I believe... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, [Genuflect] and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man(.)—Nicene Creed (Ordinariate translation)
1. Contemplation of the mystery of the Saviour's birth has led Christian people not only to invoke the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of Jesus, but also to recognize her as Mother of God. This truth was already confirmed and perceived as belonging to the Church's heritage of faith from the early centuries of the Christian era, until it was solemnly proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in 431.In the first Christian community, as the disciples became more aware that Jesus is the Son of God, it became ever clearer that Mary is the Theotókos, the Mother of God. This is a title which does not appear explicitly in the Gospel texts, but in them the "Mother of Jesus" is mentioned and it is affirmed that Jesus is God (Jn 20:28; cf. 5:18; 10:30, 33). Mary is in any case presented as the Mother of Emmanuel, which means "God with us" (cf. Mt 1:22-23).Already in the third century, as can be deduced from an ancient written witness, the Christians of Egypt addressed this prayer to Mary: "We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God: despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all evil, O glorious and blessed Virgin" (from the Liturgy of the Hours). The expression Theotókos appears explicitly for the first time in this ancient witness.In pagan mythology, it often happened that a certain goddess would be presented as the mother of some god. For example, the supreme god, Zeus, had the goddess Rhea as his mother. This context perhaps helped Christians to use the title "Theotókos ", "Mother of God", for the Mother of Jesus. It should nevertheless be noted that this title did not exist but was created by Christians to express a belief which had nothing to do with pagan mythology, belief in the virginal conception in Mary's womb of the One who had always been the eternal Word of God.Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as the Mother of God2. By the fourth century, the term Theotókos was frequently used in the East and West. Devotion and theology refer more and more to this term, which had by now become part of the Church's patrimony of faith.One can therefore understand the great protest movement that arose in the fifth century when Nestorius cast doubt on the correctness of the title "Mother of God". In fact, being inclined to hold that Mary was only the mother of the man Jesus, he maintained that "Mother of Christ" was the only doctrinally correct expression. Nestorius was led to make this error by his difficulty in admitting the unity of Christ's person and by his erroneous interpretation of the distinction between the two natures—divine and human—present in him.In 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned his theses and, in affirming the subsistence of the divine and human natures in the one person of the Son, proclaimed Mary the Mother of God.3. Now, the difficulties and objections raised by Nestorius offer us the opportunity to make several useful reflections for correctly understanding and interpreting this title. The expression Theotókos, which literally means, "she who has begotten God", can at first sight seem surprising; in fact it raises the question as to how it is possible for a human creature to give birth to God. The answer of the Church's faith is clear: Mary's divine motherhood refers only to the human begetting of the Son of God but not, however, to his divine birth. The Son of God was eternally begotten of God the Father, and is consubstantial with him. Mary, of course, has no part in this eternal birth. However, the Son of God assumed our human nature 2,000 years ago and was conceived by and born of Mary.In proclaiming Mary "Mother of God", the Church thus intends to affirm that she is the "Mother of the Incarnate Word, who is God". Her motherhood does not, therefore, extend to all the Trinity, but only to the Second Person, the Son, who, in becoming incarnate, took his human nature from her.Motherhood is a relationship of person to person: a mother is not only mother of the body or of the physical creature born of her womb, but of the person she begets. Thus having given birth, according to his human nature, to the person of Jesus, who is a divine person, Mary is the Mother of God.Blessed Virgin's consent precedes Incarnation4. In proclaiming Mary "Mother of God", the Church in a single phrase professes her belief regarding the Son and the Mother. This union was already seen at the Council of Ephesus; in defining Mary's divine motherhood, the Fathers intended to emphasize their belief in the divinity of Christ. Despite ancient and recent objections about the appropriateness of recognizing Mary by this title, Christians of all times, by correctly interpreting the meaning of this motherhood, have made it a privileged expression of their faith in the divinity of Christ and their love for the Blessed Virgin.On the one hand, the Church recognizes the Theotókos as guaranteeing the reality of the Incarnation because—as St Augustine says—"if the Mother were fictitious, the flesh would also be fictitious ... and the scars of the Resurrection" (Tract. in Ev. Ioannis, 8, 6-7). On the other hand, she also contemplates with wonder and celebrates with veneration the immense greatness conferred on Mary by the One who wanted to be her Son. The expression "Mother of God" refers to the Word of God, who in the Incarnation assumed the lowliness of the human condition in order to raise man to divine sonship. But in the light of the sublime dignity conferred on the Virgin of Nazareth, this title also proclaims the nobility of woman and her loftiest vocation. God in fact treats Mary as a free and responsible person and does not bring about the Incarnation of his Son until after he has obtained her consent.Following the example of the ancient Christians of Egypt, let the faithful entrust themselves to her who, being the Mother of God, can obtain from her divine Son the grace of deliverance from evil and of eternal salvation.
