Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mary's Unique Name: The Grace-Filled One


Today is the wonderful feast of the Annunciation. In the midst of Lent, we pause to remember that the foundation of the value of any penance we do is the gratuitous gift of God who comes to dwell among us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the only-begotten Son of the Father has become incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

This is the astonishing, inexhaustibly new "news" that the angel Gabriel announces to a young girl in Nazareth, and to the whole world through her and the witness of St. Luke's gospel.

Inseparable from this revelation, however, is something else that the angel makes known. God has prepared a "place" for himself and his coming. The power of the Incarnation and Redemption "already" brings about in a perfect way the new reality, the new life that God wills to share with the world in giving his only Son.

For the announcement we celebrate today begins with the "angelic salutation" that we know so well. When we pray, "Hail Mary, full of grace" (cf. Luke 1:28) we echo those words. The original Greek text is "Chaire, kecharitomene," and many English language Bibles translate this as "Rejoice, O favored one." Indeed, the Greek "chaire" is well rendered as "rejoice," which is evocative of the messianic joy of "Daughter Zion" in the prophets (see Zephaniah 3:14). Perhaps from the Ave of the Latin Vulgate to the "Hail" of our classic Marian prayer something of the jubilant connotation is not so directly conveyed to us. It is present nonetheless, and it is worth remembering this moment of Mary's joy when we pray the "Hail Mary."

The term that follows, however, is quite precise and unique, even if those translations that use the term "favor" would appear to weaken its force or render its significance vague. The entire content of the Annunciation makes it clear that this is no ordinary "favor" of God. Mary is destined to carry the Holy One, to be "overshadowed" by the presence of God's glory, the Shekinah of the cloud and the fire that descended upon the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary of Israel reserved to the high priest in the ritual of atonement, the place where Moses spoke with God.

Moreover, "kecharitomene" is not a mere adjective but a substantive term, like a name. Mary is not just "favored" in a relative sense; she is "the favored one." And what kind of a "name" is this, and what more does it convey? Gabriel calls Mary kecharitomene. No one else in the Bible is identified with this term. No one. Translations can try to "tone that down" all they want; they can't take away the fact that the "chari" in "kecharitomene" is the "charis" of St. Paul, by which we are redeemed and justified and set free from sin and sanctified. Grace.

The new life. Mary not only "has" it; it totally penetrates her identity. She is the one who is graced. St. Jerome, who's Greek was pretty good, rendered this in Latin as gratia plena. Mary is "full of grace"--if anything the original Greek is stronger and more emphatic than this. It indicates a reality unique to Mary, that entirely encompasses who she is.

Mary is The Graced One; she is nothing else but this gift of grace, perfected by God from the beginning in view of the One who would take flesh in her womb, and with whom she would cooperate by her loving, grace-filled yes all the way to the Cross and to our redemption.

The angelic salutation and Mary's free response are mutual components of the mystery of the new covenant revealed on this day, the truth of human destiny, the full unveiling of the plan of God that already illuminates the joyful heart of Mary full of grace.

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