Mother of Us All – A Brief Pondering of the Question, "What does Mary look like?"

It is a notable fact that our Lord and his Mother lived in a time long before photographs, even at a time, and among a people, where drawings and portraits of people were almost unknown. Also notably absent in the Sacred Scriptures are any details regarding the physical appearances of most Biblical figures, unless a detail is necessary for the story (e.g. Zacchaeus being short, Goliath tall, Leah being less attractive due to her misshapen eyes). But generally there seems to be an almost complete lack of preoccupation with such things in the Biblical narrative. And even when we are told that David was handsome or Bathsheba was beautiful, we are not really told how.

We live in a polar opposite world when it comes to images. Everything is visual, and we are quite obsessed with appearance and looking acceptable and good, and how other people look.

We attach great meaning (for better, but usually for worse) on our physical appearance. We divide out over race, skin tone, hair etc. We also prize thinness and ridicule fatness, we worry if we are tall enough, pretty enough, if our hair is too straight or not straight enough, if we are tan enough or too dark skinned, and when age sets in many head for the cosmetic surgeon.

Instructive! Thus when we wonder as to what Jesus or Mary “looked like,” it may be instructive for us to reflect on why the Lord would have them live in a time and place, where this data would NOT be supplied us. For, in the end, they look like us. And some historical sketch or painting, had one ever been made, would only tend to limit our vision, rather than allow us to identify with them.

To the question what did Mary look like we may garner five possible answers:

  1. None of your business.
  2. Why do you care?
  3. She looks just like you think she looks.
  4. She looks like you, because she is your mother.
  5. She is far more beautiful than you ever imagined (My favorite answer).

But answer four is probably the most helpful when it comes to accepting the diverse ways she is depicted.

Most of us American Catholics see her in very European terms. Historically this may be dubious, by why shouldn’t we see here as looking like us. She is after all our mother.

As I walk though the dozens of chapels in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, I see her as Chinese, American, Lithuanian, Mexican, Filipino, Korean, African, Lebanese, Irish, Ethiopian, and so on. And why shouldn’t these various Ethnicities  see her as looking like them, she is, after all their mother.

In her various apparitions her look varies too. La Virgen de Guadalupe “La Morena”  (= dark skinned) is surely different than the descriptions we have from other sights such as Fatima or Lourdes. But here too, why can’t the heavenly beauty of Immaculate Mary, so brightly reflective of God’s glory, not refract through the prism of human experience in different colors and ways?

What does Mary look like? She is our Mother, she looks like us. Jesus is our brother (and Lord), he looks like us.

Happy Feast Day

Questioning the Questioners: Why Do You Not Honor Mary in Accordance With Scripture?

Most of us who are Catholics eventually get asked, “Why do you Catholics worship Mary?” More often than not the question is not a real question it is a rhetorical question. A “rhetorical question,” is a “question” whose purpose is not to seek an answer, but, rather, to make a (usually hostile) point. For example the expression “Who do you think you are!?” is in the form of a question but it does not seek an answer. Instead it is meant as a rebuke. And so it usually is when we Catholics get asked the “question” Why do you worship Mary?” we’re usually aware that it is not a sincere question seeking a sincere answer. However, for those cases where an answer really is sought I might propose the following approach:

“Well, of course we don’t worship Mary since that would be a terrible sin. Worship belongs to God alone. We DO honor her though. After all, she is Jesus’ mother.

But let me ask you a question. Why in your church, do you NOT honor Mary at all? Doesn’t scripture say Every generation will call [Mary] blessed because God who is mighty has done great things for [her]? (Luke 1:48-49) It seems to me that we Catholics are fulfilling Scripture but that in your denomination you are not fulfilling or following it. So why don’t you honor her at all? Why don’t you call her blessed as the Bible says?”

Now stop there and wait for an answer. Don’t keep going. Just stop and wait. Have them answer for a change. We Catholics are always on the defensive, always in answer mode. But we ought to ask a few questions too. When asking, try to avoid a merely rhetorical or hostile tone. Try to allow this question to be genuine, respectful, one meant to provoke thought.

