The First Mary (Part 4)
"All generations will call me blessed"
After her death Mary became a revered icon honoured across the Christian world as the Mother of God. We children were raised to regard her as our mother too.1 One of the first prayers we learnt when I was a boy was the ‘Hail Mary’. It was like a companion to the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, otherwise known as the ‘Our Father’, which we were also taught at an early age.
The ‘Hail Mary’ was everywhere. During the typical five sets (or decades) of the Rosary, which some families said every day, the ‘Hail Mary’ was recited no fewer than 50 times. Those who managed to avoid the Rosary could not easily avoid the ‘Hail Mary’. Twice a day, at twelve noon and again at six o’clock in the evening, the ringing of church bells announced that it was time to stop whatever we were doing and say the ‘Angelus’. This mini-ritual incorporated various salutations and tributes to the mother of Jesus. It also included three repetitions of the ‘Hail Mary’. So that meant six ‘Hail Marys’ every day if we responded to both sets of ‘Angelus’ bells.
It is likely, therefore, that in those days (and perhaps now also) recitations of the ‘Hail Mary’ far outnumbered those of the ‘Our Father’.
It is interesting to compare these prayers. The ‘Our Father’ is the older of the two. The gospels tell us that Jesus Christ himself composed it, which would make it nearly 2,000 years old.2 The ‘Hail Mary’ is thought to have evolved into its settled form during the Middle Ages. It comprises both biblical verses and original lines.3
If we look more closely at the texts we can see other differences.
Who art in Heaven,
hallowed be Thy name;
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
The titles alone illustrate the most obvious distinction between the ‘Our Father’ and the ‘Hail Mary’. In the first it is clearly God who is being invoked. The addressee of the second, on the other hand, is not God but Jesus’ mother Mary. This raises a fundamental question. Jesus did not teach his followers to pray to himself, so why does the Church promote a prayer directed towards his mother?
Continuing the comparison reveals other anomalies. Before he recited the ‘Our Father’, we are told that Jesus advised his listeners to avoid “empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words”.4 So in keeping with his own injunction, Jesus did not lavish praise on God.5 In contrast, the ‘Hail Mary’ incorporates two extravagant tributes to Mary - she is “full of grace” and “Blessed…amongst women”. Although these are quotes from the gospel accounts of Mary's pregnancy, would Jesus have regarded them as "empty phrases"?
Finally there are differences in the way the ‘Our Father’ and the ‘Hail Mary’ frame the petitions or appeals for divine favour that make up the second part of each prayer. In the ‘Our Father’ the supplicant asks God for specific material and spiritual gifts, i.e. food, forgiveness, and protection from evil. Jesus saw no point in adding anything else because, as the gospels tell us, ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him’.6 Those who recite the ‘Hail Mary’ are seeking just one benefit from Mary, i.e. that she intercede with God on behalf of “us sinners”.
In light of Jesus’ carefully-worded prayer, this appeal at the end of the ‘Hail Mary’ seems redundant. Why should we need a third party to pray to God on our behalf if we have the means in the ‘Our Father’ to do it ourselves? Nevertheless, through the constant repetition I mentioned above, the ‘Hail Mary’ planted the idea in our minds that Mary is a well-placed intermediary between God and imperfect humans. This idea is made more explicit in another medieval prayer.
In the ‘Salve Regina’ or ‘Hail Holy Queen’ Mary is addressed as our “most gracious advocate”. The term ‘advocate’, with its legal connotations, suggests that Mary is a kind of ‘celestial barrister’ who can persuade the judge to go easy on us when we appear in his court.
Such an analogy is not as flippant as it seems. In an encyclical issued in 1891, Pope Leo XIII asserted that we “need an intercessor mighty in favour with God”. Leo was in no doubt as to the identity of that intercessor.
Mary is the intermediary through whom is distributed unto us this immense treasure of mercies gathered by God, for mercy and truth were created by Jesus Christ. Thus as no man goeth to the Father but by the Son, so no man goeth to Christ but by His Mother.7
Note the language used. Mary is not just an intermediary – she is the intermediary. In a subsequent encyclical Leo referred to Mary’s position “by the side of the throne of God as Mediatrix of Divine grace”.8
Marina Warner made a similar point in more academic terms.
