Where did the "Hail Mary" prayer come from?

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While we think of it as a Marian prayer, the Hail Mary is literally Christ-centered, as all Christian prayer should be.

No one knows who put together the series of Bible verses and intercession we know as the Hail Mary. There were several stages to the evolution of this prayer. The title "Mother of God" (Theotokos, or God-bearer in Greek) was used for Mary after church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries sanctioned it as theologically correct to describe her as more than "Christ-bearer" (Christotokos). Forms of this prayer existed in the 6th-century Eastern church. In the West, it was included in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the 11th century. The Hail Mary came into wider use in the 16th century, as the Crusaders invoked Mary to assist their quest to recapture the Holy Land.

The prayer is grounded in Scripture with the angel's greeting to Mary: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee." It continues with Elizabeth's blessing on her young cousin during their visitation: "Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." Elizabeth offers a standard Jewish birth-blessing which praises the mother for the child she carries.

While we think of it as a Marian prayer, the Hail Mary is literally Christ-centered, as all Christian prayer should be. Many ancient writings held the key to their interpretation or thematic significance in the center. The hinge word of the Hail Mary is the name "Jesus." 

What follows is an invocation for Mary's help ("pray for us") as she is close to God, being both holy and divine mother. Since the prayer begins with the angel's identification of Mary as Spirit-filled ("full of grace"), hinges on her relationship to Jesus, and ends with her relationship to God, the Hail Mary in its entirety reveals Mary's role as a willing participant in the work of the Trinity. The final line, "now and at the hour of our death," was the last addition to the prayer and made it a particularly poignant entreaty for those facing battle, the threat of plague, or other dangerous circumstances.

The Hail Mary also acknowledges that Mary of Nazareth, a young girl whose faith in God is strong and true, is elevated to the status of Abraham, whose faith made him the father of nations. The Jewish community identifies itself as Abraham's children. It's fitting that Christians perceive themselves as the children of Mary, our mother in faith.

Scriptures: Genesis 12:2-3; Exodus 3:12; Judges 6:12; Judith 13:18; Zephaniah 3:14-17; Zechariah 9:9; Luke 1:28; 2:42; 18:13; John 19:25-27; Revelation 21:3

Books: What Mary Means to Christians: An Ancient Tradition Explained, by Peter Stravinskas (Paulist Press, 2012)

The Rosary: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow, and Glory, by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2003)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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