It is possible that many Protestants have never been asked this question or pondered an answer. Now it is also possible that your interlocutor will try to change the subject or evade an answer by piling on about Catholics but just repeat the question respectfully and ask for an answer. Remember your point is not to argue, be hostile or win an argument. Your point is to provoke thought and get a real answer. And even if the conversation ends badly or with no answer, you’ve planted a seed, a question that they will ponder even if they don’t admit it. Jesus often asked questions to provoke thought and conversion. I will be doing a post on this next week.

Another way to explain out devotion and love for Mary is that we are imitating Jesus. We love, honor, respect and entrust ourselves to her care because Jesus did all these things, and we want to be just like Jesus. Consider that the very Son of God, dwelt in Mary’s womb, nursed at her breasts, was held in her arms, sat on her lap and entrusted himself to her care. Our Lord could have chosen to enter our world in other ways. Perhaps He could simply have entered the world as a full grown man. The fact is that He freely chose Mary to be his mother and he was truly her Son. As her son he loved and honored her as any good son must and as her son he entrusted himself to her care. All of this serves to highlight Mary’s dignity and to show us how devotion to her is in perfect imitation of Jesus himself.

What more need we say: Jesus our Lord and God honors and loves Mary, and his very Scriptures sing her praises; so too His Angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, inspired by the Holy Spirit,  and countless saints. When we honor Mary we imitate the very Son of God and fulfill Holy Scripture. Certainly our Lord is pleased that we love and honor his mother.

Painting above by French artist William Bouguereau (19th Century)

Update: Mary and the Muslims – A Very Good Video Now Available

You may recall that some months ago I wrote a post on Mary and the Muslim World. If you don’t recall it you can read it here:

Mary and the Muslim World: Is she the key to evangelization?

I recently saw a very well done video on Mary and Jesus in the Qur’an. If you get a moment to watch this video below,  it is a real eye-opener, not only because of its depiction of the story of Mary and Jesus in the Qur’an, but also because it depicts Muslim interest and devotion to Mary. It is a non minute video. But please consider watching it, it is most informative and encouraging.

Mary and the Muslim World: Is She the Key to Evangelization?

I have often heard that Muslims hold our Blessed Mother Mary in high regard. This reverence may stop short of devotion but there is said to be a respect for her in the Muslim tradition.

 Now, I first learned this from the great Archbishop, Fulton Sheen in his book, The World’s First Love. I read it 25 years ago and have pondered it ever since. I would like to present excerpts from the chapter entitled “Mary and the Moslems” [sic], reflect on its significance and ask a few questions. Please note that the book was written in 1952 and therefore some of the spellings are not the modern ones. Here are the excerpts:

The Koran, which is the Bible of the Moslems, has many passages concerning the Blessed Virgin. First of all, the Koran believes in her Immaculate Conception, and also, in her Virgin Birth…..The Koran also has verses on the Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity. Angels are pictured as accompanying the Blessed Mother and saying, Oh Mary, God has chosen you and purified you, and elected you above all the women of the earth. In the 19th chapter of the Koran there are 41 verses on Jesus and Mary. There is such a strong defense of the virginity of Mary here that the Koran in the fourth book, attributes the condemnation of the Jews to their monstrous calumny against the Virgin Mary. 

Mary, then, is for the Moslems the true Sayyida, or Lady. The only possible serious rival to her in their creed would be Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed himself. But after the death of Fatima, Mohammed wrote: Thou shalt be the most blessed of women in Paradise, after Mary. In a variant of the text Fatima is made to say; I surpass all the women, except Mary. 

This brings us to our second point; namely, why the Blessed Mother, in this 20th Century should have revealed herself in the significant little village of Fatima, so that to all future generations she would be known as “Our Lady of Fatima.” Since nothing ever happens out of Heaven except with a finesse of all details, I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as “Our Lady of Fatima” as pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her divine Son too. 

   Evidence to support these views is found in the historical fact that the Moslems occupied Portugal for centuries. At the time when they were finally driven out, the last Moslem chief had a beautiful daughter by the name of Fatima. A Catholic boy fell in love with her, and for him she not only stayed behind when the Moslems left, but even embraced the Faith. The young husband was so much in love with her that he changed the name of the town where he lived to Fatima. Thus the very place where our Lady appeared in 1917 bears a historical connection to Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed. 

