And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. (Luke 1:28-31, Catholic Revised Standard)
That isn’t necessarily a perfect translation of Luke, so let’s see some others:
King James Version:
And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
Most of the translations have “favored” in some sense or other. Some of them make the construction out to be a declarative sentence in its own right:
When the angel entered her home, he greeted her and said, "You are favored by the Lord! The Lord is with you." She was startled by what the angel said and tried to figure out what this greeting meant. The angel told her, "Don't be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. (God’s Word Translation)
Let’s be a little cautious. First off, it seems a bit odd (in this last translation) that Gabriel the great messenger would have to repeat himself: “favored by the Lord” followed 2 verses later by “you have found favor with God.” Here we have the singular event that all creation has been groaning for throughout the ages, and in which Gabriel gets to say all of 10 or so distinct things, and the translator has him repeating himself almost like a school boy.
Maybe not. Let’s go to the original Greek:
χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ.
Well, for those of us (like me) who are not comfortable with the Greek alphabet, here is a transposition:
Chaire, kecharitōmenē, ho kyrios meta sou!
Chaire is the greeting word, usually translated as “Hail”, though sometimes as “Rejoice”.
There is little debate among the translations about the last phrase, ho kyrios meta sou, which is always given as “the Lord is with you. “Ho” is the definite article, “kyrios” has same root as the well known “Kyrie” in the liturgy.
The problem comes with kecharitōmenē. Why? Because it is unique. It is a one-use word. It is not used anywhere else in the Bible. Or anywhere else, either. Luke seems to have made it for the purpose.
But the word is made up of pieces, and can be parsed out:
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.
Kecharitōmenē is broken up into
Charitoo is the root word, which is also what we find elsewhere as karitos, which is either “favor” or “grace”. It is “grace” – a supernatural gift – in emphasizing what it is that God gives; it is “favor” in emphasizing why He gives it. I use them nearly interchangeably here.
Mene makes it a passive participle: it is passive, implying that the person referred to is the recipient of the action, not the doer. Mary receives the grace or favor. We don’t actually have a single word for the passive voice of “to favor”, we have to use two words: “"be favored" is how the present passive voice would go (though "favored" looks past tense). Or "receives favor" if you want to be a little more directed about it.
It is in participle form: "being favored" or “receiving favor” would be the simple present. But ke- puts it in the present perfect tense. From the standpoint of the speaker’s moment, the original doing was done already, such as "have been favored" or “have received favor”. But with the participle, it means that her receiving of grace was done prior, but _remains_ so going forward, it continues into the present condition, so: “have been receiving favor”. Apparently it also implies a sense of completion, an emphasis on the culmination of the activity. Her gracefulness is accomplished, which would be more like “have been receiving grace in fullness” or perhaps “having been filled with grace” (though the latter looks more past tense than is ideal).
One last point about kecharitōmenē: Neither Aramaic nor Hebrew apparently have an ordinary superlative form, as we do with “-est” as a suffix. So they would show superlative sense in a different fashion. They would say something like "You are tall among men" or "You are wealthy among men" to mean "You are the tallest" or "You are the wealthiest". Gabriel uses that in the next sentence: “blessed are you among women”, and later on, we hear Elizabeth say the same thing. I.E. “most blessed.” And, apparently, the perfect passive participle form in Greek is actually used to convey the superlative, so: most favored, most graced. This gets us “Having been made highest / most fulsome in grace.”
“Full of grace”, though, is perhaps a little bit short of the bullseye, not least because that expression IS actually used in the Bible, in 2 places, with different words: πληρης χαριτος (pleres charitos), is used for St. Stephen in Acts and for Christ in John 1:14. At a minimum, we know that Luke would have known how to express “full of grace” straightforwardly, since he did so in Acts. We can also note that “full of grace” misses the passive form of kecharitomene, and leaves the superlative at best implicit.
Let’s step back and get at this from another direction, let’s talk about Gabriel. Earlier in the chapter, he visited Zachary. Here’s his greeting: But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.
Here’s another interesting point about Gabriel: he had already shown up, in the Old Testament, in Daniel. In fact, he visits Daniel a few times.
As I was yet speaking in prayer, behold the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, flying swiftly touched me at the time of the evening sacrifice. And he instructed me, and spoke to me, and said: O Daniel, I am now come forth to teach thee, and that thou mightest understand. 9:21-22
Then behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. He said to me, "O Daniel, man of high esteem, understand the words that I am about to tell you and stand upright, for I have now been sent to you." And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, "Do not be afraid, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart on understanding this and on humbling yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to your words. 10:10-12
One thing seems apparent: Gabriel doesn’t just start in talking to a person, he calls their name. (Then he has to calm their fears.) “Fear not, Zachary”, and “O Daniel”. And he isn’t afraid to name other names: Elizabeth your wife, John your son.
Here are some other ways the passage in chapter 10 is rendered:
Daniel, you who are highly esteemed,
Daniel, you are very precious to God,
O Daniel, man greatly loved,
O Daniel, a man greatly beloved,
Daniel, you are a man treasured by God.
