Circular Letter: Advent 1992
St. Thomas Aquinas’ Sermon on the “Hail Mary”
There are three things contained in this (angelic) salutation. The first part comes from the Angel, Gabriel, namely, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women.” The second part comes from Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, namely, “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” The Church adds the third part, to wit, “Mary,” for the Angel did not say, “Hail, Mary,” but rather, “Hail, full of grace.” Still, this name ‘Mary,’ according to its meaning, befits the Angel’s words, as we shall see.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee”
With respect to the first part, consider that in ancient times it was exceedingly great for an Angel to appear to men, or, that men might offer them reverence was held to be a great honor. Hence, to the honor of Abraham it is written that he received angelic guests and showed them reverence. That an Angel reverence a man, however, was never heard of until the Angel reverently greeted the Blessed Virgin, saying, “Hail.”
That in ancient times the Angel did not reverence man, but rather man reverenced the Angel comes from the fact that the Angel is greater, and greater with respect to three things. First, with respect to dignity, since the Angel is a spiritual nature: “You make your Angels to be spirits, etc.” (Ps. 103,4). Man, indeed, is corruptible by nature, for which reason Abraham said: “I am speaking to the Lord, I, who am but dust and ashes” (Gen 18,27). Second, with respect to their familiarity with GOD, for the Angel belongs to the household of GOD (‘familiaris’) inasmuch as he assists Him. “A thousand times a thousand minister to Him, and ten thousand myriads assist Him.” (Dan 7,10). Man, though, is like a stranger, set off from GOD by sin: “I withdrew in flight” (Ps 54,8). Therefore, it was fitting that man should reverence the Angel as one on close and familiar terms with the king (‘propinquum and familiarem regis’!). Third, the Angel took preeminence on account of the plenitude of the splendor of divine grace. The Angels, namely, participate in the light of divine grace itself in the very highest degree. “Is there any number to His armies upon whom His light does not arise?” (Job 25,3). And this is why they always appear with light. But men, even though they participate somewhat in the light of grace, do so only slightly and in obscurity.
Consequently, it was unfitting that men be shown reverence until someone should be found in this (human) nature who exceeds the angels in these three points. And this was the Blessed Virgin. In order to indicate that she exceeded them in these three points the Angel wished to offer her reverence, saying “Hail.”
Thus the Blessed Virgin exceeds the Angels in these three points. And first of all in the plenitude of grace, which is greater in the Blessed Virgin than in any Angel. To indicate this, the Angel offered her reverence, calling her full of grace, as if to say: “This is why I offer you reverence, because you excel me in the fullness of grace.”
The Blessed Virgin is said to be full of grace in three regards. First, with respect to her soul, in which she had every plenitude of grace. The grace of GOD is given, namely, for two purposes: to do good and to avoid evil. With respect to these two ends the Blessed Virgin had the most perfect grace. For she avoided sin more perfectly than any other saint outside of Christ. Sin is either Original Sin (and of this she was cleansed in the womb) or it is mortal or venial sin (and of these she was free). Hence, in the Canticle of Canticles (4,7) we read: “You are all fair, my friend, there is no flaw in you!” In his work “On Nature and Grace” St. Augustine writes: “With the exception of the Virgin Mary, if all the saints together had been asked if they were without sin while living here on earth, all would have unanimously exclaimed: ‘If we were to say that we have no sin, we would be deceiving ourselves, and the truth would not be in us.’ With the exception of this holy Virgin, as I say, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the question of sin, out of respect for the Lord, we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every regard was conferred upon her, who had the merit to conceive and bear Him Who undoubtedly had no sin.”
Christ exceeded the Blessed Virgin in this, since He was both conceived and born without Original Sin, whereas the Blessed Virgin was conceived but not born with Original sin.1 She exercised the works of every virtue, whereas other saints excelled in some special virtue, one in humility, another in chastity, another in mercy. Accordingly, they are given as an example of some special virtue, as St. Nicholas is an example of mercy. But the Blessed Virgin is the example of every virtue, for in her you perceive the model of humility: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord,” and “He has beheld the humility of His handmaid” (Lk 1,38. 48). She is the model of virginity: “for I know not man,” and of every other virtue too, as is sufficiently evident. Therefore, the Blessed Virgin has full grace with respect to purity (good works) and with respect to virtue (for overcoming evil).
Secondly, she was filled with grace with respect to its overflow from the soul to the flesh or to the body. It is already something great in the saints that they have so much grace that it sanctifies the soul, but the soul of the Blessed Virgin was so filled with grace that from her soul grace overflowed into the flesh, such that from it she conceived the Son of God. That is why Hugh of St. Victor says, “Since the love of the Holy Spirit was singularly aflame in her heart, the marvel was accomplished in her flesh, inasmuch as that which was born of her was GOD and man. ‘For that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit'” (Mt 1,20).
Thirdly, inasmuch as her plenitude of grace overflowed unto all men. It is something great in any saint that they have so much grace that it suffices for their own salvation, but much greater it is when they have so much that it suffices for the salvation of many. But when anyone should have so much that it suffices for the salvation of everybody in the world, this is the maximum. And this it is in Christ and in the Blessed Virgin. For in every danger you can obtain salvation from the glorious Virgin herself. Hence, the Canticle of Canticles (4,4) has it: “Upon your neck hang a thousand bucklers,” that is, in remedy against danger. Similarly, in every work of virtue you can have her as your help, wherefore she herself says in Ecclesiastes: “In me is every hope of life and virtue, etc.”
