Angel Gabriel’s “Hail” (Lk 1:28): Veneration of Mary?

Angel Gabriel’s “Hail” (Lk 1:28): Veneration of Mary? March 8, 2019

I’m not a Greek scholar, but even St. Thomas Aquinas thought this argument (broadly considered) had force (as we shall see below), so I barge ahead and submit this to the reader’s consideration . . .

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Luke 1:29 (RSV-CE) And he [the angel Gabriel] came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”

I got to thinking today about other scriptural uses of the word, hail (chairō in Greek: Strong’s word #5463). As with most biblical Greek words, it has multiple meanings and usages in Scripture. The KJV translates chairō (which appears 74 times in the NT) as rejoice 42 times, and be glad 14 times. It translates it as hail just six times. But that raises the question: why is hail used in those six instances, as an exception to the usual translation?

Catholic writer, Stephen Beale, in an article about Marian veneration, comments on the use of hail in Luke 1:28:

As a form of address, it’s a word that’s faded away in modern times, so it’s easy to forget what it means. When it’s used as an exclamation, modern dictionaries simply note that hail is an enthusiastic greeting.

But hail is much more than just a synonym of hello with a bold exclamation point after it. In the ancient Roman world, hail—in the Latin, ave—was used to address Roman emperors. Hail was still used as exclamation in Shakespeare, most often to address a royal person or some other person of superior status. In Hamlet, this is how the tragic prince is greeted by his friend, Horatio: Hail to your lordship! (Act 1, scene 2). In the Tempest, when the merchant Prospero summons his servant, the man responds: All hail, great master! (Act 1, scene 2). And of course, we find Hail Caesar more than once in the play, Julius Caesar. . . .

This form of address also implies something about the relationship between the angel and Mary. In hailing her, the angel is honoring, or venerating her. Certainly, that’s how St. Thomas Aquinas, for one, interpreted the angel’s words and actions in his commentary on the Hail Mary.

I will cite St. Thomas’ utterly fascinating words on the topic below, but for now, let’s take a moment to examine the biblical usage of the word as a salute:

Matthew 26:49 (RSV) And he [Judas] came up to Jesus at once and said, “Hail, Master!” And he kissed him.

Matthew 27:29 and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head, and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

Mark 15:17-19 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on him. [18] And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” [19] And they struck his head with a reed, and spat upon him, and they knelt down in homage to him.

John 19:2-3 And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and arrayed him in a purple robe; [3] they came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands.

Beale comments on these passages:

[I]t is used as a term of derision by the Roman soldiers before the crucifixion. In the fourth, Judas hails Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Although the soldiers and Judas lacked faith, they were, ironically, using the proper term of address. Obviously, just because the soldiers and Judas mocked Jesus as a “king” does not mean He wasn’t one, so we are safe in concluding that the word, in the context of the gospels, is a form of royal address, just as it was in the broader context of the ancient world.

In other words, even though this was mockery, and grotesquely sarcastic “honor” expressed by the betrayer Judas, it still nevertheless shows the usage (in the wider culture) of the term as a reverential address towards kings and other high authority figures.

[I make a somewhat similar “reverse”-type of argument in my paper, New (?) Analogical Biblical Argument for Veneration of the Saints and Angels from the Prohibition of Blasphemy of the Same]

And that, in turn, ties into the biblical argument for veneration of human beings, or what has been translated into English 22 times in the RSV as obeisance. As such, we see it used with reference to the usual honor shown to kings. In one striking instance, the same word (Hebrew shachah) was used to describe both worship of God and veneration or honor of the king:

1 Chronicles 29:20 Then David said to all the assembly, “Bless the LORD your God.” And all the assembly blessed the LORD, the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads, and worshiped [shachah] the LORD, and did obeisance [shachah] to the king. [KJV: “worshipped the LORD, and the king”; shachah = Strong’s word #7812]

The King James Version (as we see in my footnote) didn’t even bother to distinguish the two acts, and renders it (rather scandalously for Protestant “ears”!) as “worshipped . . . the king”. It does the same in another passage:

Daniel 2:46 Then King Nebuchadnez’zar fell upon his face, and did homage to [cegid] Daniel, [KJV: “worshipped Daniel”] . . . [for related passages and reasoning, see my article, Veneration of Human Beings: Seven Biblical Examples]

The reason that the KJV in 1611 could do this, was because the word worship in English had a wider latitude in earlier days. In fact, its meaning originally had more to do with honor of persons than with adoration of God. So the KJV was using it in the older sense, in referring to human beings like Daniel and David, being “worshipped”. No one need take my word for that. The Online Etymology Dictionary (“Worship”) substantiates this state of affairs:

Old English worðscipwurðscip (Anglian), weorðscipe (West Saxon) “condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown,” from weorð “worthy” (see worth) + scipe (see -ship). Sense of “reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being” is first recorded c. 1300. The original sense is preserved in the title worshipful “honorable” (c. 1300).

This got me curious as to what the same dictionary would state about the history of the word hail:

salutation in greeting, c. 1200, from Old Norse heill “health, prosperity, good luck,” . . .

[cognate heil] “hail,” German from Sieg Heil (q.v.). Middle English cognate heil was used as a salutation implying respect or reverence (c. 1200; see hail . . .).

The Catholic analogical reasoning, given all of the above, is as follows:

1) Kings were bowed to in the Old Testament and given obeisance (reverence, honor), but not worship or adoration.