Pope Saint John Paul II
General Audience, 27 November 1996
37th in the series on the Blessed Mother
—quoted in L'Osservatore Romano, 4 December 1996
Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, St. Luke (who penned his Gospel in Greek) documented the Angel Gabriel's words to Mary for posterity. It is a remarkable thing to focus on how St. Luke states that the Angel Gabriel referred to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:28).
χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ.Chaire, kecharitōmenē, ho kyrios meta sou!Hail, "Full of Grace," the Lord is with you!
Chaire kecharitomene. "Hail, Full of Grace," we translate it. In Latin, following the venerable St. Jerome's translation known as the Vulgate, it is Ave, gratia plena.
The word that Luke uses—κεχαριτωμένη, kecharitomene—appears to have been crafted out of thin air, appearing into the Greek vocabulary as unexpectedly as the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and as silently as the Word became Flesh. It was the word for the moment.
The word is used nowhere else in the Scriptures or in secular Greek literature. The technical name for such a novel, unique word is hapax legomenon. Hapax legomenon—which comes to us from Greek—means "expressed once."
This sort of word is sometimes also referred to as a nonce word. In this case, it is a one-of-a-kind word for a one-of-a-kind person in a one-of-a-kind situation. No one else in human history is κεχαριτωμένη (kecharitomene).
Though a nonce word, it is not nonsensical. Grammatically, the word kecharitomene is the feminine present perfect passive voice participle of a verb, specifically, the Greek verb χαριτόω (charitóō). In the passive voice, the verb means to have been made graceful, to have been endowed with grace.
The traditional English translation for kecharitomene is "full of grace." While the translation "full of grace" for kecharitomene not perfect—because it doesn't go far enough—it is far better, it seems, than the rather insipid "most highly favored" with which some have wanted to replace it.
The reason why "full of grace" does not go far enough and so is not a perfect fit is that "full of grace" is the literal translation of the Greek πληρης χαριτος (pleres charitos). That phrase is used to refer to St. Stephen, the first martyr, in Acts 6:8. It is also used to refer to Jesus, the Word made flesh, in The Gospel of John 1:14.
What the Angel Gabriel wants to communicate to Mary and to us is in the word kecharitomene is that Mary has a unique name, a unique title, a unique role in sacred history, and so—though human—is a unique being in the economy of salvation.
Mary is she whose very name, whose very title, whose very office, whose very person is to have been endowed with grace in anticipation of her role as Mother of God and Mother of the Church.
That's one reason why using "full of grace" does not go far enough. It is remarkable—in fact it is of utmost importance—that kecharitomene is clearly used by the angel Gabriel—the messenger of the most High God—as a proper noun, as Mary's heavenly name.
God gave Abram the name Abraham, the "Father of Nations." (Gen. 17:5) Jesus called Simon by the name Peter, meaning "Rock." (Matt. 16:18) God-given names are important in Scripture. Similarly, through the Angel Gabriel, God named Mary Kecharitomene. (Luke 1:28)
Since the word kecharitomene is tied with the expression "Hail" (Greek Chaire, sometimes translated "Rejoice"), it also seems to indicate a title or an office when tied to a person, as in "Hail Caesar." We actually see this usage in Scripture, such as when Judas greets Jesus as "Hail Rabbi" (Matt. 26:49), and the mocking Roman soldiers refer to Christ with the words "Hail, King of the Jews" (Matt. 27:29, Mark 15:18; John 19:3).
Though "Full of Grace" is the best we have, we should not be satisfied with the best we have. It helps us therefore to know that "full of grace" with respect to Mary refers to that unique nature of Mary's "fullness of grace." That is to say, "Full of Grace" it is her title, even her name.
Before Mary was the Mother of God (Theotokos) (cf. Luke 1:43), before she was Mother of the Church (Mater ecclesiae) (cf. John 19:27) she was Full of Grace (Kecharitomene) (Luke 1:28).
Kecharitomene is who Mary is, and not only what she has. She is Kecharitomene as a result of that "singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race," as Piux IX put it in his constitution Ineffabilis Deus which defined ex cathedra the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
That "singular privilege" requires a "singular word," and Mary has such a word: Kecharitomene.
"I am Kecharitomene" becomes, through proper doctrinal development, "I am the Immaculate Conception."
What the Angel Gabriel told Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mary herself told St. Bernadette Soubirous.
In his On Nature and Grace, St. Augustine—the expounder par excellence of the doctrine of original sin—explains Mary's unique situation in this manner: "An abundance of grace (plus gratiae) was conferred on her, who merited to conceive and bear Him of whom we know was without sin." In other words, there is a parallelism between the absence of original sin in Mary (through grace), and the absence of sin (by necessity) in Christ.
Medieval theologians described it this way. They saw Mary's "fullness of grace" (plenitudo gratiae) as something between the "fullness of grace" that was unique to Christ (cf. John 1:4) and the "fullness of grace" that might be found in the Holy Angels and the Saints (cf. Acts 6:8). This special and unique condition of Mary was described as plenitudo summae abundantiae (a plenary fullness of abundance of grace) or a plenitudo redundantiae (plenary redoundingness of grace).