At the time Gabriel appeared to Mary, there was an emperor who ruled the known world. His name was Augustus Caesar. A common greeting among citizens of the empire at that time was “Hail Caesar!” Caesar, while originally a proper name, had already begun to morph into a title (a title that would be preserved in such words as Tsar, Czar, and Kaiser). In short, Augustus and his successors were spoken of by his title, not his name.
Mary too is addressed by a title when Gabriel appears to her: Kaire, Kecharitomene! It’s a title that is too full of meaning to render accurately in English. “Hail, Full-of-Grace!” is part of it. Hail! Favored One” is another part of it. “Hail! Full-of-Divine-Life!” touches on it as well.
The western tradition, especially in the Rosary, has settled on “gratia plena” or Full-of-Grace as the preferred rendering. And in this title, the Catholic tradition has always seen the biblical reflection of the Church’s ancient apostolic faith in the sinlessness of Mary.
Note that I say “reflection” and not “basis”. That’s because the Church is not “based on the Bible” but rather based on the Word made flesh. The Bible does not come first, like a foundation, and then the Church gets built on top of it, “deriving” various doctrines from tenuous and ambiguous sentence fragments here and there (as though some medieval Pope said to his secretary one day, “Oh look! Here’s a passage where Gabriel calls Mary “full of grace”! How about we say, on the basis of this passing reference, that…. ummmmm…oh, I don’t know… how about ‘Mary is immaculately conceived and preserved from all sin both original and actual?’ Think people will buy that whopper? It’s just wild enough that they may go for it!”)
Rather, the belief is already implicit in the Faith of the apostles and the biblical passage is the reflection of the apostolic teaching that goes out to all the Churches. That’s why, from east to west, across a dozen different cultures, tongues and rites of the ancient Church, the overwhelming consensus of the Fathers is that Mary is “most pure,” “formed without any stain,” “all-Holy,” “undefiled,” “spotless,” “immaculate of the immaculate,” “inviolate and free from every stain of sin,” and created in a condition more sublime and glorious than all other natures.
In short, for the Fathers, as for the Catholic Church, Mary is as St. Ephraem describes her:
Most holy Lady, Mother of God, alone most pure in soul and body, alone exceeding all perfection of purity . . . alone made in thy entirety the home of all the graces of the Most Holy Spirit, and hence exceeding beyond all compare even the angelic virtues in purity and sanctity of soul and body . . . my Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate spotless robe of Him Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate.
That’s not because everybody in the early Church all simultaneously went barking mad in exactly the same way and all began building the same gigantic mountain of Marian sinlessness on the same textual molehill in Luke 1. It is, rather, because the apostles, wherever they founded their Churches, taught that Mary was sinless and that their disciples should therefore read Gabriel’s words through that interpretive lens of Sacred Tradition.
The implication of the title is astounding and beautiful, but what stands out in comparison to the Roman greeting is how humble it is. Mary is who she is, not because of she schemed her way to the top or rubbed out her competitors, but because she is the least and is entirely sustained by God’s grace. She is not full of grace because she has exalted herself. Rather, she is exalted because she is full of grace. As she herself said, “He has cast down the mighty in their arrogance and lifted up the meek and the lowly.”
In all this, of course, we find the reflection of God’s even greater humility: For as Chesterton notes in his beautiful poem “Gloria In Profundis”, God is second to none in his eagerness to humble himself.
There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is split on the sand.
Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?
For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.
Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.
The grace that filled Mary was not a theological abstraction or a sentiment. It was a baby. The fullness of grace that brimmed over in her filled, not merely her heart, but her uterus as the grace of the God who is more humble than she was made flesh and dwelt among us.