Mary in the Bible (Part 9)
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Preliminaries
Part 3: Mary in the Gospel of Mark
Part 4: Mary in the Galatians and the Gospel of Matthew
Part 5: The “Firstborn” of Mary
Part 6: The Archangel Gabriel Sent to Mary
Part 7: Zechariah’s Pomp and Doubt Illuminating Mary’s Simplicity and Faith
Part 8: What’s in a Name?
Remarkable, is it not, that in no other place in the entire Bible do we find an angel of God greeting a person to whom the angel was sent? Nowhere, that is, but in Luke’s account of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel. How could we ever dismiss such a glaring detail of the Annunciation, especially since the whole of the scriptures so consistently speaks otherwise on the matter? Indeed, as I’ve noted several times, Luke is emphasizing a peculiar uniqueness in the person and role of Mary, leading us to conclude that she is more than simply a passive vessel through which the Incarnate Word passes into the world.
Let’s analyze the exchange between Mary and Gabriel, keeping, of course, the immediately preceding narrative of Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah. I quote from the Revised Standard Version translation (RSV) for ecumenical purposes.
“And (Gabriel) came to her and said, ‘Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Lk 1:28-29).
Recall that Zechariah was troubled and frightened by what he saw (Lk 1:12). Mary, on the other hand, is not troubled at what she sees, but at what she hears. The priest is taken off guard by the appearance of an angel in the sanctuary of God, while the virgin girl is not the least bit shaken by the appearance of an angel in a no-name town. The faith of the virgin in the face of the unexpected outmatches the faith of the priest in the face of the expected.
Gabriel greets Mary with the words “Hail” and “highly favored one.” Let’s look at these terms one by one.
The Greek word translated “Hail” is chaire, derived from the infinitive chairein, meaning “to rejoice.” In common Greek parlance, chaire was used as a greeting in both speech and writing (cf. Mt. 26:49, 28:9; Jas 1:1; Phil 3:1). However, what is not commonplace is the fact that an angel is greeting a human, something not found in the rest of the Bible. This alone warrants closer scrutiny.
Luke does not here employ the term chaire as a typical greeting. This is evident from the other instances of Luke’s use of greetings in his Gospel, such as in Lk 10:5. In greetings given to Jews, Luke uses the term eirēnē which is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew shālôm, which is translated “peace be with you.” We can reasonably conclude that Luke’s greeting to Mary is of another kind and degree.
A number of biblical scholars have noted that chaire appears frequently in the Greek Old Testament quoted by Luke and the other Gospel writers. Most importantly, when chaire is directed to a woman in the Old Testament, it is within the context of God’s saving action:
“Rejoice (chaire) greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass” (Zec 9:9).
“Sing aloud (chaire), O daughter of Zion; shout O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem…the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst…do not fear, O Zion!” (Zep 3:14-16)
When we consider the deep Old Testament themes running through Luke’s narrative of Gabriel’s two visitations, it is not at all difficult to perceive that Luke is once more drawing upon the Messianic traditions of Israel in his description of the conception of the Messiah. The themes from these passages in Zechariah and Zephaniah are fully present in Luke’s Annunciation:
Israel is portrayed as a young maiden, the “Daughter of Zion”, greeted with chaire. Mary is a young maiden greeted with chaire. The announcement to Daughter Zion is the presence of the Lord in her midst, and thus the call for her to rejoice (chaire). Likewise, the announcement to Mary is that “the Lord is with you,” and thus she, too, is called to rejoice (chaire). Luke is portraying Mary—and Mary alone—as the embodiment of Israel and Israel’s hope for the Messiah. Contrast this with Luke’s depiction of Zechariah—the priest who, by his office, represents Israel before God—and his fear and doubt before the message of God. Luke is radicalizing, indeed interrupting, the expectations and traditions of Israel’s Messianic hope. The faith of Israel and the presence of God are no longer found in the sanctuary under the care of priests. Rather, the faith of Israel and the presence of God reside in a woman…in the most literal of senses! Mary, the Daughter of Zion, is privileged with highest presence of God in her midst: carrying the Lord of Israel in her womb. No wonder Mary, the no-named virgin from Nazareth, was troubled at what she heard!
This radical embodiment and personification of Israel is confirmed by Luke in the following verses, which I will discuss in the next post of this series.
To close, I’d like to offer a few comments on the controversial phrase, “Hail, full of grace,” employed by Catholics. This phrase comes from the English translation of the Latin Vulgate, which renders the difficult Greek phrase in Lk 1:28 “Ave gratia plena.” The Greek term used by Luke is kecharitōmēne, which is typically translated as “highly favored”. The truth is, neither “full of grace” nor “highly favored” does justice to kecharitōmēne. “Full of grace” is a theologically loaded phrase, though, in my opinion, it is a legitimate interpretation of the Marian implications from scripture. However, “full of grace” does not translate well the specific Greek term kecharitōmēne. And since we’re dealing with Mary in the Bible and not Mary in Catholic theology, I’ll stick with Luke’s use of the term.
The phrase “highly favored” conveys in a more proper sense Luke’s intentional meaning. Kecharitōmēne is a perfect passive participle, which means it is a completed past action done to its subject (Mary) serving as an adjective to describe Mary. The word is the perfect passive participle of the verb charitoun (to bestow favor upon; to highly favor) and refers to Mary being constituted or transformed in charis (favor) in abundance. Perhaps the ideal English translation would look something like: “Rejoice, you having been transformed in God’s favor”. That said, “highly favored” is an adequate substitute. Putting it all together, Luke is depicting Mary as already having completely held an abundance of God’s favor. Yet, Luke uses this term before Mary does anything herself to earn this favor (contrast with Zechariah and Elizabeth in Lk 1:6). Thus, Luke is telling us that Mary has received the highest favor of God even before she agrees to bear His Son! This indicates that the favor Mary receives is not exclusively given through bearing the Son of God, but that Mary holds the favor of God prior to actually becoming the mother of Christ. She is a favored vessel ready for the Son of God. Again, Luke ‘wows’ us with this virgin from Nazareth! More on this to come.