Thus she is grace-filled, and exceeds the Angels in the plenitude of grace. And for this reason she is fittingly called ‘Maria,’ which interprets ‘enlightened in herself,’ whence Isaiah (58,11) declares, “then shall your light rise.” And again, it means, ‘the enlightener of others’ (cf. Is.60,3: “And the nations shall come to your light”). This is to be understood of the whole world, and thereforeshe is likened to the sun and to the moon.
In the second place, the Blessed Virgin excels the Angels in divine familiarity. The Angels designated this, saying “the Lord is with you,” as if to say, “I proffer you reverence, because you are on more intimate terms with GOD than I am, for “the Lord is with you.” The Lord, I say, the Father is in the very Son, Whom no Angel nor any other creature has. But “that which is to be born of you shall be called Holy, the Son of GOD” (Lk 1,35). The Lord, the Son, is present in her womb. “Shout and sing for joy, O dwelling, Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Is 12,6). The Lord is with the Blessed Virgin in one way, and in another with the Angel. He is with her as a Son, but with the Angel as the latter’s Lord. The Lord, the Holy Spirit, is with her as in His temple, when it is said: “the temple of GOD, the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit,” since she conceived by the Holy Spirit: “the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee” (Lk 1,35).
Thus, the Blessed Virgin is more familiar with GOD than is the Angel, for with her is the Lord Father, the Lord Son and the Lord Holy Spirit, the entire Trinity. Concerning her is sung the verse: “noble repose of the entire Trinity.”
This expression “the Lord is with you” is the most noble that can be addressed to anyone. Deservedly, therefore, does the Angel revere the Blessed Virgin, because she is the mother of the Lord, and hence, (our) Lady. Here again the fittingness of the name ‘Mary’ which in Syrian means ‘Lady.’
In the third place she exceeds the Angels with respect to purity, since the Blessed Virgin was not only pure in herself, but procured purity for others. She was herself most pure both with respect to guilt, for she incurred neither Original, nor mortal nor venial sin, nor did she incur any penalty.
Three maledictions were given to mankind on account of sin. The first befell woman, that she would conceive in corruption, carry in discomfort, and bear in labor. But from this the Blessed Virgin was immune, since she conceived without corruption, carried with solace, and bore the Saviour in joy. Isaiah declares (35,2): “Let it flower and flourish , and rejoice with joy and singing.” The second was given to man, namely, that in the sweat of his brow he shall eat his bread. From this the Blessed Virgin was exempt, as the Apostle states in 1 Cor 7,34: virgins are free of the cares of this world and solicitous solely for GOD. The third malediction was common to both men and women, namely, that unto dust they should return. And from this the Blessed Virgin was immune, since she was assumed into heaven with her body. We believe namely that after her death she was raised up and carried into heaven. “Arise, O Lord, and go to Thy resting place, Thou and the ark of Thy might.” (Ps 131,8).
“Blessed art thou amongst Women”
So she was therefore immune from every malediction, and consequently “blessed among women,” since she alone took away the malediction and brought the blessing, and opened the gate of paradise. And again the name, ‘Mary’ befits her, which is (also) interpreted as ‘Star of the Sea,’ for as by this star seafarers are directed to port, so are Christians guided to glory by Mary.
“Blessed is the Fruit of thy Womb”
A sinner sometimes seeks something which he cannot attain, whereas the just soul attains it. “The sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous!” (Prov. 13,22). Thus Eve sought the fruit, but did not find in it what she sought. The Blessed Virgin truly found in her fruit everything that Eve had desired. Now Eve desired three things in the fruit.
First, that which the devil had falsely promised her, namely that they become like gods, knowing good and evil. “You will be (said that liar) like gods” as is recorded in Gen 3,5. And he lied because he is a liar, and the father of the same. Now, Eve did not become like GOD through the eating of her fruit, but rather became even less like Him, since by sinning she withdrew from GOD her salvation, for which reason she was expelled from paradise. But the Blessed Virgin and all Christians have found this in the fruit of her womb, for through Christ we are conjoined and made like unto GOD. “When He appears, we shall be like Him” (1 Jn 3,2).
Secondly, Eve desired delectation in her fruit, for it was good to eat. But she did not find this delectation, because she immediately discovered that she was naked and had pain. But in the fruit of the Virgin we find sweetness and salvation. “He who eats My Flesh has eternal life” (Jn 6,55).
Thirdly, Eve’s fruit was delightful to the eye; but even more so was the fruit of the Virgin, on whom the Angels long to gaze. “You are the fairest of the sons of men” (Ps 44,2), and this is because He is the splendor of the Father’s glory.
So Eve was not able to find in her fruit, nor can any sinner find in sin, the things they truly desire. That which we desire, therefore, let us seek in the fruit of the Virgin.
This fruit, Jesus, moreover, is blessed by GOD, since He filled Him with every grace that comes to us. “Blessed be God the Father who has blessed us in every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph 1,3). It is blessed by the Angel, who offers Him reverence in Apoc 7,12: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God,..” And it is blessed by men, “Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord in the glory of God the Father” (2,2). “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps 117,26).
Blessed, therefore, is the Virgin, Mary, but yet more blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus. Amen. *
(Translated by WW)
1 St. Thomas did not discern the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which teaches that Mary was not only born free of Original Sin, but also in anticipation of the merits of her Son, Jesus Christ, was also conceived without Original Sin. This Dogma was solemnly declared some six centuries after the death of St. Thomas.
* In his sermon St. Thomas only commented on the biblical, or first half of the “Hail Mary”.
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