Saturday, February 20, 2016

Recognizing Hope and the Hail Mary

In my last post, Recognizing Hope and the Apostle's Creed, I promised that this post would focus on the relationship between the Hail Mary and your ability to recognize hope.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death.

Four Little Lines, One Big Stumbling Block

It’s a sad state of affairs. Most Protestants find the Hail Mary to be the biggest stumbling block to praying the rosary. They miss out on so much goodness because they 1) wrongly believe this prayer is about Mary; 2) think it’s pointless or even wrong to ask those who have passed on to pray for us; 3) think it isn’t based on Scripture.

Atheists miss out on it because they reject the notion of prayer altogether or because they don’t believe that Mary existed. Why pray when you don’t believe anyone is listening? Why think about someone that isn’t real?

But these four short lines are a super condensed version of a story that has a lot to teach us about how to sort out false hope from real hope, about where to find it and the blessings of sharing it, and how to call for its help and pull on its power when we need it most.

This Is Not a Story About Mary

Mary is not the main character. How can we tell? Easy. If Mary were the main character, she would be the first one to appear. We can tell she isn’t, because the first line of this pray are words being spoken to her rather than words being spoken by her.

Mary’s an important character, which is why she appears so early in the story, but she’s not the main character. The main character is Love.

The Story Begins with Love

To get to the meat of the story, we start with Luke Chapter 1:26. Everywhere we see the word God, we substitute the word Love (for God is love - 1 James 4:8).
In Luke 1:26, we learn that Love sent a messenger to speak on His behalf to Mary. Angel means messenger.

Love isn’t content to stay outside of the human experience, looking down on people from above. He wants to enter into their experience, to help transform their lives from the inside out, and this plan begins with Mary.

The messenger He chooses is Gabriel, meaning “Love is my strength.” He sends his strength to a 15-year-old girl living in a small town of roughly 200 people. She’s betrothed, the writer tells us to a man named Joseph.

Betrothals were not engagements. They could not be broken except through death or divorce. They were a time of preparation for the wedding. The groom and bride were both committed to the union, and it was treated with the same gravity as a marriage. The only difference was that the two parties didn’t live or sleep together.

A man who slept with his betrothed before the wedding was considered dishonorable, and shame would be on both bride and groom who behaved in such a manner.

The Messenger Arrives

It’s a dramatic scene. A young woman is alone in her parents’ house. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a stranger appears to her.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” – Luke 1:28

A grace is an unmerited gift, something you didn’t earn in any way. The Lord the messenger speaks of is Love, for both the angel and the young woman have chosen to be servants of Love.

His words are flattering to her ears. His words are the exact affirmation she longs to receive for the life she’s chosen to live. She’s dedicated her life to being a vessel of Love’s gifts, and these words promise that she is doing exactly that.

Her hopes rise, but although Mary is young she is not foolish. She knows to be cautious. Not all messengers are the same.

She knows that as much as she wants to believe this message, it could be a trap, designed to play into her vanity, in order to deceive her into going against what Love truly desires for her.

The Big Promise

What the angel says next must have sent chills down Mary’s spine. It was a promise so big and an honor so great it was beyond her wildest dreams. It would, if it were true, change everything for the whole of humanity.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with Love. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;

And Love will give to him the throne of his father, David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

For over six hundred years her people had been waiting on Love’s promise to deliver a savior to them to be fulfilled. The Messiah would restore the glory of their nation, return a Jewish king to the throne of Israel, unite the divisions among the tribes, and bring the people back to the promised land forever.

This messenger was telling Mary that not only was Love about to fulfill that promise, but He was going to do it through her. The virgin birth was part of the Messianic prophecies given by the prophet Isaiah. Mary knew those prophecies well. But to be chosen as THE virgin, that was another matter altogether.

This would be like hearing someone tell you that they built your dream house on a parcel of land in the place you wanted most and that they were going to give you the keys to it, no strings attached. All you had to do was say yes. As much as Mary hoped and dreamed what the angel said was true, she needed to be sure she wasn’t being deceived.

She Asks a Question

"How can this be, since I do not know man?"
Mary was not na├»ve. She was the daughter of a shepherd. She knew where babies came from and how they were made. She was betrothed to be married, so if she were intending to consummate her marriage with her betrothed, she wouldn’t have asked the question. She’d have assumed that the angel meant for her and Joseph to move up their wedding date.

She, like many a 15-year-old before her, had big dreams and plans for her life. According to the Protoevangelium of James, a history of the life of the Blessed Virgin before Christ’s birth and which was written between 120-145 AD (between 90 and 115 years after the death of Christ, and 60-85 years after Mary’s dormition), Mary’s marriage arrangements were made by the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. She’d grown up there, dedicated to the service of the Temple from the age of 3 by her parents.

Being dedicated to Temple service wasn’t a temporary situation. It was a lifelong vocation. As Bishop Brom writes in his tract, “Mary: Ever Virgin”:

“A life of continual, devoted service to the Lord at the Temple meant that Mary would not be able to live the ordinary life of a child-rearing mother. Rather, she was vowed to a life of perpetual virginity.”

It was not normal for the priests to step in and arrange a marriage. They did it because her own parents were not there to do it for her. In a book entitled Lives of the Saints for Every Day of the Year by Monsignor Paul Guerin, he states that Mary lived in the Temple for 8 years before her father died. Her mother died the next year.

It was upon the death of both parents that the priests intervened, concerned lest Mary’s first period come and render some part of the Temple unclean. They couldn’t just send her home. She had no male relatives to protect her. She would be vulnerable. They also needed someone who would respect her vow of virginity.