Missionaries, in the future will, more and more, see that their apostolate among the Moslems will be successful in the measure that they preach Our Lady of Fatima. Mary is the advent of Christ, bringing Christ to the people before Christ himself is born. In any apologetic endeavor, it is always best to start with that which the people already accept. Because the Moslems have devotion to Mary, our missionaries should be satisfied merely to expand and develop that devotion, with the full realization that our Blessed Lady will carry the Moslems the rest of the way to her divine Son. She is forever a “traitor,” in the sense that she will not accept any devotion for herself, bit will always bring anyone who is devoted to her to her divine Son.

 A beautiful reflection by Archbishop Sheen and one we can surely hope will come to pass. Relations are much more tense however between Christians and Muslims today than in 1952.

This leads to my first question.

Do Muslims today still manifest the reverence to Mary that Sheen described in 1952? I have seen a few people in Muslim garb at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in D.C., but I was not sure if they came to pay homage to Mary or just tour. I think we Catholics ought to be careful before we presume too much of what Muslims today think of Mary. The lines in the Quran quoted by Sheen are impressive but that does not mean that Muslims either know them well or interpret them as we would wish. Hence, I am merely posing a question here. If any of you know of good sources that answer the question of the Muslim stance on Mary I would be grateful if you can point it out. The answer to this question has a lot of bearing on my speculations to follow.

Astonishing Fact – I must say,  I have always considered it nothing less than astonishing that Mary should appear in a town called, of all things, “Fatima.”  Surely this is no mere coincidence and, as Sheen aptly points out, heaven does nothing without purpose. That we are not to merely pass over this detail, is very clear to me. One of the more well known modern titles of Mary is “Our Lady of Fatima.” Fatima is the daughter of Muhammad. This is hugely significant.

Third Secret of Fatima?  For many years, before its revelation,  I was sure that the Third Secret of Fatima  had something to do with the Muslim question. Frankly I figured it likely described a great conflict with the Muslim world that would arise and lead to great suffering for the Church, even a kind of Babylonian captivity, but that ultimately Mary’s Immaculate Heart would triumph by the power of God. Imagine my chagrin when the third secret was finally revealed with a less than worldwide, apocalyptic content. Granted, the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II was a serious and significant matter but it was less than the worldwide conflict I had expected. It is also true that his would-be assassin was Muslim, but the plot was likely more communist and Russian in origin. In the end my theory was rocked back on its heels and fell flat.

But still we are left with Fatima. Why Fatima? Why a town bearing the namesake of Muhammad’s daughter? It seems clear that Mary will play an important role in the years ahead as the Muslim/Christian conflict likely grows sharper. Perhaps, as Sheen notes, she will be the bridge that connects two vastly different cultures, the common mother who keeps her children talking. Right now this connection seems little pursued, even,  as far as I can tell,  by the Vatican. But here too allow a question from me. Are there any of you who know if Our Lady of Fatima has any role in Vatican-Muslim dialogue?

The Guadalupe connection –  I wonder too if  the history of Our Lady of Guadalupe presents some historical parallels to our current struggle with the Muslim world. In the early 16th Century in Mexico, missionaries had made only meager progress in bringing the Aztec people to Christ. It was a combination of  the sometimes rude and cruel treatment of the indiginous people by the Spanish soldiers, and also of the fearful superstition surrounding the Aztec gods. These gods required horrific human sacrifices and kept the people locked in with this fear that, unless they fed these gods,  their  greatest god,  the sun,  would no longer shine.

Into this fearful and suspicious setting entered Mother Mary. The miraculous image she left in 1531 was richly symbolic: Her face  is a mother’s face, gentle and compassionate, unlike the frightful Aztec gods who wore fierce masks. Her features seem to be both an Aztec and European, two cultures are combined in kindness and peace. Her attitude is one of humble prayer, so she is clearly not a god. She is a merciful mother who consoles and prays for us. She is to be honored but not adored. The black band around her waist means that she is with child and offers Jesus to the people. Her message is about him. The sun was the greatest of the Aztec gods and, by standing in front of the sun, Mary shows that she is greater than all their gods. The moon represented to them the god of darkness and death. That she is standing on the moon is a sign that these powers too have been defeated by the son she bears.

