected the Nestorian formulation, proclaiming that Jesus was not internally split or divided but was one, whole, integrated person with both divine and human natures. And since Jesus was one person with divine and human natures, Mary properly is called the Mother of God. No responsible theologian, of course, has ever suggested that Mary was the source of Jesus' divine nature. The Son of God possessed that attribute from his eternal status as the Second Person of the Godhead. Nevertheless, each time we say the Hail Mary, whether we realize it or not, we reaffirm the teachings about both Jesus and Mary that were articulated at two major Catholic Church Councils of the 5th Century.
Finally, as sinners in need of help, we ask Mary to pray for us throughout our lives and at the time of our respective deaths. Note, contrary to a misunderstanding among some Protestant denominations, we do not pray to Mary as if she were God. We do not. Rather, we ask Mary to pray for us or with us, much as we would ask any human being here on earth to pray for or with us. But the defining difference is this: Mary has not only attained sainthood; she has already been assumed into heaven body and soul, an honor not even the first Pope, St. Peter, or any of the other Apostles can claim. The Apostles await the Resurrection of the body and its entry into heaven just as much as we do.
In short, Mary is the only human being who has already achieved the fullness of eternal life that every other man or woman born in human history yet awaits-life in both body and soul in Heaven. Why would we not want the greatest saint who ever lived to pray for us and with us? Why would we not say 53 Hail Marys in the Rosary as often as we can, invoking her intercession on our behalf? Why would we, as members of the Knights of Columbus, not follow the urging of our Order to honor Jesus by honoring his Mother in praying the Rosary?
Bernard A. Smith, Grand Knight
August 15, 2011