That’s why they’d chosen Joseph. He was a widower and elderly, a man who already had sons and daughters and wouldn’t be worried about carrying on a lineage. He was also a man who was just as dedicated to serving Love as Mary.

So when Mary asks this question, she isn’t questioning that Love can do it, she’s only asking how He intends to do it. She does this to confirm the identity of the messenger and the validity of the message. She knows that a real messenger of Love will not ask her to defy her vows, lead her into breaking Love’s laws, or encourage her in unhealthy pursuits.

The Explanation and the Invitation

The messenger understands Mary’s need for confirmation. He first gives her an explanation, to set her mind at ease:
“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 Love.” 
The angel then gives her an invitation to verify that what has been said to her is coming from Love.

“And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with Love, nothing will be impossible.”

 The Acceptance and the Sharing

Mary doesn’t waste any more time dithering. 

“Behold, I am the handmaid of Love; let it be done to me according to your word.” 

As soon as the angel leaves, Mary sets off to visit her cousin Elizabeth. It’s a 70 mile journey through some pretty dangerous territory, but she’s undaunted. She’s moved by compassion for Elizabeth, but more importantly she knows she needs the verification of her vision that can only be provided by Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, who happens to be high priest that year. He’s the only one who can enter into the Holy of Holies if necessary to confirm the nature of her pregnancy.

She gets inside the house and is greeted by a very pregnant Elizabeth, but before she can even open her mouth to tell Elizabeth why she has come, she receives all the confirmation she’s looking for and then some when Elizabeth blurts out,

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of Love should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from Love.”

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth provides the third confirmation of the character of the message of hope she received from the angel. Mary has no doubt that what she is doing is Love’s will for her life.

Moreover, in choosing to share the cause for her hope with Elizabeth, she receives multiple blessings and in turn gives multiple blessings. Both women’s lives are improved by it.

Pray for Us Sinners - Why Christians Can Pray This

Christians need not fear requesting prayer from those who have gone on to the next life, especially those we know died united to Christ, because of what Jesus said to the sadducees in Mark 12:27:

“have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, 'I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, and the God of Jacob '? "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken." 

St. Paul explains this further for us in 1 Corinthians 12: 13

“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit” 

Later, in 1 Corinthians 12:27 he tells us

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 

In Corinthians 15: 18, he refers to those who are dead not as dead, but as being those who have “fallen asleep in Christ”. He even refutes the idea that they have perished in the very next verse!

We all fall asleep every night, and we are capable of thinking, speaking, and even acting while we are sleeping, as evidenced by phenomena like sleep walking and sleep talking. Death is just a longer, deeper version of sleep in which the exterior body dies so that a better, stronger, healthier and more beautiful body may grow in its place.

When scientists first began to study the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies, they were curious about what was taking place in the cocoon. Opening them up, they expected to find an organism. What they found was a sticky, gooey, liquid mess quite similar to what you will find in most cases if you open a coffin after a while. The body completely decomposed in order to reorder itself into the butterfly it was destined to become. Something very similar happens to the human body. 

Pray for Us Sinners - Why Non-Believers Can Say This

The words “pray” and “sinner” may seem tough to swallow. Praying may be associated in your mind with talking to someone who isn't there or asking for pie-in-the-sky wishes that are never coming true. But that's not what pray means. 

Prayer is another word for petition. When we pray, we’re petitioning for help. If you look at Mary as a symbol of all those who strive to make Love present in this world, you can look at the word “Pray for us” as a way of reminding yourself to seek the help of all those who are striving to make Love present in this world with you. 

Look especially to those who are better at loving than you are, and reach out to them when you feel like the journey is especially difficult.

As for the word “sinner”, don’t get hung up on it. It’s easy to think “Sinners are bad people, and I’m not a bad person.”

That’s not what that line is saying at all. We all struggle to love. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we fail. That’s what sin is – a failure to love. It’s not bad to be a sinner. It’s bad to continue sinning. It's bad to sin and not try to fix it.

Now and at the Hour of Our Death

The hardest time to love others is when we’re losing everything that matters to us. That’s why we need help growing in love not just now, but in the moment when everything we value most is being torn from our grasp. That's the underlying truth this phrase acknowledges.

A Summary of the Lessons

Now that we’ve gone through all of this, here’s what we’ve learned about about how to sort out false hope from real hope, about where to find it and the blessings of sharing it, and how to call for its help and pull on its power when we need it most:

1) Real hope won’t lead you away from doing what’s right. It will lead you to doing it in ways you never dreamed were possible.

2) Real hope doesn’t mind if you ask questions. It will answer them.

3) Real hope doesn’t mind if you test it for authenticity. It will provide you a means of being sure.

4) Sharing hope with others leads you to more blessings for you, and for those with whom you are sharing it.

5) We all stumble in our efforts to Love, but there’s hope for help if we reach out for it.

6) We’ll need more help loving when we’re wounded or on the verge of losing everything than at any other time in our lives. That's when we need to call on Love and find hope through Love's enduring power.

Thank You for Bearing with Me

I know this has been a lengthy and drawn out article. It certainly proved longer than I intended, but if you want to fully experience the benefits of an increase in Hope through the power of the Rosary, you’ll need to embrace the Hail Mary.

Recite it as a reminder of the big story behind it, and reflect on that story when you're in doubt about a message you've received or a path you're considering taking.

Next Article: The Our Father

In the next article, I’ll cover the relationship between recognizing hope and The Our Father.

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