At first glance, the Hail Mary seems to be primarily about Mary. However, as St. John Paul II emphasized, this prayer is meant to focus our attention on Jesus Christ. “Although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed” (RVM, 26).
We can see this in the first part of this prayer, which is drawn from the words that the angel Gabriel and Elizabeth used to greet the mother of the Messiah. These words do not focus primarily on Mary but on what John Paul II calls “the wonder of heaven and earth” over the mystery of the Incarnation taking place inside her.
First, imagine being the archangel Gabriel. You’ve existed long before the Blessed Virgin Mary was born, before the village of Nazareth was built, before the people of Israel were established. Indeed, you’ve existed before the sun, moon, stars, and planet Earth were created. And from before the creation of the world, you have been worshiping and adoring the all-mighty, all-powerful, infinite God.
But one day, this all-holy God sends you down to this little planet called Earth, to visit an obscure village called Nazareth and talk to a tiny creature, a woman named Mary, and announce to her that the all-powerful, all-holy, infinite God you’ve been adoring since before creation is about to enter time and space and become a little baby in her womb! In awe over the mystery of God becoming man inside Mary, Gabriel says, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28).
Indeed, the Lord is with Mary as he has never been with anyone else from the beginning of time! Similarly, consider Elizabeth’s words to Mary. Elizabeth, the Bible tells us, is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 2:41). That means she has been given prophetic insight. So she knows that Mary is pregnant not with any ordinary child but with the holy Son of God. And in wonder over that mystery of Mary’s son, Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women!… for blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 2: 42).
This is what the Hail Mary is all about. Every time we say the Hail Mary, we enter into that ecstatic praise of heaven and earth over the mystery of Christ—heaven represented by Gabriel, and earth represented by Elizabeth. By repeating these biblical words in the Hail Mary, we participate in heaven and earth’s joyful response to the mystery of God becoming man. As John Paul II explains, These words…could be said to give a glimpse of God’s own wonderment as he contemplates his “masterpiece”—the Incarnation of the Son in the womb of the Virgin Mary.… The repetition of the Hail Mary in the Rosary gives us a share in God’s own wonder and pleasure: in jubilant amazement we acknowledge the greatest miracle of history. (RVM, 33)
‘Pray for Us’
In the second part of the Hail Mary, we entrust our lives to Mary’s intercession: “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Even this part of the Hail Mary is meant to lead us to Christ. We ask Mary to pray for us to be faithful in our walk with the Lord, now and up to the moment of our death. As a model disciple of Christ, Mary consented to God’s will when the angel Gabriel appeared to her (see Luke 1:38), and she persevered in faith throughout her life (see John 19:25–27; Acts 1:14).
Consequently, she is the ideal person to be praying for us, praying that we may walk in faith as she did. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “She prays for us as she prayed for herself: ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ By entrusting ourselves to her prayer, we abandon ourselves to the will of God together with her: ‘Thy will be done’” (CCC, 2677).
Jesus: The Center of Gravity
After these opening lines, we come to the climax of the Hail Mary: “And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” John Paul II says that Jesus’s holy name not only serves as the hinge joining the two parts of the Hail Mary but also is this prayer’s very “center of gravity” (RVM, 33).
Indeed, the Hail Mary is meant to lead us to the person of Jesus, and at the center of this prayer, we speak his sacred name. But sometimes when we pray the rosary too quickly, we miss this important moment. Sometimes, in a hurried recitation, this center of gravity can be overlooked, and with it the connection to the mystery of Christ being contemplated. Yet it is precisely the emphasis given to the name of Jesus and to his mystery that is the sign of a meaningful and fruitful recitation of the Rosary. (RVM, 33)
I once attended what may have been the fastest rosary on earth. A group of people at a parish in the Midwest prayed the rosary every day before Mass. It was a nine-minute rosary. They sounded like auctioneers! God bless them for praying the rosary daily, when many people had jettisoned this prayer. But I think John Paul II would invite them, and all of us, to make sure we take time to give due reverence to the holy name of Jesus each time it is spoken.
“Every time we say the Hail Mary, we enter into that ecstatic praise of heaven and earth over the mystery of Christ.”
A friend of mine suggests that we treat the name of Jesus in the Hail Mary like a speed bump: Slow down as you approach it and speak it with care and attention. “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb,… Jesus.” Let’s speak Jesus’s name with tender love at every Hail Mary in the rosary.
Indeed, we should never neglect the power of Christ’s name—the only name under heaven by which we may hope in salvation (see Acts 4:12). From a biblical perspective, the very fact that we can call upon the name of Jesus is astonishing. In the Old Testament, the Jews approached God’s name with such reverence that eventually their tradition avoided saying it. They often called on God in prayer using the title “Lord.”
However, since God has entered into humanity in Christ, we now have the privilege of calling on the personal name of the Lord, Jesus (CCC, 2666). Christians throughout the centuries have found in the name of Jesus a source of strength and meditation. The Hail Mary leads us to that divine source, as we utter the sacred name at its center.