2) This is analogous to Catholic veneration and honor of Mary and other saints, and of angels (sometimes bowing before statues of them), which is not worship (reserved for God alone).

3) In the instances of the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus during His Passion, the soldiers are presupposing (as are the evangelists describing the scenes in writing) this cultural background, which was also present in their own culture (bowing before Caesar and other Roman authorities and “hailing” them).

4) In English usage, starting c. 1200, heil, a synonym of hail, meant a “salutation implying respect or reverence.” St. Thomas Aquinas (see  below), writing in the same time period, thus casually assumes that the biblical hail in Luke 1:28 meant “reverence” towards a human being (Mary).

5) Therefore, by analogy, Gabriel’s use of hail in addressing the Blessed Virgin Mary can quite plausibly be construed as an act of veneration, which is truly extraordinary, seeing that usually it is angels, who are venerated by human beings, and not vice versa.

Now, exactly why the Blessed Virgin Mary was venerated by the angel Gabriel, is commented on by St. Thomas Aquinas (The Angelic Salutation), with his usual blinding insight:

“Hail Mary”

We must now consider concerning the first part of this prayer that in ancient times it was no small event when Angels appeared to men; and that man should show them reverence was especially praiseworthy. Thus, it is written to the praise of Abraham that he received the Angels with all courtesy and showed them reverence. But that an Angel should show reverence to a man was never heard of until the Angel reverently greeted the Blessed Virgin saying: “Hail.”

In olden time an Angel would not show reverence to a man, but a man would deeply revere an Angel. This is because Angels are greater than men, and indeed in three ways. First, they are greater than men in dignity. This is because the Angel is of a spiritual nature: “You make your angels spirits” [Ps 103:4]. But, on the other hand, man is of a corruptible nature, for Abraham said: “I will speak to my Lord, whereas I am dust and ashes” [Gen 18:27]. It was not fitting, therefore, that a spiritual and incorruptible creature should show reverence to one that is corruptible as is a man. Secondly, an Angel is closer to God. The Angel, indeed, is of the family of God, and as it were stands ever by Him: “Thousands of thousands ministered to Him, and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before Him” [Dan 7:10]. Man, on the other hand, is rather a stranger and afar off from God because of sin: “I have gone afar off” [Ps 44:8]. Therefore, it is fitting that man should reverence an Angel who is an intimate and one of the household of the King.

Then, thirdly, the Angels far exceed men in the fullness of the splendor of divine grace. For Angels participate in the highest degree in the divine light: “Is there any numbering of His soldiers? And upon whom shall not His light arise?”[Job 25:3]. Hence, the Angels always appear among men clothed in light, hut men on the contrary, although they partake somewhat of the light of grace, nevertheless do so in a much slighter degree and with a certain obscurity. It was, therefore, not fitting that an Angel should show reverence to a man until it should come to pass that one would be found in human nature who exceeded the Angels in these three points in which we have seen that they excel over men—and this was the Blessed Virgin. To show that she excelled the Angels in these, the Angel desired to show her reverence, and so he said: “Ave (Hail).”

“Full of grace”

The Blessed Virgin was superior to any of the Angels in the fullness of grace, and as an indication of this the Angel showed reverence to her by saying: “Full of grace.” This is as if he said: “I show you reverence because you dost excel me in the fullness of grace.” . . .

Mary is full of grace, exceeding the Angels in this fullness and very fittingly is she called “Mary” which means “in herself enlightened”: “The Lord will fill your soul with brightness” [Is 48:11]. . . .

“The Lord is with you”

The Blessed Virgin excels the Angels in her closeness to God. The Angel Gabriel indicated this when he said: “The Lord is with you”—as if to say: “I reverence you because you art nearer to God than I, because the Lord is with you.” By the Lord; he means the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit, who in like manner are not with any Angel or any other spirit: “The Holy which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God” [Lk 1:35]. God the Son was in her womb: “Rejoice and praise, O you habitation of Sion; for great is He that is in the midst of you, the Holy One of Israel” [Is 12:6].

The Lord is not with the Angel in the same manner as with the Blessed Virgin; for with her He is as a Son, and with the Angel He is the Lord. The Lord, the Holy Ghost, is in her as in a temple, so that it is said: “The temple of the Lord, the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit,” [Benedictus antiphon from the Little Office of Blessed Virgin], because she conceived by the Holy Ghost. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon you” [Lk 1:35]. The Blessed Virgin is closer to God than is an Angel, because with her are the Lord the Father, the Lord the Son, and the Lord the Holy Ghost—in a word, the Holy Trinity. Indeed of her we sing: “Noble resting place of the Triune God.” “The Lord is with you” are the most praiseladen words that the Angel could have uttered; and, hence, he so profoundly reverenced the Blessed Virgin because she is the Mother of the Lord and Our Lady. Accordingly she is very well named “Mary,” which in the Syrian tongue means “Lady.”

“Blessed art you among women”

The Blessed Virgin exceeds the Angels in purity. She is not only pure, but she obtains purity for others. She is purity itself, wholly lacking in every guilt of sin, for she never incurred either mortal or venial sin. So, too, she was free from the penalties of sin. Sinful man, on the contrary, incurs a threefold curse on account of sin.

All these things considered, I submit that in addressing Mary by saying, “Hail, full of grace”, the angel Gabriel was venerating her.

And so should we. If an angel of God does this, it can’t possibly be wrong, and who are we to do less?

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Photo credit: The Annunciation (c. 1443), by Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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