 Mary brought the breakthrough. Within ten years over 12 million Mexicans came to Christ and entered the Catholic Church.

This history is paralleled in many ways today in the current tensions with the Muslim World. In many Muslim lands today conversions are few. Part of the reason for this is  a strong aversion for the western culture from which Catholicism comes. Another reason includes many alleged grievances that Muslims have of American and Western “mistreatment.”  Finally,  a large factor is fear. Leaving the Muslim faith is likely to get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world. So, it is a combination of a wide cultural gulf, alleged grievances, and fear, that keep conversions low. All not unlike 16th Century Mexico.

Is Mary key? It took Mary to bridge all these similar gaps between the Aztecs and the Christian Missionaries. Might Mary also be that bridge today when similar gaps divide? Time will tell, but one of her greatest Modern titles is Our Lady of Fatima.  And then,  there is the crescent moon upon which Mary stands in the image of Guadalupe. In modern times the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam. Mother Mary of Guadalupe, by God’s grace, was victorious and overcame the false religion of the Aztecs with love and humility.

Might this crescent moon on which Our Lady of Guadalupe stands also point to our times, and the crescent moon of Islam?  Might it indicate that her victories, by God’s grace, are not at an end. Perhaps we can hope that what our Lady of Guadalupe was to the Aztec people of Mexico, Our Lady of Fatima will be to the Muslim people of the world.

As always, I invite your comments and answers to my questions.

Here is “Immaculate Mary” sung in Arabic

The Magnificat is a Bold Prayer!

I pray you might indulge me a little speculation that cuts against the usual “visuals” surrounding the Magnificat. And , if what I say does not please your sensibilities I ask pardon now, and once again your indulgence.

In our western culture we tend to think of Mary in very soft focus, humbly praying, head bowed, quiet and almost shy in her demeanor. And this may all be true. But as I read Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat day after day, and as I read it today’s Gospel, I cannot help but be struck at how bold and charismatic it is. Many of its phrases are taken from ancient Israel and stitched together by Mary in a wondrous and creative way. But as a prayer, it is no gentle meditation. It is one that makes you want to jump to your feet.

My soul Magnifies the Lord! My Spirit REJOICES in God my Savior!

 As I have prayed this prayer every day for the last 25 years I have come to experience that I cannot see Mary saying  this prayer with hands folded and head bowed. I see, rather, a joyful, young woman, filled with exuberance, head raised in serene confidence and hands upraised in joyful, yes, even charismatic,  gestures.  African American Catholics often refer to this joyful disposition as “havin’ church,” and would say something like: “Mother Mary and Sister Elizabeth were havin’ some church up in there!”

The scene sets up with Mary travelling “in haste” to see Elizabeth. Mary arrives and greets Elizabeth and John the Baptist starts leaping for joy in her womb. You might say he gets things started. The text from Luke then says Elizabeth “cried out with a loud voice: Most blessed are you among women…!” Mary goes on to respond how her soul rejoices in God her savior. No sour-faced saints here, these women are radiant with joy and exuberantly expressing it. Their havin’ church alright, joy beyond all measure is theirs.

This sort of exchange is not uncommon among some of the African American women in my parish. A not un-typical dialogue might go something like this:

A:    Girl,  you are looking radiant!
B:    Yes Lord! Your sister girl is blessed and highly favored! God’s been GOOD to me!
A:    Go on!…. God IS good!
B:    All the time!

Yes, it seems, from any straightforward reading of the Lucan text, that the Magnificat was not recited, it was boldly and joyfully proclaimed in a moment celebrated by two women. One who had come in haste bearing our savior,  and another, filled with the Holy Spirit and her infant dancing for joy in her womb. Two women filled with the joy of God, two women celebrating what God was doing in their lives. Mary proclaims, and she rejoices and says:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;  My spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 

And it is also a prayer that is also bold, even edgy in its critique of the social order:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.