… she is entitled to a special worship of her own - hyperdulia. God is owed latria (adoration) and the saints dulia (veneration), but Mary occupies the principal mediating position, as a creature belonging both to earth and heaven.9
So how did Mary go from being a thorn in her son’s side while she was alive to such an elevated standing after her death? To answer this question we must return to the bible.
The Book of Revelation described a conflict between “a woman clothed with the sun” and “a great red dragon”.10 Some authorities interpret this as depicting the battle between Christianity and the devil; others equate the woman with Mary the mother of Jesus. If the second interpretation is correct, then this must be one of the earliest portrayals of Jesus’ mother as a mythological being of tremendous power and influence.
A similar picture is to be found in the gospel stories of Jesus’ conception and birth. Although there are lots of mentions of Mary in these passages, I omitted them from my earlier analysis because they do not deal with the relationship between Jesus and his mother. However they are important in showing us the basis of Mary’s supposed ascent into heavenly glory. According to one of the gospels, Mary herself foresaw this during a visit to her cousin Elizabeth.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.11
The two books of the New Testament from which these extracts come are believed to have been written during the second half of the first century. Since then the beliefs and legends that have grown up about Jesus’ mother have inspired many painters, poets, and musicians to represent the mythological Mary in their work.12 Moreover, numerous popes (in addition to Leo XIII) have used their high office to promote Mary as a heavenly “go-between” - or "mediatrix" in ecclesiastical language.
Pius X called her “the most powerful mediatrix and advocate of the whole world with her Divine Son”.13 In another encyclical published half-a-century later, Pius XII referred to the “exceptional role in the work of our eternal salvation” bestowed on Mary by God.14 More recently, in an address to the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI “invoke[d] the intercession of Mary Most Holy, Mediatrix of grace” to halt the various wars raging across the world.15
Among the other prayers I recall from my youth is the ‘Apostle’s Creed’. This ancient prayer itemises the essential beliefs of Christianity and includes the line that Jesus “ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty”.16 However it does not state that Mary is also part of that divine circle, nor does it allude to the powerful influence she is said to exert over Jesus.
I have argued in this series that, while they both lived in Palestine as mother and son, Mary tried to thwart Jesus’ mission to free humanity from the grip of evil. Has that conflict continued into the next life?
Was Mary’s elevation to the heavenly pantheon conceived and promoted in order to persuade us of her unique access to God? Were the Marian prayers, the great art, the papal pronouncements, etc., created so as to foster the impression in the minds of many millions of people that Mary is Jesus’ partner, not his adversary?
If so it means that, for almost 2,000 years, humanity has been subjected to one of the most sustained - and successful - propaganda campaigns in history.
More in Part 5.
Luke 1:28 and 1:42.
Including the line, “hallowed be Thy name”, was probably Jesus’ way of acknowledging contemporary Jewish sensitivity regarding the pronunciation of the holy name of God, i.e. Yahweh. Jesus clearly preferred the more informal ‘Father’. (see Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily life in Palestine at the time of Christ (London 2002), pp. 409-10).
Leo XIII, ‘Octobri mense’, 22 Sep 1891 [https://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_22091891_octobri-mense.html], 15 Aug. 2022.
Leo XIII, ‘Iucunda semper expectatione’, 8 Sep 1894 [https://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_08091894_iucunda-semper-expectatione.html], 15 Aug. 2022.
Marina Warner, Alone of all her sex: The myth and the cult of the Virgin Mary (New York, 1976), p. xxii.
Among countless examples are Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation (c. 1435), William Wordsworth’s The Virgin (1822), and Francis Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire (1936).
Pius X, ‘Ad diem illum laetissimum’, 2 Feb. 1904 [https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-x/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_02021904_ad-diem-illum-laetissimum.html], 15 Aug. 2022.
Pius XII, ‘Ad caeli reginam’, 11 Oct. 1954 [https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_11101954_ad-caeli-reginam.html], 15 Aug 2022.
Benedict XVI, ‘Angelus’, 20 Jan. 2013 [https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2013/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20130120.html], 15 Aug . 2022.
A Catechism of Catholic doctrine (Dublin, 1951), pp. 1-2.