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Hail Mary: Kecharitomene, A Unique Word for a Unique Lady
By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
March 13th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
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.CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In his poem "The Virgin," the poet William Wordsworth praised the Blessed Virgin Mary with the following words:
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 Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, "the best translation," and the one most in accord with the analogy of faith, "is the most exalted one," In other words, "full of grace" best fits the bill to translate kecharitomene, though Hahn acknowledges the word is not quite a perfect fit.
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.
The same words ("full of grace"), it would appear obvious, ought not to be used to translate different Greek words (pleres charitos in Acts 6:8 and John 1:4 and kecharitomene in Luke 1:28). This is what drives the "most highly favored" crowd.
This is particularly true in that in both Acts 6:8 and John 1:4, the words "full of grace" are used in an obvious adjectival sense, and not as a noun, even a proper name or title, which is the case in Luke 1:28.
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.
The word Kecharitomene was like a grain of mustard seed, a tiny seed of Gospel truth, which was sown among the hearts of the faithful and grew into a tree so huge that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches and enjoy the cool of its shade. Wordsworth's poem is simply one of this tree's many fruits. But it all started with that small seed, that nonce 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).
This unique condition expounded and developed by the Medieval theologians in their cumbruous is precise Latin phrases is implied in the unique germ of a Greek word kecharitomene.
Clearly, the Golden-and-Greek-tongued Father of the Church, St. John Chrysostom understood the word Kecharitomene to be nominal, titular, official, personal to Mary. And he is our sure guide. How else can we explain this virtual explosion of praise to Mary--not in the name of Mary-but in her other God-given name--Kecharitomene--in one of his Christmas Day sermons?
Hail, Kecharitomene, unreaped land of heavenly grain.
Hail, Kecharitomene, virgin mother, true and unfailing vine.
Hail, Kecharitomene, faultless one carrying the immutable divinity.
Hail, Kecharitomene, spacious room for the uncontainable nature.
Hail, Kecharitomene, new bride of a widowed world and incorrupt offspring.
Hail, Kecharitomene, weaving as creature a crown not made by hands.
Hail, Kecharitomene, habitation of holy fire.
Hail, Kecharitomene, return of the fugitive world.
Hail, Kecharitomene, lavish nourisher for the hungry creation.
Hail, Kecharitomene, interminable grace of the holy virgin.
Hail, Kecharitomene, lampstand adorned with all virtue and with inextinguishable
light brighter than even the sun.
Hail, Kecharitomene, challenger of spirits.
Hail, Kecharitomene, wise bearer of spiritual glory.
Hail, Kecharitomene, golden urn, contaning heavenly manna.
Hail, Kecharitomene, dispensing sweet drink ever flowing to fill those who are thirsty.
Hail, Kecharitomene, spiritual sea who holds Christ, the heavenly pearl.
Hail, Kecharitomene, splendor of heaven, having the one uncontained by the heavens in herself,
God confined and unconfined.
Hail, Kecharitomene, pillar of cloud containing God, and guiding Israel in the wilderness."
"What should I say, and what should I speak?" Chrysostom breathlessly asks, asking perhaps the same question as the holy Archangel Gabriel before he spoke to Mary. "How should I bless the root of all glory?" Chrysostom continues and explains the source of his troubles. His quandary comes from the unique circumstance before him, "because, with the exception of God alone, she is superior to all."
So, when you pray the Hail Mary, and when you utter the words "Hail Mary full of grace," never, never, never let that marvelous mustard seed of a word kecharitomene and all its implications be far away from your mind.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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