Aquinas – Hail Mary

 

The Hail Mary: A Commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas

Translation by Scholasticus

Mary

In this prayer three things are contained. The first part comes from the Angel: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.”
The second part comes from St. Elizabeth, mother of St. John the Baptist: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb!”
The third part, “Mary,” was added by the Church, for the Angel did not say, “Hail Mary,” but “Hail, full of grace.” The name Mary, as to its meaning, is in perfect harmony with the words of the Angel, as we shall see.

Explanation of the Words of the Angel Gabriel


HAIL


We must consider in the first place that in ancient times, the appearance of an angel to a man was an event of tremendous import, and men considered it one of the highest honors to be able to give obeisance to an angel. For this reason Holy Scripture records in praise of Abraham that he had been visited by angels and had honored them in return. But that an angel would itself bow down before a human creature to show it reverence was unheard of, until the Angel Gabriel greeted the Virgin Mary, saying, “Hail.”
The reason why, in olden times, men paid their respects to angels and not the other way around, was that an angel is greater than a man, and this in three ways.
In the first place, an angel has a greater dignity on account of his entirely spiritual nature. For God “makes His angels spirits” (Ps. 103,4); but man on the other hand is of a corruptible nature, which is why Abraham said, “I will speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18,27). It was not fitting, therefore, that a spiritual and incorruptible creature show reverence to man, a corruptible creature.
Secondly, an angel is superior to man in his familiarity to God. For an angel is familiar to God, as one who stands in His service. “Thousands upon thousands were ministering to Him, and myriads upon myriads were attending Him” (Dan 7,10). Man on the other hand is like a stranger, driven far from Him by sin, as the Psalmist says, “far away did I flee”(Ps. 54, 8). It is fitting therefore that man show reverence to the angels as servants of the King, and members indeed of His own household.
In the third place, the angel’s superiority is due to the plenitude which they possess of the splendor of divine grace: for the angels partake of the Divine Light itself, in all its fulness: “Is there any numbering of his troops? Yet to which of them does not his light extend?”(Job 25,3). Therefore the angels always appear bathed in light. Men also participate to a certain degree in the light of grace, but much less in comparison, and with a certain obscurity.
And so it was not fitting that an angel bow down to pay his respects to a man until a human creature could be found who surpassed the angels in all these regards. This creature was the Blessed Virgin. And thus to show recognition of her superiority in all these things, the Angel wished to reverence her, saying Ave, or “Hail!”

Full of Grace

The Blessed Virgin is superior to the angels first of all in her plenitude of grace, which she possesses in greater abundance than any angel. To manifest this superiority, the Angel bows down before her, saying, [thou art] “full of grace,” as if to say, I show thee reverence for thou dost surpass me in the fulness of grace.
We say that the Blessed Virgin is full of grace in three ways. First, as regards her soul, in which she possessed the complete plenitude of grace. For the grace of God is given for two things: to do good, and to avoid evil; and from both these points of view the Blessed Virgin was favored with grace in the most perfect manner. For she avoided all sin more than any other saint or holy soul after Christ Himself.
Sin is divided into original sin and actual sin, and this last is in turn divided into mortal and venial sin. The Blessed Virgin was preserved from original sin from the first instant of her conception, and from that moment on she remained completely free from all sin, whether mortal or venial.1
Whence it is said in the Canticle of Canticles, “Thou art all fair, my beloved, and there is no blemish in thee.”
In his work, On Nature and Grace, St. Augustine says:
Apart from the holy Virgin Mary, if any of the saints had been asked, here on earth, whether they were without sin, all would have cried out unanimously, If we say that we are without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth not in us. Except, I say, this holy Virgin. For the honor of the Lord Himself, there can be no question of sin where she is concerned. For we know that to her was given a greater grace to conquer sin, as she merited to conceive and bear He Who most certainly never had any part in sin.
The Blessed Virgin also performed acts of all the virtues, while other saints excelled in one or other particular virtue. One was known for humility, another for chastity, another for being merciful, and therefore they are given as examples of particular virtues; for example, St. Nicholas is known particularly for acts of mercy. The Blessed Virgin, however, is a model of all the virtues. In her we find a model of humility, for she says, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk. 1, 38), and again, “He hath regarded the humility of His handmaid” (Lk. 1, 48). She is also a model of chastity, “For I know not man,” she says (v. 34). And likewise she is an exemplar of the other virtues. Thus the Blessed Virgin is full of grace both in doing good and avoiding evil.
Secondly, she was full of grace as is manifested by the “overflow” of the grace in her soul onto her flesh, onto the body. Now it is a great thing that the saints possess enough grace to suffice unto the sanctification of their souls, but the soul of the Blessed Virgin possessed a fullness of grace such that it overflowed onto the flesh, and from this same flesh she conceived the Son of God. Therefore, Hugh of St. Victor says:
Because the love of the Holy Ghost burned in her heart with a singular ardor, it worked in her members marvels so great, that from her was born a God-Man, as the Angel said: The Holy that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God (Lk. 1,35).
Thirdly, the Blessed Virgin is full of grace even to the point of being able to distribute it to all men. For it is a great thing in the saints when they have enough grace as would be sufficient for the salvation of many but greatest of all is to possess enough grace as to be sufficient for the salvation of all, and such a plenitude is in Christ and the Blessed Virgin. For in every peril you may obtain deliverance from this glorious Virgin. Hence the Spouse in the Canticle of Canticles (4, 4) says, “A thousand bucklers,” that is, remedies against all dangers, “hang from her neck.” Likewise in every act of virtue we can have her as helper, and therefore she says, “In me is all hope of life and of virtue.”

