Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among 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.
I have a friend who works as an archeologist. One of the key challenges of her work involves separating out the layers of history at a given archaeological site. Assigning artifacts to their appropriate “strata” helps archaeologists tell a story of development, conflict, and change in a particular place.
The Hail Mary is something of an archeological site. Unlike prayers composed by a single individual, the Hail Mary came together slowly over several centuries and was the work of many hands. It opens with a slightly modified version of the famous greeting to Mary from the archangel Gabriel: “Hail, favored one [“full of grace”]! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). The second line, also from Luke, contains the words spoken to Mary by her cousin Elizabeth: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (1:42).
Western Christians, particularly monks, began reciting the two lines together in the late medieval period, and for the first few hundred years of its use those two lines pretty much were the Hail Mary. Some medieval saints, like Elizabeth of Hungary (d. 1231), were said to have recited them hundreds of times a day, similar to the way many Eastern Christians recite the Jesus Prayer.
The title “Mother of God” for Mary has its own history. In the year 431 a great Church council convened in Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) to debate the question of whether Mary could be called theotokos (“Mother of God”) or only christotokos (“Mother of Christ”). The defenders of theotokos won the debate and led a torchlight parade through the city to honor Mary.
So when did “the sinners” make their appearance? As early as the 7th century, St. Severos, the Patriarch of Alexandria, included such a petition in the local baptismal rite: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, I say sinners, Amen.” Christians in the West often added similar intentions in a variety of forms. It was not until after the Council of Trent in the 16th century, however, that the Catholic Church accepted the petition in its current form as an integral part of the prayer.
To pray the Hail Mary is to sift through the strata of our history as Christians. Its words connect us to the early communities who first heard Luke’s Gospel, to the Christians of late antiquity who closely followed the debates of the great councils, and to the faithful of the medieval period who sought Mary’s intercession. As we honor Mary, we remember our past and look toward the future with hope.
J. Peter Nixon is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day. He works in detention ministry in Northern California.