At least once in your life, even if you’re not Catholic, you’ve probably heard the words “Hail Mary.” Maybe you’re dimly aware of that phrase as the start of a popular prayer. More likely, if you’re a football fan you’ve heard sportscasters rave about a “Hail Mary” pass.
But where do those words originate? They are the foundation of the day that Catholics celebrate today, the Feast of the Annunciation. It’s a story that marks the beginning of Jesus’s earthly life.
The Gospel of Luke (1:26-38) recounts that the Angel Gabriel “announces” (thus the name of the day) the upcoming birth of Jesus to a young woman named Mary. Contemporary translations have the angel saying “Greetings, favored one,” which makes Gabriel sound like “ET.” (I still prefer the old-fashioned “Hail, full of grace.”)
The angel then shares the shocking news that she will give birth. Not surprisingly, Mary is surprised. “How can this be?” she asks sensibly, “since I am a virgin?” The angel replies her that God will “overshadow” her, and that she will become pregnant without having sexual relations. Moreover, her child will be the “Son of God.” To quell what must have been her considerable doubts, he points to her cousin Elizabeth, a woman who was thought to be unable to conceive, but who is now pregnant. Satisfied with these answers, Mary assents. “Let it be with me according to your will.” And the angel leaves.
It’s a strange story, hard for even some devout Christians to accept. For me, though, it has never been so. If God can create the world from nothing, I figure, then causing a virgin to be pregnant doesn’t seem that difficult.
How did the story transpire? What would we have seen if we were with Mary? Well, perhaps it happened exactly like as described. Perhaps in a dream. As the noted the Jesuit priest and noted Scripture scholar Joseph Fitzmyer once wrote, “What really happened? We shall never know?”
The story carried many important spiritual messages, in addition to the news of the virgin birth. Perhaps the most human part of the narrative is Mary’s questioning. Who, faced with confusion or darkness in life, hasn’t said to God, “How can this be?” Who hasn’t doubted? But often all it takes to regain our confidence is to look back, to see what God has already done in our lives. In essence, this is what Gabriel does for Mary, saying, in effect, “You have doubts? Then look what’s happened in Elizabeth’s life.” “Nothing,” as the Angel says to Mary, “will be impossible with God.”
But that’s not the end of the story: for then the angel leaves her. Maybe that’s the part that most resonates with our lives. After any spiritual experience, we sometimes feel alone. Who knows if Mary ever experienced something like that again? That’s the part of faith.
Even if the only “Hail Mary” you’ve ever heard was at a football game, the Annunciation may have something to announce to you: faith may mean a question, a yes and trust.