One of the things I love the most about being Catholic is praying the Rosary. You don't have to be Catholic to pray the Rosary, but as a former Protestant, I know how weird it can seem to the average Protestant Christian.
The prayers of the Rosary include the Apostles' Creed, the Our Father, the Glory Be, four sets of Mysteries, and the Hail Mary. The sets of Mysteries are different categories of the events of the life of Jesus that one meditates on while praying the Rosary. It's like a scrapbook of the life of Jesus and the early Church. (This article from Wikipedia on the Rosary has the breakdown of mysteries, if you care to look. I'll probably do a post about the mysteries themselves in the near future.)
But let's get to the original intention of this post: breaking down the Hail Mary.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed are thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary. This is the first part of his greeting to her.
"Full of grace"
Catholics and Protestants differ on what it means for Gabriel to address Mary as "full of grace." Catholics believe this means Mary was without sin, even though she still needed a savior. We believe that she was preserved from sin (by the power of Jesus) so that she could carry the son of God inside her. Protestants don't believe that, and I confess, this was one of the hardest things for me to accept in my journey to becoming Catholic. But when someone presented it to me as Mary being the ark of the New Covenant, something just clicked. It made me think of the way that God instructed his people to care for the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, with great care and reverence. Even if you don't believe that "full of grace" means that Mary was preserved from sin by the power of Jesus, it's still a beautiful way to be addressed.
"The Lord is with thee"
This is a huge thing for Gabriel to say. It's the beginning of Emmanuel, God with us. This has been the intent and desire of God for all ages--to dwell with his people and be with them in the flesh. As I pray the Rosary, I marvel over this phrase. The Lord is with me. It also blows my mind that Gabriel is about to tell Mary that God wants to put himself inside of her as a little baby.
"Blessed art thou among women"
This is the first part of Elizabeth's greeting to Mary when Mary arrives for a visit (Luke 1:39-56). Luke tells us that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and then exclaims these beautiful words, encouraging Mary in what God has given her to do.
"and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus"
This is the central point of the Hail Mary: Jesus. Elizabeth proclaims this to Mary: "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!" Jesus is the fruit of Mary's womb, the outcome of her obedient "yes" to the invitation of God to bear his Son. When I pray this part of the Rosary, the Holy Spirit swells within me: "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus..." Jesus. Blessed is he. This is my favorite part of the Hail Mary, because it points to the most important, what it is all about--Jesus.
Whether you believe that Mary was without sin in her earthly life or not, now she is with Jesus in heaven, covered by his most precious blood. She is a saint; she is holy. That's what "saint" means--"a holy one."
"Mother of God"
This is probably my second favorite part of the Hail Mary. A human being...a woman...is given the amazing, mind-blowing honor of carry God in her womb. Mary is the Mother of God. What humility that God would take on our flesh, would put himself inside a mommy, and let us humans be his brothers and sisters.
"Pray for us sinners"
Yes, we pray to Mary to ask her to pray for us. It is a common misconception around Protestant circles that Catholics worship Mary. Let me ease your mind--we don't. I don't say that lightly, because for all of creation, there is only one God to whom worship is due: the Holy Trinity, three in one--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So, Amanda, you're saying that praying the Hail Mary in the Rosary isn't the same as worshiping Mary?
Right. The concept of praying to the saints used to make me squeamish, too. In my upbringing, prayer was something we only used with God, and so I lumped it in with the set of practices reserved for deity. Two things made me see it differently.
First, the word "pray" really just means to ask. Think about Shakespearean English for a minute:
"I pray thee, cease thy counsel,
Which falls into mine ears as profitless
As water in a sieve: give not me counsel..."
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
It's not about worshiping the person you're talking to---no one would think that the quote above was Leonato worshiping his brother Antonio, right? So, can we agree that "pray" is a synonym for "implore, ask, beg"? Yes? Cool. Moving on.
The second thing about praying to the saints is that it's not really that much different than asking you to pray for me when I'm having a hard go of it. How many times have I texted my friend Kelley these exact words?
Pray for me. My kids are driving me crazy today.
Like, a hundred times. I'm so thankful for the technology that sends my request for prayer across the 175 miles from where I am in Longview to where Kelley is in Waco. I'm even more thankful for the direct connection Kelley, as a Christian, has to the throne room of Jesus to intercede for me by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Praying to the saints is like that, asking a friend or family member to pray for you.
But, Amanda, isn't the Bible clear about praying to the dead?
I'm glad you asked this. The author of the article linked in your question assumes that Christians who have died and now live in heaven in the presence of God have no connection to what's going on in the world because they are surrounded by eternal bliss. Hm. Hebrews 12:1, which describes the great cloud of witnesses, gives me a picture that my fellow Christians in heaven are watching what we're up to down here, cheering us on in this race. And in Revelation, the saints are praying (Rev 5:8 and 8:3-4). Maybe they're not praying for us down here, but I think they might be.
But why wouldn't you just pray straight to Jesus?
The same reason I text Kelley to pray for me. I need help. I need my friend's intercession when I'm going through a hard time. Sometimes I use the power of the Verizon network to text Kelley that request. Sometimes I use the power of the Holy Spirit to ask Mary to pray for me while she is with Jesus in heaven.
"Now and at the hour of our death"
I pray for my kids every day. I need prayer every day. Asking Mary to pray for me now is a no-brainer. I need prayer now. But at the hour of my death? I imagine that the moments before my death will be really wonderful or really hard--either dying of old age surrounded by my family, or dying of an illness that is physically and spiritually rough on my body. Either way, asking Mary to pray for me doesn't seem too bad.
Okay, I'm done for now. I hope this sheds some light on this common Catholic practice. Maybe the Hail Mary isn't for you. At least now you know more about it! Why don't you ask your favorite Catholic what they think of it? :)