One of the remarkable things about the Marian sermons of St. Lawrence of Brindisi is that they are at once new and old. To be sure, the reflections of the Capuchin saint sometimes bear the marks of his own private mysticism, but these are always filtered through and tempered by the bona fide tradition of the living Church. In the eighth of his sermons upon the Hail Mary, St. Lawrence reflects upon the meaning of the words: “Blessed are you among women.” He shows Mary to be unique in her creation, in her nature as woman, and in her motherhood. In doing so he calls upon Old Testament typology, the Fathers of the Church, and even fifth century Christian poetry.
One aspect of Mary’s special blessedness flows from the supreme favor showed her by God himself. To exemplify this St. Lawrence looks to Queen Esther who has become for him a great prefigure of Mary herself:
Just as Sacred Scripture says of queen Esther that she found favor in the eyes of king Ahasuerus, that she was beloved of him beyond all women, that she was adorned with a diadem, crowned with a royal crown, and made Ahasuerus’s queen, and in this way far surpassing all women in the supreme honor, glory, and dignity of Ahasuerus’s kingdom and authority, so the angle said of the Virgin Mother of God: “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.” That is to say: you are blessed not only beyond all women but alone among women; you are the most illustrious and glorious of all, just like the sun among the stars, just like Christ among all men.
God indeed desired there to be always in every grouping a chief and most excellent member, like a general in his army, a king in his kingdom, like God himself among spiritual natures, like gold among metals, precious adamant among gems, like the lion among animals, and the eagle among birds. Thus from the beginning God created the sun among the stars, the tree of life among the trees of paradise, and men among the animals. In like manner he wished Abraham to be chief among the Patriarchs, Moses among the Prophets, Aaron among the priests, David among the kings, and Peter among the Apostles. So, in my view, he created Mary, the greatest among all women. “Blessed are you among women.”
Mary is also especially blessed because she has been excluded not only from fallen human nature in general, but from fallen womanhood in particular. St. Lawrence illuminates this by comparison to Eve and the ancient curse which she and all womanhood, save one, incurred as a consequence of the fall:
It is most especially manifest that the angel Gabriel removes the Virgin Mother of God from the scope of that curse which the divine power imposed, because of her sin, upon the first woman Eve, the mother of all living persons. “I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee” (Gn 3, 16, Douay-Rheims). There are three evils in this divine curse which unhappily afflicted Eve: the intensity of pain in childbirth, the heat of passion and libido in the act of conception, and subjection and servitude to her husband.
Mary was blessed among women because she gave birth to the Savior of the world without pain, while remaining a virgin, with the integrity of virginity untouched and undefiled. Because she did not feel the heat of passion, she was always a virgin most pure in mind and body, not ever stained even in thought, not in the slightest degree. For this reason she is called Virgin. “The angel Gabriel was sent from God … to a virgin” (Lk 1, 17); “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” (Is 7, 14, Douay-Rheims); “And Mary said to the angel: how shall this be done, because I know not man?” (Lk 1, 34, Douay-Rheims). Neither was she subject to the third evil of the curse, subjection to man. Although Mary was betrothed to a husband, to Joseph, a man of noble lineage from the line of David, the angel revealed to him that the Virgin had conceived the only son of God. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1, 21). Therefore Joseph knew Mary’s special blessedness and therefore treated his betrothed and wife with the highest honor, reverence, and veneration, treated her as the very spouse of God and therefore as his own queen.
St. Lawrence confirms his own exegesis by measuring it against the tradition of the Church as articulated by his holy and learned predecessors:
Therefore by these words of the angel, as St. Bernard says “the ancient curse of women was removed and a new mother received a new blessing. She who knew not concupiscence was made full through grace so that, with the Spirit of the Most High overcoming her, she, who deigned not to know man, might give birth to a son” (Serm. 2 De Annunciat. V.M. n. 1; P.L. 183, 977). Likewise Fulgentius says in De Laudibus Mariae: “The three evils of Eve were shown to be foreclosed by the three goods of Mary. For of Eve it was said: ‘In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee’ (Gn 3, 16, Douay-Rheims). Mary, on the contrary, was elevated by three most illustrious goods; consider: the angelic salutation, the divine benediction, and the fullness of grace. Thus we read that the angel greeted her: ‘Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.’ When he said, hail, he revealed to her the heavenly greeting. When he said, full of grace, he showed that she was entirely excluded from the ira sententiae, the anger of the first judgment and that the full grace of the original benediction was restored. When he said, blessed are you among women, he expressed the blessed fruit of her virginity so that from this benediction whosoever among women shall have persevered may be called virgin’ (See Serm. 36; P.L. 65, 899). Therefore in the angel’s benediction Mary stands opposed to Eve, declared immune and wholly free from Eve’s curse. Hence the angel said, “Blessed are you among women,” because he found even in her deepest recesses nothing of this ancient malediction. Blessed are you among women: all women, to be sure, in all ages, whosoever were or are yet to be. It is as the noble poet Sedulius wrote: “neither was she seen to have the first woman as an equal nor any woman thereafter” (Carm. Pasch. lib. 2, v. 68).
Finally, St. Lawrence sees in Mary a unification of the blessing of fecundity and the blessing of virginity. It is the special fruit of this virginal fecundity, a phrase St. Lawrence often uses, which most accounts for the unique blessedness announced in the angel’s significant greeting. In illuminating his point St. Lawrence brilliantly links the old dispensation with the new by finding in the joyful exclamation of Leah an echo of the glorious Magnificat:
Scripture said: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son … He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1, 35). O blessed mother! “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast that you sucked” (Lk 11, 27). This son was better to her than seven sons. Whence with Leah she could say to her own acknowledged son:
“This is for my happiness: for women will call me blessed” (Gn 30, 13, Douay-Rheims). Thus indeed Mary herself said: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk 1, 48-50). By these words, then, the Virgin herself clearly declares what the angel said to her, which Elizabeth under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, confirmed and repeated: “Blessed are you among women.”
Dr. Joseph Almeida is Professor of Classics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The above article is the fourth in a series on the sermons of St. Lawrence of Brindisi on the Angelic Salutation. The series first appeared in the publication Catholics United for the Faith.