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
God’s own presence in a special way:
Since there is no happiness without pleasure, gladness, or joy, peace also signifies joy and gladness. Therefore by greeting the Virgin in this way, the angel indicated that she would be inundated with the greatest joy and experience great exultation. It is just as the divine prophet Zechariah said to the Church: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you” (Zech 9:9). What Zechariah means is that the highest cause of joy and exultation is for God, the king and author of all good things to come to a person; his presence is the highest happiness.
St. Lawrence sees in the angel’s words affirmation of Mary’s immaculate nature and takes this as further evidence that the angelic salutation is, again, more than a greeting; it is an affirmation of a special new joy in the world:
The words of the angel’s greeting excluded all reference to every cause of sorrow arising from sin and depicted Mary as one free and immune from all aspects of the curse which the sin of Eve inflicted on humankind. The angel’s statement rejected all the sorrows of old and excluded the ancient charge of unhappiness. He declared that Mary retained nothing at all of this ancient curse. Because she was thus truly immune from all sin, she had no reason for mourning or sadness since these things emanate wholly from sin. No adversity in the world could harm her, if no iniquity had been conveyed to her through man. The angel therefore announced the happiness of the Virgin and the cause of her highest joy and exultation. His voice was of one making an affirmation, not of one wishing for or offering a prayer for the subject of his greeting.
What could the angel offer in prayer for the Virgin whom he knew had found the highest favor with God, favor of a kind beyond even that which every angelic creature enjoyed?
Mary did not share in Eve’s sin nor was she an heir to it. She was not subject to its curse. She gave birth to the Savior not in sorrow but in joy. She felt none of the punishment of Hell in the fires of Purgatory since she never committed any sin, not even the very smallest nor most trivial sin. She was always most pure and holy in her thoughts so that she in fact surpassed even the angels themselves in purity and surpassed them in sanctity. This was in her the supreme and highest cause of joy. Whence the angel said to her, Aveor Hail, and announced the peace and perfect joy which was her possession.
Finally, St. Lawrence believes that Gabriel not only greets Mary, but rejoices in a special way in the announcement that he brings to her. It is this mutual joy that leads St. Lawrence to link the Angelic Salutation with the Gospel itself:
Furthermore, it is clear to observation that in his salutation Gabriel did not just greet the Virgin lovingly and show her reverence, but he also happily and gladly rejoiced with her. The cause of his joy and his happiness was most bountiful. From this annunciation, which made God most glad and was at the same time a thing most pleasing to angels and to men, the New Testament seems to have received the name of Gospel, Good News, Euvangelium. Gabriel’s announcement was a proclamation of the happiest news to mankind, namely, the grace and mercy of God, the remission of sin, the abundant blessings of the riches of heaven, and, finally, eternal life, glory and happiness. All these things are contained in his divine salutation, virtually, just as the fruit is contained in the root of the tree.
For St. Lawrence, then, the “Annunciation” is, precisely, an Euvangelium: it is exactly the “good news” which is the Gospel of Christ. For him, therefore, the words “hail, full of grace,” the substance of the “Hail Mary,” is to the Gospel as the root of the tree is to its fruit, just as for the Pope the Rosary, whose substance is the “Hail Mary,” contains the entirety of the Gospel. This correspondence in thought between the saint and the Pope indicates that reflection on St. Lawrence’s Marian work may be one way in which to answer the Pontiff’s call for deeper Marian studies.
Dr. Joseph Almeida is Professor of Classics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The above article is the first 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.