Mary announces a great reversal that is come. Her Son Jesus echoed it: Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matt 19:30). Some may which to spiritualize these words, and they surely do have a spiritual meaning. But their critique of the vainglory of this world cannot simply be seen as an abstraction or a generality. They have real meaning for the social order here and now. They surely mean we must learn to esteem the poor, the disabled, the weak. In this world they may need us, but as for the world that is to come, we will need them and their prayers to gain entry. And they, if they had faith, will have first places of honor. The reversal is coming, be careful what you call a blessing and what you call unfortunate. Be careful who and what you esteem and who and what you do not esteem. Yes, this is a bold and edgy prayer. It cuts right to the heart of the world’s vainglory.

So again, I beg your indulgence. I am aware that many have rather specific notions of what Mary is, or should be like. The portrait I have here presented is not the usual one in Western culture. But in the end, at least here, I see a portrait of a joyful, exuberant woman who is bold, even edgy in expressing what God is doing for her and for all Israel.

How do you see it?

Paradoxes of Christmas

In the ancient Church, and until rather recently, we genuflected at the two references to the incarnation in the Mass: at the Creed and at the Last Gospel (John 1). Why did we do this? It was explained to me that the mystery was so deep that one could only fall in silent reverence.

There are many paradoxes and seeming impossibilities in the incarnation. As mysteries they cannot be fully solved, so they claim our reverence. We genuflected in the past, and we bow today at the mention of the incarnation in the creed for it is a deep mystery.

As we approach Christmas I would like to list some of the paradoxes of Christmas. I want to say as little of them as possible, just enough to make the paradox clear. This paucity of words, not common with me, is in reverence to the mystery and also to invite your own reflection.

  1. The Infinite One becomes an infant.
  2. An antiphon for the Christmas season says,  How can we find words to praise your dignity O Virgin Mary, for he whom the very heavens cannot contain, you carried in your womb.
  3. An old Latin Carol (in Dulci Jublio) says, Alpha et O, Matris in Gremio – (Alpha and Omega, sitting in mommy’s lap).
  4. He who looks down on all creation looks up to see his mother.  The most high looks up from a cradle. Of this moment even the pagans wrote with longing and tenderness: Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem….ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores, occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni occidet (Begin, little boy to recognize the face of your mother with a smile….For you, your own cradle will bear delightful flowers; the serpent will die, and the plant that hides its venom) – Virgil 4th Eclogue.
  5. He who indwells all creation is born in homelessness.
  6. He to whom all things in heaven and on earth belong, is born in poverty and neediness.
  7. He is the mighty Word through whom all things were made. He is the very utterance of God, the Voice which summons all creation into existence. Of this Word, this Utterance, this Voice,  Scritpure says,  The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, upon many waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful, the voice of the LORD is full of majesty….The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness …The voice of the LORD makes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forests bare; and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (Ps. 29).   Yet, this voice is now heard as the cooing and crying of an infant.
  8. His infant hand squeezes his mother’s finger, as infants do. From that same hand, the universe trumbled into existence. That same hand is steering the stars in their courses.
  9. He who holds all creation together in himself  (Col 1:17) is now held by his mother.
  10. He who is the Bread of Life is born in Bethlehem (House of Bread) and lies in a feeding trough (manger).
  11. He who is our sustainer and our food, is now hungry and fed by his mother.
  12. Angels and Archangels may have gathered there, Cherubim and Seraphim thronged the air! But only his mother in her maiden bliss, could worship the beloved with a kiss. (Christina Rosetti “Ere the Bleak Mid Winter”).

Each of these is meant to be a meditation as Christmas approaches. Please add to this list!

Remember the word paradox means something that defies intuition or the common way of thinking. It unsettles or startles us to make us think more deeply. It comes from the Greek:  para- + dokein. Para usually meaning “beside, off to the side,” sometimes “above,”  and dokein meaning “to think or seem.” Hence a paradox is something off to the side of the usual way of seeing things or thinking about them. If you are going to relate to God you’re going to deal with a lot of paradox,  for God’s ways and thinking often defy and confound human ways and thinking. God is not irrational but He often acts in ways that do not conform with worldly expectations.

This Christmas consider these paradoxes and learn from them. Remember too, mysteries are to be lived more than solved. Reverence is more proper to mystery than excessive curiosity. Here, more is learned in silence than by many words.

