For the longest time I thought a “Hail Mary” was a desperate, last-ditch throw at the end of a football game; a frantic attempt to win at the final second. Having been raised in one of the more contrary factions of Protestantism, you can’t blame me. I was taught to avoid Catholicism with the same amount of fierceness as avoiding card-playing and dancing. They were all equal spawns of the same Satan, or so I was instructed.
Well, all these years later, I haven’t picked up the habit of praying the Rosary, but I have come to appreciate it. And I understand why some believers find the “Hail Mary,” or Ave Maria, so gripping. “Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” comes straight from the Christmas text of Luke. It is Gabriel’s announcement that Mary will give birth to the Christ child, the Son of God.
There are plenty of “divine births” in religious literature. God (or the gods) comes down from heaven, assumes physical form, has intercourse with some fair maiden, and the resulting pregnancy is a mix of the human and divine – demigods – we call them. This is a common narrative, and is especially true of the Greeks.
Greek mythology is filled with tales of classic heroes who claimed paternity from the gods, but were birthed by human mothers (Theseus, Perseus, and Heracles to name a few). In most cases the divine father is Zeus who was nothing short of a cosmic philanderer with children scattered all over the Mediterranean and Mount Olympus.
This is not the nature of Mary’s pregnancy. What happens with her is unique in literature and in religion. That God’s spirit would come upon her – reminiscent of God’s Spirit moving across the waters in the primal act of creation – is a Jewish concept with its own flavor. And it has given Christianity the virgin birth.
Yet, Luke puts little emphasis on Mary’s celibacy, hardly any at all. Luke’s emphasis is on Mary’s compliance to God’s will. Mary’s response to her miraculous motherhood is profound; it is an act of complete surrender, as she says to Gabriel, “I am God’s slave. Let it be done to me according to your word.” Let it be. Now, where have we heard those words before?
The song “Let it Be” might be Paul McCartney’s finest work. He wrote at a difficult time: The Beatles were on the skids, individually they were suffering from their success, and Paul was a mess. He was lost, drunk, and confused. He began to feel this wrenching misery, longing for the comfort of his mother – her name was Mary – who had died when he was fourteen.
It was during this time that Paul’s mother came to him in a dream, he says. And she said to him, most supportive, “Paul, let it be.” McCartney awoke, went to the piano, and wrote the now classic song: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me; Speaking words of wisdom, let it be…There will be an answer, let it be.”
When Mary – the mother of Jesus, not the mother of Paul – said, “Let it be,” she wasn’t despairing of life. She was willingly receiving the way of God for her life. She was admitting that her designs for living would be set aside so that God’s design for her life would come to fruition in and through her.
Hers, like Paul’s, was a song of surrender, not of apathy or hopelessness. It was a song of submission to a higher and better way. Now, this sounds like losing, like we are giving up, but we lose nothing. We gain everything.
By accepting how the world actually is, accepting who we really are, and accepting what God wants for us, we move forward with peace. We collapse into the strength and will of the Almighty. “Let it be.” To confess such a thing is to indeed be full of grace.