A common question that I’ve been asked about the Rosary is… why the Hail Mary prayer? If you’re going to repeat a prayer over and over again, why couldn’t it be another prayer that didn’t have to anything about Mary? After all, Mary is a controversial figure: so many Christians nowadays are horrified by the even idea of thinking about her as a role model, let alone anyone who might be more important.
And I think the answer to this question involves a deep meditation of the Annunciation.
It is the first mystery of the Joyful Mysteries, where the angel Gabriel comes down and announces God’s intended plan to the Virgin Mary: that Mary should bear a child who will be the Messiah. The scripture reads as such:
26In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, 33and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” 35And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. 36And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; 37for nothing will be impossible for God.” 38Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
It’s an incredible story with an even more astonishing conclusion: Mary says yes.
Which begs the question: how many times do we say yes to God?
When God poses us something that we can do for Him, in our prayer life or in our actual day-to-day actions, how often do we say, “No, God. Maybe another time. I’m too busy.” Or maybe something like, “God, that sounds like a good idea, but right now? Let me do something else.”
Or maybe even, “No, God. I can’t do what you’re asking of me. You are asking too much.”
Which makes it all the more incredible that Mary said yes. Because she absolutely didn’t have to. Read the gospel again. If an angel came down to you with the same question in the same circumstances that you are in right now, would you say yes?
Now, let’s talk about art.
In the early twentieth century, with the advent of photography, a new movement of realistic painting came to art. And that included religious artwork. Combine that with all the biblical scholarship going on, where transportation improvements in trains and ships allowed people to travel to the Holy Land, there was a hunger to see religious subjects in more realistic settings so more common people could identify with the saints more.
And that is the background of this piece, which was made in the early twentieth century.
In this painting, the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel are still very much idealized and depicted as beautiful, albeit Mary looks quite astonished. There are flowers and other sets of beauty around that hint at the Divine Providence of God, as God is the author of the natural world. So, it still has a very lush setting which depicts the natural beauty of the world as being beautiful.
But otherwise? Mary’s clothes look worn. The stone work that she is on looks stained and worn. The pillow that she has been kneeling on, though it might have been fine at one point, definitely looks well-used. She is also depicted with prie dieu, or a prayer desk, which is a common art depiction in scenes of the Annunciation. But, in between the Virgin Mary and the prie dieu is some wool that she has been probably spinning. Indeed, it looks like the angel interrupted her work!
There, the angel extends his hand with lilies, while Mary looks astonished.
28And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
It is the angelic greeting, the first line that the angel Gabriel says to the Virgin Mary. In older versions, it is written as, “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.”
Angels aren’t merely spiritual creatures: they are messengers of God. They deliver God’s Word directly. And, as John has revealed to us in the Gospel, the Word is God. So thus, in this case, God Himself is reaching out to the Virgin Mary and asking for her Fiat, her yes.
A yes that she gladly gives:
38Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
These are the words of the Hail Mary prayer:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!
Blessed are 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.
When we pray the Hail Mary, we are first and foremost honoring Mary for saying yes, for allowing God to transform her life in such an intimate and beautiful way. And we do so by reflecting on the Word of God. After all, the angel is speaking to Mary directly to her the Word of God!
Later, through the Visitation, the Holy Spirit will inspire the next words that come from Elizabeth, “Blessed art thou among woman, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!” And the fruit of the womb? Jesus.
And finally, the prayer concludes asking Mary, who first said yes to God, to pray for sinners now and at the hour of our death. Because the power of prayer is real and we should never underestimate it.
And how do we hope that she prays for us? Simple: we hope that, when she prays for us, she will pray for us the words that she said to the angel, which were echoed later by Jesus in the Agony of the Garden:
May it be done according to Thy Word.
This blog is part of a blog series about meditations of the Rosary, in honor for October, which is the month dedicated to the Rosary! This artwork, as well as many others, are available in my book, The Joyful Mysteries, which allows you to pray the Rosary prayer by prayer, with each prayer illustrated with gorgeous religious art. If you would like to learn more about the books, click here!