By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
October is the month of the Rosary in the Roman Catholic tradition. Dedication to this devotion, and in particular its faithful recitation in October, is due largely to the victory of the Catholic Western powers over the Ottoman Empire at the naval battle of Lepanto on Oct. 7, 1571. This military triumph, which secured Europe from the imperial expansion of the Muslim Turks, was attributed to the intercession of Our Lady by Pope Pius V, who had encouraged Catholics to pray the Rosary before the momentous battle.
The rosary itself was designed as a meditation on the mysteries of Scripture through the eyes of Mary, a believing Jew who was called to be the mother of Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. The core prayer of the Rosary, the Hail Mary, is a fascinating summary of the Church’s understanding of Mary’s role in salvation history. The first section of the prayer is composed of two biblical verses drawn from the Gospel of Luke, both connected with the news that the virgin Mary is to be the mother of Jesus. The angel Gabriel greets her with the phrase “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). “Rejoice!” would perhaps be a better translation than “Hail,” and our repetition of the angel’s greeting places us at that first moment of the Incarnation, a time-unifying privilege which prayer alone can accomplish. The Hail Mary was first formulated in Latin, and the opening phrase of the prayer, Ave Maria, implicitly reminds us that Mary is the chosen woman who reverses the curse of our first parent Eve, whose name in Latin, Eva, is Ave spelled backwards. This little Latin wordplay underlines the beautiful insight of St. Irenaeus (d. 200 A.D.) that Mary’s “yes” to the angel undoes the knotted “no” of disobedience that Eve had tied by committing the original sin long ago.
After Mary gives her consent to this divine plan that she will conceive and bear a son, she runs to visit her cousin Elizabeth, herself six months pregnant with John the Baptist. At the approach of Mary (and Jesus!), John leaps in his mother’s womb, and Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” cries out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42).
The second section of the Hail Mary highlights the fruit of the church’s long reflection on the divine mystery at work through Mary. In the year 431 A.D., the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus declared that Mary is to be venerated as the “Mother of God”; the Eastern churches still use the Greek word Theotokos, literally “God-bearer,” to describe Mary in their liturgy. This ancient tradition is coupled with a closing petition that Mary, who mediated to us the presence of the Incarnate Son of God, would intercede for us “now and at the hour of our death, Amen.”
The bridge between these two sections of the Hail Mary is the name of Jesus. In the original Latin prayer, both sections contain 15 words, and the name of Jesus unites the biblical salutations to Mary and our contemporary needs which we entrust to the Mother of God. In fact, the prayer can be regarded as a compendium of time consecrated to God: just as the biblical verses underline the past marvels that God has worked for our salvation, the titles “Holy Mary, Mother of God” allow us to approach her with our present requests, and our plea for her presence at our death commends her to our future care so that we may rejoice with her in Heaven. After addressing Mary as the Mother of God worthy of our veneration (but not our worship — that is reserved to God alone), we then move to speak of her as our mother. Just as she was present to Jesus at the hour of his death on the cross, so too we implore her to accompany us when we give up our spirit.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.