Mary

Thus she is full of grace, and exceeds the angels in her plenitude of grace, and for this reason is fittingly called Mary, which signifies “illuminated interiorly,” whence Isaias the Prophet says, God “shall fill thy soul with his splendors” (58,11). The name of Mary signifies also “Illuminatrix of others” in the whole world, whence she is compared to the sun and moon.

The Lord is With Thee

The Blessed Virgin exceeds the angels in the Divine intimacy. In recognition of this the Angel said, “The Lord is with thee,” as if to say, “I offer thee my reverence, for thou art more intimate with God than I.”
God the Father is with Mary since He is inseparable from the Son which she possessed as no other creature, including the angels: “For the Holy One to be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
God the Son was with Mary in the womb, and to her better than any other creature can be applied the words of Isaias: “Rejoice, O city of Sion, for great in thy midst is the Holy One of Israel.” The Lord was not present in the same manner with the Blessed Virgin Mary as with the angels. With her He was present as a Son, but with the angels as their Lord.
God the Holy Ghost dwelt in her as in a temple, hence she is called “The temple of the Lord, sacred dwelling place of the Holy Ghost,” because she conceived by the Holy Ghost: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee.”
Thus the Blessed Virgin was more familiar with God than the angels, because with her was the abode of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the whole Trinity, for which reason the Church acclaims her as “The worthy Throne of the whole Trinity.” This phrase, then, “the Lord is with thee,” is assuredly the most noble that could be addressed to her.
With reason then the Angel holds the Blessed Virgin in reverence, for she is the Mother of the Lord, and herself a Sovereign. The name of Mary is fitting to her, as in Syriac it means sovereign.
The Blessed Virgin also surpasses the angels in her purity, for she was not only pure herself but obtained the gift of purity for others. For she was most pure and completely free not only from all faults, having never committed either a mortal or venial sin, but also from the punishment thereof.

Explanation of the Words of St. Elizabeth

Blessed art Thou among Women

Three curses befell the human race on account of sin. The first was delivered upon women, that they would henceforth conceive and bring forth their children in pain and sorrow. But the Blessed Virgin was exempt from this curse, for she conceived without corruption, carried her Child without travail, and gave birth to the Savior with joy (Is. 35, 2). The land will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.
The second curse was pronounced upon man, that he would eat his bread by the sweat of his brow. From this curse also the Blessed Virgin was exempt, for as the Apostle says, “Virgins are free from the cares of this world, that they may devote their attention to God alone” (I Cor. 7).The third curse was common to both men and women, that they must return to dust. The Blessed Virgin was preserved from this also, for she was assumed bodily into heaven. For we believe that after death she was raised up and carried into heaven as the Psalm says, “Arise, O Lord, to thy resting-place; Thou and the arc which Thou hast sanctified for thyself (Ps. 131,8).
Thus she was free from all these curses and “blessed among women,” because she took away these curses and in their place brought blessings, opening the gate of Paradise. And so the name of Mary, which is also interpreted “Star of the Sea” befits her; for just as sailors are guided into port by the star of the sea, so also Christians are guided by Mary unto glory.

Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb

The sinner sometimes seeks in something or someone what he cannot obtain, but the just man obtains it, hence the Proverb (13, 22): “The riches of the sinner fall to the just man.” And so Eve sought the fruit but did not find in it what she desired, but the Blessed Virgin found in her fruit all that Eve desired. For Eve desired three things from the fruit. Firstly, that which the devil falsely promised her, that they “would be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3, 5). And he lied, being himself a liar and the Father of Lies. For Eve, by eating the fruit, did not become like God but far from it, for by sin she fell far from God, her Salvation, and was expelled from paradise. But the Blessed Virgin and all Christians, by the fruit of her womb, finds what Eve sought, for through Christ we are united to God and made like to Him: “When he appears, we shall be like to him, and we shall see him as he is” (I Jn. 3,2).
Secondly, Eve desired pleasure in the fruit, for it was good to eat, but did not find it, but sorrow instead. But in the fruit of the Virgin we find delight, and salvation, for “he who eats My flesh has life everlasting” (Jn. 6, 55).
Finally, the fruit of Eve was beautiful to look at, but more beautiful is the fruit of the Virgin, on whom the angels desire to look. For it is “the most beautiful among the sons of men” (Ps. 44,3), the Splendor of the Father’s glory. Eve could not find these things in her fruit and neither can any sinner find these things in his sins. Whatever we desire, therefore, let us seek it in the fruit of the Virgin.
This fruit of the Virgin Mary is blessed by God, for He filled it with every grace, which we in turn derive by paying homage to it: “Blessed be God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1 ,3).
It is blessed also by the angels, for the Apocalypse depicts for us the angels, falling on their faces to adore Christ, with the chant: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
The fruit of Mary is blessed also by men, for St. Paul says, “Every tongue must confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.” And David himself says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps. 117, 26).
Thus, therefore, is the Virgin blessed, but still more blessed is the fruit of her womb.

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