Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hail Full of Grace, Part 1 of 3

When the angel Gabriel reveals himself and greets Mary, there are two events worthy of attention: the angel’s words and Mary’s response. Both allude to the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. As a matter of belief passed down from the apostles, the Catholic Church declares that Mary was always free from sin. She was saved by Jesus in anticipation of becoming His mother and thus her womb was a pure and Holy Ark to carry the Son of God. Being freed from the power of the devil at her conception and never succumbing to temptation afterward, Mary succeeded in faith by grace where Eve had failed. Therefore, she has been recognized by Christians, in all centuries, as the premier saint and disciple of her Son.

First, the angel Gabriel does not greet by her name, Mary, but calls her “full of grace” (Catholic translation) or “highly favored one” (Protestant translation). The substitution of her name is significant because of the importance of naming in ancient Jewish culture.

The Jews believed in a strong connection between a person’s name and a person’s character -- the former capturing the essence of the latter. For example, Abraham means “father of the multitude” and he became the father of all believers (Rom 3:27-4:25); Peter means “rock” and he became the confessional foundation of the Church (Matt 16:13-19); Paul means “small” or “humble” and St. Paul lived to diminish his ego until only Christ was left living in him (Gal 2:20; Phil 1:21). Having a name representing one’s essence and destiny may seem exotic, but the concept actually dates back to Adam in the Garden of Eden. What was Adam doing at first? He was being a scientist and philosopher. He categorized the creatures and plants of the earth by assigning them names (Gen 2:19); then he named his wife, Eve, which means “life”, because she was life from his life (Gen 2:20-23) and possessed the ability to conceive new life.

On the contrary, Adam did not name God nor did God reveal His name. Why? The essence of God is beyond human comprehension. Humanity knows the world through the natural sciences, but God is neither natural nor subject to experimentation. Later on in Jewish history, when Moses did ask God for a name, He gave the mysterious response, “I Am Who I Am” (Ex 3:14), which revealed very little except to confirm the grand incapacity of the human mind to capture divinity (Isa 55:9; 1 Cor 2:9). This impossibly wide chasm, between the human and divine, is an obvious barrier to intimacy with God. Nevertheless, since “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37), He meditated the disparity by unioning humanity and divinity in the Person of His only Son (1 Tim 2:5). The eternal Son of God took to Himself a human body, a human spirit, a human name, and revealed His character to be Emmanuel (literally, God is with us). At last, humanity has access to God’s essence through "the Name that is above every name" (Phil 2:9) -- Jesus!

Moving forward, the Greek behind “full of grace” is kecharitomene; it is the perfect passive participle of charitoo (literally, grace). Please excuse the small linguistic lesson, but a perfect passive participle is an action that has been completed in the past. Unlike Abraham or Peter or Paul, who received new names to go with their new vocations, Mary’s vocation as “full of grace” was already accomplished before Gabriel’s appearance. So what does it mean to be “full of grace”? To understand Mary’s substitute name, it is necessary to examine the nature of grace and sin.