On The Fittingness and Faithfulness of the Immaculate Conception

Today’s Solemn Feast of the Immaculate Conception is often mistakenly thought to refer to the conception of the Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Mother. It does not. Perhaps it does not help the confusion that the Gospel chosen for today’s feast is in fact the gospel of the Annunciation wherein Jesus is conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is a reason this Gospel is chosen as we shall later see. However, the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s Conception in the womb of her mother Anne. The Dogma is stated as follows in the Papal Document Ineffabilis Deus issued by Pope Pius IX in 1854:

The Most holy Virgin Mary was, in the first moment of her conception, by a unique gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Mankind, preserved free from all stain of Original Sin (D 1641).

Note how carefully the Dogma is worded. Mary receives this gift from God on account of the merits of Jesus Christ. Hence we do not teach that Mary was not in need of the saving grace of Jesus Christ,  for it is only by his merits that she is able to receive this gift.

Why does the Church Teach this? Perhaps we can look at it from three perspectives:

1. Fittingness– When we consider the fittingness of something we do not deny that God could have done things otherwise. We argue only that what he did makes sense and is in accord with what seems best. For example, Jesus could have chosen to appear on earth as a full grown man, never having been born, never having been a child or a carpenter. I was surely possible for God to have done this. He could  have created a human nature for himself ex nihilo (from nothing). However it seems fitting that the Lord Jesus lived life as we do, having been conceived, born, raised, nurtured, come to manhood, labored, and finally ministered. So the Lord chose to have for himself a mother and, from this mother, to draw his humanity.

But what sort of humanity would he need to draw from her? It seems clear that the humanity he drew from her had to be sinless since Scripture says of Jesus: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. (Heb 4:15).  And again,  Which of you can accuse me of sin? (John 8:46). So the humanity that Christ drew from Mary was sinless. But Mary cannot give what she does not have. So it is fitting that God preserved her at her conception from the stain (macula) of Original Sin. Hence she is call Immacula (without stain).

Now one might argue that God could simply have done for Christ what he did for Mary and simply intervened at the moment of Christ’s conception and preserved him free of that stain, while leaving Mary with it. This is true, but less fitting. For if Christ did not take all of his humanity from Mary then incarnation becomes something of a charade, incomplete at best. Christ would have taken some of his humanity from Mary and some from…..where? Hence it is more fitting that Mary be preserved and that Christ’s sonship of Mary be full and her Maternity be full.

It is also fitting that Mary be preserved from Original Sin due to her status as the New Eve. Mary fulfils the text of Genesis 3:15: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. So Mary is the woman, the new Eve, spoken of in this text. But the first Eve was created sinless. Hence it is fitting that the second Eve also be created sinless. In effect God is revisiting the orginal scenario wherein we were harmed by a man, a woman, and a tree. Hence God decrees that we would be restored in the same way: a man (Christ), a woman (Mary) and the tree of the cross. Hence Christ saves us by the wood of the Cross and his obedience. But, just as the original scenario also featured sinless woman who disobeyed, now another sinless woman would, this time, obey. It is thus fitting that Mary be sinless as the New Eve.

2. Faithfulness to Scripture – The Gospel chosen for today may confuse some for it is the gospel that refers to Christ’s conception. However it is chosen for the fact of what the Angel Gabriel says to Mary: And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you (Lk 1:28).  There is a Greek word underlying the translation “full of grace” and the word is κεχαριτωμένη (kecharitomene). The meaning of this term is much disputed since it is a hapax legomenon(a word that only occurs once in the whole of Scripture). The great scholar, Greek speaker and Father of the Church Origen said of this word: The angel greeted Mary with a new address which I could not find anywhere else in scripture….This greeting was reserved for Mary alone (Hom 6.7 on Luke).

However, at the heart of the word is the Greek word χαριτόω (Charitoo) which means to show forth grace (charis), or in the passive to have grace shown. Kecharitomene is a perfect, passive, participle of charitoo and hence means endowed with grace (charis).  But what does it mean to say it is a perfect participle?  A participle is a word that has both the qualities of a adjective and a verb. The ‘perfect’ action of the participle is considered to have been completed before the time of the speaker. How long before is not a consideration,  but the Greek verbal idea is that the action has already been completed. Perfected action must imply the past in relationship to the speaker. Thus, Gabriel in using the word, is confessing that Mary had  already been graced. So, the most literal rendering of κεχαριτωμένη is “having been endowed with grace.” That is awkward in English however: “Hail! having been endowed with grace, the Lord is with thee!”  🙂 So the more standard and still literal way is “full of grace.” Attempts to render the word more vaguely as, “highly favored” do not respect the root word charitoo and charis which is almost always rendered as “grace” and not mere favor. The plain meaning of charis is grace.

