Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Dec. 23.
One of the first prayers that you and I learned as children was the Hail Mary, a prayer which some non-Catholics criticize for being directed to Mary rather than to God.
Part of the problem is that they presume that all prayer is worship, which we agree should only be directed to God. But worship is not the only kind of prayer there is.
Prayer is basically spiritual conversation, of which there are many kinds, including meditation, contemplation, intercession, veneration, adoration, praise and lament, formal prayers like the Hail Mary, the Our Father, the rosary, the way of the cross, novenas, litanies, songs and of course liturgies.
Liturgies are always worship. For instance, the Mass and the liturgy of the hours. The Hail Mary, on the other hand, is not worship, but it is a spiritual conversation with the Mother of God in heaven. In it we praise Mary, profess our faith in her Son and ask for her prayers.
Why do I bring this up today? Because the second sentence of the Hail Mary comes directly from today’s Gospel, St. Elizabeth’s praise of Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
This follows the words the Angel Gabriel used to praise Mary and announce God’s choice of her to bear our Savior: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” And so the Hail Mary prayer begins with words taken from the biblical account of the annunciation and the visitation, the first two glorious mysteries of the rosary.
Doesn’t it make sense that if God sends his angel to praise Mary, we should praise her too? Doesn’t it make sense that if the New Testament — God’s word — saw fit to report approvingly Elizabeth’s praise of Mary, we should praise her too? They didn’t worship her, but they did honor her because God had honored her by choosing her to bear Jesus, who is God, into the world — two days from now. Indeed Christmas Eve is tomorrow night.
And so it is appropriate that after citing Gabriel and Elizabeth’s words praising Mary in the New Testament, our prayer continues with a reminder of Christmas, the very reason for these earlier events of annunciation and visitation, the day Mary bore God into the world — “Holy Mary, Mother of God” — and then a request that she pray for us: “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Notice the Hail Mary begins with beautiful words of praise intimately connected with the story of our Savior’s conception and birth, taken directly from the New Testament, and ends with a request for her prayers but does not contain a single word of worship at least not of Mary. Our worship is reserved for her Son, our Savior, soon to be born on Christmas day. The day on which, in the words of Elizabeth to Mary, “what was spoken to you by the Lord will be fulfilled.”
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