Luke's Gospel has given the Church some of her most beautiful prayers: The Canticle of Zechariah, the Magnitificat, and the Nunc Dimittis, each of which is said daily in the office. It is also gave her the first half of the Hail Mary, which may be the most frequently said of all prayers in the Catholic Church. It is the frequent repetition that sometimes moves the Hail Mary from prayer to auto-pilot. It is important when saying this prayer to listen and pay attention not only to what is said. It is important to listen to the silence.
The gospel passage here gives the Angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary: "Hail full of grace, the Lord is with thee." Simply saying the Latin words, Ave Maria gratia plena is sufficient to trigger cascades of melody in the minds of music lovers with each one hearing his or her own particular favorite, the famous melodies of Schubert and Bach/Gounod or the equally beautiful but much less well-known settings of Bruckner or Holst. It is an exquisite prayer set to exquisite music.
The alternate gospel for today's feast, verses 39-47 of the same chapter of Luke includes Elizabeth's greeting to Mary, "Blessed art though amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." The Annunciation, the Visitation, and all that occurred between those two events, are summed up in these two short sentences straight from the Gospel. The history of the second half of the prayer is clouded in tradition, custom, and conjecture. The historical analysis is irrelevant here.
The most neglected part of the Hail Mary is the silence.
When recited in common custom dictates that the first lines of the prayer are recited by the individual leading the congregation. After the name Jesus, the multitude picks up in response with Holy Mary, Mother of God. Most individuals, if asked to recite the Hail Mary aloud would similarly break, perhaps for only a second or two, between the name of Jesus and the second half of the prayer. For some the break is unthinking and habitual while for others it is the opportunity to take a breath.
Something important happens during that silence.
Something important happened during that silence.
Until the name of Jesus is pronounced we are in a state of advent, waiting for something that is ad venire, coming toward. Mary was in the same state of expectation as we are in this season. She was, as we are, awaiting the coming of Jesus. After the silence Mary is now 'Mother of God.' We can't not salute her as Holy, Holy Mary Mother of God? How else can one describe the Theotokos, the God-bearer, than with the word holy?
It was during that silence that we were redeemed. The promise of the first half of the prayer is fulfilled in the transition to the second. Some time today say the Hail Mary slowly. Pay attention to the words and phrases. Feel the rhythm of the prayer. Savor the silence. Avoid the temptation to jump over it with a quick downward bob of the head at the name of Jesus or a quick breath. Sit in that silence. It is the silence that enveloped Mary after the Angel departed. It is the silence that Mary and Elizabeth shared. It is the silence of that night on which Jesus was born. It is also the silence that covered the earth after Jesus' body was placed in the tomb and the stunned silence in front of the empty tomb.
Sit with the silence of this prayer.
It contains the entire history of our redemption.
The photos below require no commentary or explanation except for a bit of history. The Abbey of Regina Laudis was founded in Bethlehem, CT in 1947. In 1949 Loretta Hines Howard donated a creche thought to be given to Victor Amadeus II, King of Sardinia for his coronation in 1720. She donated a similar one to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it is part of the annual Christmas display.
The creche at Regina Laudis is on permanent display in a climate controlled converted barn and displayed behind glass. I wandered into the barn during retreat and almost shot out of there to return to the house to get the camera, tripod, cable release and everything else. And the car. Too heavy to schlep. Spent two sessions there. Am looking forward to a third when I go there for the Triduum or, more than likely, when I go there to prepare for the Triduum at Easter.
The photos were taken as time exposures up to 40 seconds using a slow film speed and f22 so as to keep everything in focus.
There are some spiritual excesses. Mary and Joseph look decidedly non-Middle Eastern The work on the clothing and ceramic figures is astonishing. These are not life-size by any means but they are not tiny, under-the-tree figurines unless it is a very large tree. The full display spans at least ten feet and contains 68 figurines and 20 small animals. Imagine having to unwrap and wrap all of that every year. Probably easier keeping it on display.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD