In these following excerpts from his fifth sermon on the angelic salutation, St. Lawrence continues his exposition of the archangel’s momentous greeting by explaining the special meaning of Mary’s plenitude: he expounds how Mary is as the moon to Christ who is the sun. In establishing this comparison, he looks first to Biblical imagery and then to the unified interpretative tradition of both the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church.
Sacred Scriptures contain many images of plenitude, and, at the hands of St. Lawrence, these become a typology of Mary’s own singular fullness:
The plenitude of Mary’s grace is a very vast ocean. The great sea in the temple of Solomon was full of water (cf. 1 Kings 7:13-14, 23-24). We can with merit liken this sea to the Virgin Mary. “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full” (Eccles 1:7). The sea designates the multiple abundance of the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit. As our Savior said in St. John’s Gospel: “He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive” (Jn 7:38-39). Therefore all streams run to the sea; thus the full abundance and plenitude of graces have flowed into the Virgin Mother of God. Behold the vessel full of manna in the sanctuary of the Lord, the new vessel of Elisha full of salt for purifying the waters of Jericho. Behold the tabernacle of the Lord full of the glory of God, as we read in Exodus (16:32-33), and behold the temple of Solomon full of the majesty of God on the day of its dedication. We read also in Isaiah (6:1-13) that the train of the Lord’s robe, i.e. the glory of the Lord, filled the temple and that the whole earth was full of His glory. In Ezekiel (43:4-5) also it is said that the house of the Lord is full of clouds and that his atrium is full of the splendor of His glory. These sacred mysteries designate nothing else but the Virgin as the divine plenitude; she is the most sacred living temple of the Divinity in whom the whole plenitude of deity dwells bodily (cf. Col 2:9).
St. Lawrence punctuates his typological exposition with characteristic exuberance “Hail, full of grace! O divine plenitude!” before he goes on to address the niceties of the Biblical texts of this greeting. It is well known that the Latin version has gratia plena, i.e. full of grace, while the Greek version has kecharitomene, i.e. favored. St. Lawrence, in his own version of an argument against the notion sola scriptura, shows that the unified tradition of both the Greek and Latin interpreters confirms the teaching of Mary’s unique plenitude of grace:
I know that the Greek text at Luke 1:28 says kecharitomene and that this word means favored and pleasing or uniquely loved and dear. I also know, however, that the holy Church of God has always from the beginning read “full of grace” and that this universal reading has been supported and fully ratified by the reckoning of all theologians and by the approval of all the holy Doctors, even by the reckoning and approval of those among the Latins who were skilled at Greek. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and others acknowledged this reading; they did not alter it, but constantly preserved it. St. Jerome wrote: “Holy Mary is greeted as full of grace, because she conceived him in whom the full plenitude of the Divinity dwelled bodily” (PL 22, 379). St. Ambrose wrote: “It is well said that she is full of grace, who alone obtained the grace which no one else merited so that she was filled by the Author of grace” (PL 15, 1285). St. Augustine wrote: “Mary, full of grace, is said to have found favor with God in order that she might be the mother of her Lord, rather of the Lord of all.” He wrote further: “When the angel said to her, hail full of grace, he showed that the anger of the first judgment was removed and that the full favor of benediction restored” (PL 39, 1991).
Why do I recount the opinions of the Latin Doctors when the Greek Doctors agree with us and also expound the phrase in the same way? The great Athanasius wrote: “It was brought about that you were called full of grace because you were one who abounded in all grace.” And he also wrote: “Therefore she was called full of grace because through the implementation of the Holy Spirit she abounded in every grace.” And again he wrote: “From the riches of the divine charisms she was called kecharitomene.” He often repeated that Mary was full of a singular grace and, as he himself used to say, she was steeped by the Holy Spirit in all the essential virtues (Cf. PG 28, 339). Epiphanius noted the immense grace of Mary and called her a person adorned with many virtues, a spiritual ark of glory, a golden vessel in which was contained heavenly manna, a spiritual sea and ocean of graces (PG 43, 490). St. John Damascene also wrote: “You are the bedroom of the Holy Spirit, a sea of graces, totally beautiful and wholly near to God” (PG 96, 848).
The angel Gabriel seemed to wish nothing else at all to be understood but that Mary was uniquely beloved of God and dear to Him, full of grace in the eyes of the Lord, seeing how he chose and asked her to be his most beloved spouse. To join the Latin with the Greek reading, Mary is at once said to be favored and full of grace. She is truly the favored woman about whom Solomon speaks in Proverbs: “A gracious woman gets honor” (11:16). She was favored just like Esther about whom we read that she was a woman favored in the eyes of all but especially in the eyes of Ahasuerus, who loved her above all women.
After this unimpeachable account of the tradition, St. Lawrence returns to Scripture to note that no other person therein was addressed as the angel addressed Mary:
We read of no other woman being full of grace, although we hear about not a few men being full of and filled with the Holy Spirit. Of Bezalel, the architect of the holy sanctuary, God says: “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel…and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship” (Ex 35:30-31). Likewise it is said of Joshua that he was filled with the spirit of wisdom, because Moses laid his hands upon him as we read in Deuteronomy (34:9). Gabriel foretells of John the Baptist that “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Lk 1:15). Of the Apostles we read: “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).
These men, however, were not full of grace in the same way as Mary. God, the creator of all things, filled all the stars of the firmament with heavenly light, but illuminated the sun and the moon with the chief and greatest light. Christ is as the sun, which shines brilliantly with its own light and Mary is an image of the moon, which is adorned by the greater light, but nevertheless possesses this shared light in its own right. So we read that Christ is full of grace: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth”; and “From his fullness have we all received”; and “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:14-17). After Christ, however, Mary is declared to be full of grace insofar as she received grace from God, the giver of all things, from whom comes “every good endowment and every perfect gift” (Jm 1:17). Hence the angel included both grace and God in his greeting, the effect with its cause, saying: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”
In conclusion, we can now add the voice of St. Lawrence, himself saint and doctor, to the great, authoritative tradition of the Church to confirm again the uniqueness of Mary’s grace. She is singularly full of grace because Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9), dwelt in her, once and for all time, as he will in no one else for all eternity. “O divine plenitude!”
Dr. Joseph Almeida is Professor of Classics at the Franciscan University of
Steubenville. The above article is the second 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.