“Hail, Full of Grace”: Sermons of St. Lawrence of Brindisi

The Marian work of St. Lawrence is not only valuable, but timely. I am referring, of course, to the recent Apostolic Letter of John Paul II, The Rosary of the Virgin Mary, in which the supreme Pontiff calls upon theologians to probe, just as St. Lawrence did, the depths of the meaning of Mary’s role in the life of Christ and the Church (§ 43). I do not know whether the Pope had the works of St. Lawrence in mind in this call to Marian studies, but there are many points of similarity between the thoughts of this saintly doctor and the mind of the Pontiff as expressed in the Apostolic Letter. One finds an especially remarkable correspondence in the first of St. Lawrence’s ten sermons on the “Angelic Salutation,” i.e. on the “Hail Mary.” In his letter the Holy Father says that the Rosary “has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety” (§1). St. Lawrence comes to a very similar position, not, however, about the whole Rosary, but about its most “substantial element” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §33), namely, the “Hail Mary.” He holds that the words, “hail, full of grace,” contain in principle the whole of the Gospel.

In his reflections on the angel’s greeting, St. Lawrence notes the uniqueness of the words, “Hail full of grace.” This greeting indicates the birth into the world of a new and profound kind of joy, experienced mutually by the angel and the Blessed Virgin and, indeed, to be experienced henceforth, perpetually, by the entire Church of God. As we shall see, this is the joy of that special “good news” which is the Gospel.

St. Lawrence says:

A new messenger of God greeted a new woman in a new way according to a new and unspoken mystery, a new and unspoken sacrament. “Hail, full of grace; the Lord is with you.” This is a new form of greeting, never heard by another, never before encountered. Because this greeting was unique in the history and customs of men, when Mary heard it, she was confused and amazed by the novelty of it all.

For St. Lawrence the angel’s greeting is not a typical form of well-wishing. He sees it as an affirmation that Mary possesses divine peace in a special way:

There is very deep meaning in this greeting. The angel did not wish for and offer a prayer of peace for Mary in the customary way of those who give greetings, but he made an affirmation. The Lord said to Gideon, who was afraid because he had seen an angel of the Lord: “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die” (Judg 6:23). That is to say: “My peace is with you. Peace goes between us, and you are affected by no fear or thought of death.” So also in his greeting to Mary the celestial groomsman is not wishing nor offering a prayer of peace for the Virgin, but announcing and affirming that she already possesses this peace.

The greeting, shalom, i.e. “peace,” for the Hebrews, as those skilled in this language knew, does not only signify concord and tranquility, but also happiness. Jerusalem, the heavenly fatherland derives its own name from the word shalom because “Jerusalem” (in Hebrew) means “vision of peace”: in this heavenly city one finds the highest perfection, the highest happiness, the most perfect and eternal salvation, and that repose which will never end. Thus Christ is called the Prince of Peace, whose peace will never end (cf. Is 9:7). This is what “hail” or “ave” signifies in the angel’s greeting, namely, “peace is with you,” the peace, to be sure, of God, a peace “which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). The words “hail full of grace” mean, therefore, “happy and blessed are you who are full of grace.” This is because peace for the Hebrews denotes perfect happiness and, further, because God is said to dwell in peace just as He is said to dwell in unapproachable light (cf. 1 Tim 6:16).

For St. Lawrence joy follows happiness, and therefore he further understands the angel’s words to be an announcement that Mary is about to experience the joy of