Now, grammar aside, it would be strange for Gabriel to say to a woman who had Original Sin that she was full of grace. In no way can the word be implied to mean that she will one day be graced since it is a past participle. The action of her being made full of grace is past, though its effects are present now. So Gabriel is greeting her in this condition. Hence the text implies some prior action of God. Now, this does not ipso facto  prove that the moment in the past where God acted was her conception. But, this seems the most fitting timing since Original Sin is contracted at that moment. Gabriel’s greeting only makes sense if Mary is free from Original Sin, for grace and Original Sin are not compatible

But the point remains that Catholic teaching on Mary’s freedom from Original Sin is most faithful to the Scriptural text here. The Angel’s greeting is significant and Catholic teaching best connects the dots, and takes the greeting at its word, respecting its plain meaning. Mary, having been made full of grace, is free from Original Sin.

3. Fathers of the Church– The Church Fathers did not use the term Immaculate Conception but they did teach on Mary’s holiness and sinlessness. Here are some quotes:

  • St. Ephrem, 3rd Century – Thou and thy Mother are the only ones who are totally beautiful in every respect; for in thee O Lord there is no spot and in thy Mother, no stain. (Carmina Nisibena, 27.8).
  • Hippolytus 3rd Century – The Lord was sinless, because in His humanity He was fashioned out of incorruptible wood, that is to say, out of the Virgin and the Holy Spirit (In Psalm 22; quoted by Theodoret, Dialogus 1; PG 10:610, 864-5)
  • St. Augustine 4th Century – All men must confess themselves as sinners except the Holy Virgin Mary, whom I desire for the sake of the honor of the Lord to leave entirely out of the question when the talk is of sin. For from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.”  (De Natura et gratia 36.42)
  • St. Ephrem, 3rd Century – Mary and Eve, two people without guilt, two simple people were identical. Later however, one became the cause of our death, the other the cause of our life (Opus Syr. II, 327)
  • Origen, 3rd CenturyThis Virgin Mother of the Only-begotten of God, is called Mary, worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, one of the one.  (Homily 1)
  • St Ambrose – 4th Century – “Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin.” (Sermon 22:30)


In the end, Mary receives this honor to be free of original sin for the sake of Christ. All the great Marian doctrines refer back to Christ. Mary too, as the perfect disciple, and Mother of the Church also prefigures the gifts that we will one day enjoy. For, in heaven, having been freed of all our sins and purified by the blood of Christ, we too will be rightfully called Immaculate (without stain). So Mary’s Feast is ours too by way of promise.

There is a beautiful text for today’s feast which says,

Tota pulchra es, Maria,
et macula originalis non est in te.
Vestimentum tuum candidum quasi nix, et facies tua sicut sol.
Tu gloria Jerusalem, tu laetitia Israel, tu honorificentia populi nostri.
Tota pulchra es, Maria

You are all beautiful, Mary,
and the original stain [of sin] is not in you.
Your clothing is bright as snow, and your face is like the sun.
You are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the joy of Israel, you give honour to our people.
You are all beautiful, Mary.

Here is a setting by Durufle:

"You Just Put Your Hand in Mary’s and Let Her Lead you to Christ"

As a young very young child I was so close to God. I spoke to him in a very natural way and He too spoke plainly to me. I have very few memories of early childhood but surely one of my most vivid is how close I was to God. But somewhere, as early puberty approached, I slipped away from God, drifting into the rebellious and angry years of my teens. As the flesh came more alive, my spirit submerged.

The culture of the time didn’t help. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s and rebelliousness and the flesh were celebrated as “virtues.” Somehow we thought ourselves as being more mature than our pathetic forbearers who were “repressed.” But at that time there was the attitude around among the young  that we had come of age somehow and we collectively deluded ourselves through the message of rock music and haze of drug use that we were somehow better.

