Hail Mary: Kecharitomene, A Unique Word for a Unique Lady
The translation 'Full of Grace' does not go far enough
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.
Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied;
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature's solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
Before her wane begins on heaven's blue coast;
Thy Image falls to earth. . . .
What if you had to put the theological implications of Wordsworth's poem into one word, and one word alone?
The challenge seems impossible. Off the bat, it would seem that one word is simply insufficient. It is unlikely that any language has packhorse of a word sufficiently muscular to support the entirety of Wordsworth's poem.
One might conclude it better to make up a word capable of expressing all these original concepts into a few syllables.
This problem is exactly what confronted the Angel Gabriel in the event we know as the Annunciation. 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 Greek verb charitóō is itself a little scarce in Scripture. Other than its unusual form in Luke 1:28, it is used by St. Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians. Here we read St. Paul use it for the redeemed sinner: "for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted (ἐχαρίτωσεν, echaristōsen) us in the beloved."
Here, the word charitóō is in what is known as its aorist active indicative form, obviously an entirely different form from Luke 1:28. So though the root verb (charitóō) is the same in Luke 1:28 and Ephesians 1:6, the words are used in entirely different tenses, voices, and senses. The only commonality, it seems, is sanctifying 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.
This sort of watering down landed the 16th century humanist scholar Erasmus into controversy when, in his Latin translation of the Greek New Testament, he translated the word kecharitomene as gratiosa or "favored." To translate kecharitomene as "highly favored" rather than "full of grace" still troubles Catholic, as I think it should.
Lectio difficilior potior, goes the old saying. The stronger interpretation is the better one. As Scott Hahn puts it in his notes on this part of the Gospel of Luke in the ...
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