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September 8: The Nativity of the Theotokos

Updated: Jul 18, 2019

What fitting gift can we give to the Mother of God? She who has everything needs nothing from us but our love and admiration. Today, in honor of Mary's birthday, I will share a lesson with you that I once prepared for a teen class to discuss the beloved prayer we use to honor Our Blessed Mother.

Rejoice O Virgin Mother of God, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,
for you have borne Christ, the Savior and Deliverer of our souls. Amen.

Do you know this prayer? Often, when we participate in praying the Rosary with our Roman Catholic friends we notice that they do not use the same form of this prayer as we do. Often they ask us why ours is different. Where did this prayer come from? What is its history and why is it different? First of all, we must be aware that many of our Protestant brothers and sisters do not understand or accept this salutation to Mary, and many are even offended by it. They will protest this prayer because they feel, and rightly so, that worship belongs to God alone! Why do we pray this prayer then? Let us remember the communion of saints, and that the Body of Christ consists of all those souls God created in His image and likeness, past, present and future. We realize that those souls who have lived during earlier periods in history have gone on to judgment before us, and because they are our friends and fellow Christians, we are allowed to ask them for prayer and intercession before Christ. When we pray to Mary, it is no different. We do not worship her; we honor her as the first and best disciple of Christ. Those who are confused about our veneration of Christ’s mother often say that they are afraid to give her honor because they fear offending God. Imagine, offending God by honoring His mother? God commanded that we honor our father and our mother, and Jesus did so. We are only following his example. By the way, if I I praise your mom and want to be more like her because I love you and want to make you as happy as she does, are you jealous or offended?...I think not! Secondly, our friends do not realize that, in praying this prayer, we are merely reciting scripture! This salutation to the Theotokos is the same one given by the angel, Gabriel at the Annunciation. It is written in scripture that he said: Luke 1: 28: “… Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women.” Being the perfect disciple that she was, Our Blessed Mother said “YES!” to the Holy Spirit’s proposal as delivered by His messenger, Gabriel and our salvation was made possible. This is reason for her praise and honor. Later, when Our Lady went to the aid of her cousin Elizabeth when she was expecting the birth of John, Elizabeth, by an inspiration of that same Holy Spirit, now the husband of Mary and the father of her unborn Child, greeted her with these words: Luke 1:42: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These scriptural references make up the first part of this prayer. It is clear that this form of prayer to Our Lady was used by the early church. It can be traced back to the Liturgies of St. James of Antioch and St. Mark of Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries. There is even a piece of pottery found in Egypt, belonging presumably to a Coptic Christian and dated to the year 600AD, on which there is the Greek inscription, “Hail Mary full of Grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb because you have conceived Christ the Son of God redeemer of our souls” This appears to be the entire prayer, in our Byzantine form! There is an older reference to the Mother of God, but it is not the traditional “Hail Mary” as we know it. It appeared in the late second or third century in the Church of Alexandria in the Greek and Coptic languages and goes like this: We fly to your patronage, O blessed Virgin Mother of God. Despise us not in our necessity, but deliver us from all peril, O only pure and blessed one! This prayer should be familiar to us. It is the oldest known Marian prayer and is used in both the east and west to honor Mary to this very day. There were references to the Hail Mary prayer in various liturgies throughout the early church such as in a Syriac service written by Patriarch Severus of Antioch in 513 AD, Pope Gregory the Great in the early sixth century and St. John Damascene in the late seventh and early eighth centuries, but these references are only slight and don’t necessarily prove that the prayer was widely used by the faithful Catholics of that time period. It isn’t till about the year 1050 AD that it is noted with some regularity. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) mentioned it in his writings using the actual name of Mary, as the Roman rite does today. There was as yet, no mention of the name of Jesus at the end of the phrase. This addition is usually attributed to Pope Urban IV in about 1262. In this form of the prayer it is noted that the ending was not yet changed to the modern Roman form. It was in the 1400’s that the Church began to use the ending that the Roman rite uses today. It is difficult to find a point at which it was universally introduced, or a person to whose influence or teaching that it is attributed, but it began to appear in the writings of various saints and religious orders of the time. St. Bernardine of Siena and the Carthusian monks have references to it in their writings and a bit later, it was found to be in the writings of some German dioceses and in some documents of the Servite Order. In the year 1555 AD, the Dutch Jesuit Petrus Canisius wrote a catechism in which was added the phrase, “…Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners," The Council of Trent officially added that phrase in 1566, and the form of the Hail Mary prayer that the Roman Church uses to this day was established.

The Hail Mary prayer has been used widely by all Catholics, regardless of the form it takes, and has been the basis of many of the Church’s customs and practices of prayer. One example of this is the Rosary, or the “Rule of the Theotokos”. Some Orthodox sources say that the Rosary was first revealed by Our Lady to a monk of the Eastern Church in the eighth century. She asked that the people say 150 Hail Mother of God prayers each day, meditating on the Great feasts of the Eastern Church. Each “mystery” is seen from the perspective of Mary and is associated with a particular prayer request or devotion. For example, the first decade is devoted to the Birth of the Mother of God and is dedicated to family, friends and relatives. The second is the Presentation of the Mother of God into the Temple and presents those who have fallen away from the church to Our Lady for her intercession. The third is the Annunciation where those who are sick, suffering and in despair are prayed for just as the world was in despair before the joy of the Incarnation. The fourth mystery is the Visitation of Mary with Elizabeth where all expectant mothers are remembered, and the fifth is the Nativity of Christ where we ask Our Lady to prepare our hearts and souls for the day that He comes again. There are fifteen such mysteries and we find that all our petitions can be made in the course of the rosary or rule. I find that it is more comfortable for me to pray in this way, with prayers that are eastern in origin and are sort of “in my native language” of prayer. It is believed that St. Dominic introduced the Rosary to the Roman Catholic Church around the year 1200 AD, in the form that it has today, using beads grouped in 10’s, meditating on the mysteries of the life of Christ, although these mysteries are grouped differently and not necessarily from Mary’s perspective. Either way, this prayer is practiced by both eastern and western Catholics in honor of Mary.

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