Gabriel uses a somewhat similar expression of high regard as in Luke, (though not in superlative form), but he does so after naming Daniel specifically.
His one other appearance (in Daniel) is slightly different:
And it came to pass when I Daniel saw the vision, and sought the meaning, that behold there stood before me as it were the appearance of a man. And I heard the voice of a man between Ulai: and he called, and said: Gabriel, make this man to understand the vision. And he came and stood near where I stood: and when he was come, I fell on my face trembling, and he said to me: Understand, O son of man, for in the time of the end the vision shall be fulfilled. Daniel 8:15-17
So, even though here he does not call Daniel out by his own given name, Gabriel does address him by a word of salutation that directs his words to Daniel under a title. In this case, though, the salutation is a title that is a foreshadowing of the title Christ chooses to use for himself, and I am going to set this aside for the moment.
It remains, though, that in every case, Gabriel calls out to the person under some form of personal address, he doesn’t just start in on his message. It is really inconceivable that he would start his message by saying “You are someone God has favored”. He would name her, identify her. We would expect, then, that kecharitomene fulfills the same purpose.
But how so? Gabriel evidently uses either the person’s proper name, or their role for salvation history. Either way, he is doing it so as to distinguish them as being called forth personally. God hasn’t sent the angel to “anyone who might fit the bill”, He sends Gabriel to one specific person. It is the exact opposite of a king pointing in the direction of a servant and saying “hey you”. Gabriel is making it clear that he is sent specifically to this one person, and so his salutation addresses him, it names him, or gives his title.
So what does kecharitomene do with regard to Mary? It says that “this is THE ONE who has been receiving highest fullness in grace”. The one. That is to say, of all those to whom God has granted high favor, Mary is THE one on whom He has most showered his grace. Her condition of “most highly favored” is _distinctive_: it is special enough that when you have called her “the most highly favored one” you might as well have said “Mary”, because she’s the unique one such. (This also fits with the participle being used as a noun, which is common in Greek, and explains the KJV using “thou that art…” instead of some other versions that just create an adjectival phrase “highly favored…” with the noun implicit.)
So what we get from kecharitōmenē is that Mary:
is favored by grace,
superlatively: in highest and fullest way;
it has been done, but remains ongoing;
it is distinctive, singular, even unique: a name.
So, roughly speaking, Gabriel was naming Mary as “the singular one who has been receiving in full the most high favor”. (OK, I admit that’s clumsy.) Small wonder, then, that Mary was troubled and wondered what sort of greeting this might be. Wouldn’t you be a little concerned?
The KJV is really not bad at all, but “highly favored” misses a bit on the superlative, and the whole construction doesn’t quite do enough to distinguish the expression as a naming. It might have been better with “Hail, thou that art fulfilled as the most highly favoured one, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” *
It is of course true (as our Protestant friends will likely point out), that the Bible is not explicit that Mary was free from all sin, even as to original sin. It is logically possible that a creature such as Mary would be “highest” of those favored and still not be one free from all sin.
However, I would note two comments about that: (1) there is nothing in the nature of the world or grace or salvation that absolutely precludes God from so acting as to apply to a human the salvific merits of Jesus Christ’s redemption even from the first moment of his or her existence in conception, so as to be redeemed by grace and kept by grace free of other sins during life: God has sufficient power and authority should He want to do so. There is nothing about this that offends against Christ’s majesty or His being the one Savior of all.
And (2) since Christ followed the commandment “honor your father and your mother” perfectly, one could plausibly argue that his doing just as described in (1) above is exactly the most fitting way of carrying out the commandment, and this would also fit perfectly with Gabriel’s sobriquet kecharitomene. For if God had NOT kept her free from all sin, there would have been some further measure of grace she might have received, and her superlative position of grace would be of some lesser sort: that of the current Olympic champion, who might be ousted by some later champion. It would be a historically contingent “singularity,” not one of universality. But this fits ill with Elizabeth’s greeting as “most blessed” and Mary’s response “all generations shall call me blessed”. And, indeed, no other woman ever could have the singular position of being the human mother to God the Son, so it is more fitting that her position of being graced would be, also, the unique and definitively singular one, the unconditional pinnacle of being blessed and filled with grace: grace-filled from which nothing is lacking; not “highest” in the negative (accidental) sense that God has not decided to raise anyone higher, but “highest” positively because in her every space for grace has been filled up to the brim. In His love for her as His mother, he would fittingly want to keep her free from all sin, and bestow on her the same condition as the first Eve – but in this case by taking away the negative inheritance of sin from Adam even with the transmission of his (Adam’s) nature.
My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
*I am no linguist nor Greek scholar. This is my own paltry analysis from looking at some 20 or so different attempts to clarify the word plus many explanations of the different forms, some Catholic and some Protestant and some neither. It suffers from my having no general knowledge of Greek, and if I have made a core error I apologize. I admit that not every point here is as firm and definitive as I should like: Some of it is interpolation and extrapolation, and half-educated guesswork. I don’t insist on it. If you can do better, have at it.