So it was the winter of my soul. The vivid faith of childhood gave way to a kind of indifferent agnosticism. Though I never formally left Church (mother would never had permitted that as long as I lived in under my parents roof!) I no longer heard God or spoke to him. I may have told you that I joined the Church Youth Choir in High School. This was not religious passion but passion of another kind. There were pretty girls in the choir and I sought their company, shall we say. But God has a way of using beauty to draw us to the truth and week after week, year after year as we sang those old religious classics a buried faith began to awaken.

But what to do? How to pray? I heard I was supposed to pray. But how? As a child it was natural to talk with God. But now he seemed distant, aloof, and likely angry with me. And I’ll admit it, prayer seemed a little goofy to high school senior still struggling to be “cool” in the sight of his friends and in his own eyes. Not only that but prayer was “boring.” an unfocused, unstructured and “goofy” thing.

But I knew someone who did pray. My paternal grandmother “Nana” was a real prayer warrior. Everyday she took out her beads and sat by the window to pray. I had seen my mother pray now and again, but she was more private about it. But Nana, who lived with us off and on in her last years just knew how to pray and you could see it every day.

Rosary Redivivus – In my parish church of the 1970s the rosary was non-existent. Devotions and adoration were on the outs in that sterile time. Even the Crucifix was gone. But Nana had that old time religion. So I asked her one day to show me how to pray the rosary. My mother had taught me as a little child but that was over ten years back. Nana gave the technical details but more importantly she gave me the vision. She said, “Holding these beads is like holding Mary’s hand. You just put your hand in hers and let her lead to Christ.” She went on to say, “You’ll be fine.”

Ad Jesum per Mariam – There are those, non-Catholics especially, who think that talking of Mary and focusing on her at all takes away from Christ. It is as though our hearts were a zero-sum game and we could not do both. But my own experience was that, just as my grandmother said, Mary led me to Christ. I had struggled to know and worship Christ but somehow a mother’s love felt natural, safer, more accessible to me. So I began there, where I could. Simply pole-vaulting into a mature faith from where I was did not seem possible. So I began, a little child again, holding my mother’s hand. And gently, Mother Mary led me on to Christ, her son. And through the rosary, that “Gospel on a String,” I became reacquainted with the basic gospel story.

The thing about Marian devotion is that it opens a whole world to you. For with this devotion comes an open door into so many of the other traditions and devotions of the Church: Eucharistic adoration, litanies, traditional marian hymns, lighting candles, modesty, pious demeanor and so forth. So as she led, she also reconnected me to many things I only vaguely remembered. The 1970s suburban Catholicism had all but cast these things aside and I too had lost them. Now in my late teens I was going into the “Church attic” and taking things down. Thus, little by little,  Mother Mary was helping me put things back in place. I remember my own mother being pleased to discover that I had take some old religious statues out of a drawer in my room and placed them again on my dresser. I also took down the crazy rock and roll posters one by one and replaced them with traditional art, to include a picture of Mary.

Praying the Rosary and talking to Mary began to feel natural. And, sure enough, little by little, I began to speak with God. In the middle of College I began to sense the call to the priesthood. I had become choir director by now and took a new job in a city parish at, you guessed it, “St Mary’s Parish.” There the sterility of suburban Catholicism had never taken hold. The candles burned brightly at the side altars. The beautiful windows, marble altars,  statues and the traditional novenas were all on display in Mother Mary’s Parish. The rest is history. Mary cemented the deal between me and her Son, Jesus. I became his priest and can’t stop talking about him. He is my hero, savior and Lord. And praying again to God has become more natural and deeply spiritual for me.

It all began one day when I took Mary’s hand and let her lead me to Christ. And hasn’t that always been her role? She, by God’s grace, brought Christ to us and showed him to us at Bethlehem, presented him in the Temple, ushered in his first miracle even despite his reluctance. Said to the stewards that day and to us now, “Do whatever he tells you.” And on account of that miracle the text says. Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him  (John 2:11). And so her intercession strengthened the faith of others in her Son. That has always been her role, to take us by the hand and lead us to Christ.