Monday, March 27, 2006

Still More on the Annunciation

There’s another point I’d like to reflect on, even though the feast is over and we’re back to pounding the floor with our heads and fasting and all that. It’s the opening greeting of the Archangel.

There has been a lot of squabbling over the precise meaning of Khaire, kekharitomeni It is usually translated “Hail, full of grace,” or “Hail, highly favored one.” Non-Catholics don’t like “full of grace” (sounds too much like the Hail Mary, though the only reason there is a Hail Mary is because the Archangel said “Hail, full of grace”; it also sounds too much like it reflects the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception). They settle for “highly favored,” I guess because it’s more “generic” and doesn’t hint at things they’d rather not believe.

Truth is, either version is acceptable as a translation, though “full of grace” is more Christian, as we’ll see in a bit. First, though, let’s get rid of that “hail”. The word khaire was used as a general form a greeting in those days, much as we would use “hello” today. But thankfully, most translators don’t write “Hello, full of grace,” in their versions of the Gospel. To translate it literally, though, would be to say, “Rejoice, full of grace,” which is how many of our liturgical texts are rendered in English. Not only does it sound better, it is more appropriate to the occasion, which is one of everlasting joy (potentially, anyway) for all mankind.

But the plot thickens. “Rejoice” and “full of grace” are actually two forms of the same word! Khairo has many meanings and hence is notoriously difficult to translate. Khara means joy, kharisma means gift, and kharis means grace or favor. So we can see that “full of grace” and “highly favored” both work, but we still have to get deeper. If the Gospel were not a Christian text but just a piece of ancient secular literature, then we must go with “favored one,” because “grace” would have been meaningless to the worldlings of the time. But it was part of the early Christian genius to adopt the term kharis, freely bestowed favor (St Paul was one of the great architects of this linguistic transformation), as a means of expressing God’s freely-bestowed divine activity, presence, and spiritually energizing, transforming, and saving gift, in a word, grace. So it is movement from a secular to a Christian usage to prefer “full of grace” to “highly favored.”

There is more. It’s the form of the word kekharitomeni. And this form does lend credence not only to the Christian usage of “grace” but also to “full” with its connotation of Mary’s entirely-graced existence. It is a passive perfect form. Passive, because being full of grace is not her work but God’s. It was done to her. Perfect in the Greek means this: something was, or has been done, and continues in that state. It’s like the expression often found in Scripture: “It is written…” That means that it has been written in the past and stands written today. So to say that Our Lady is “full of grace,” according to the meaning and structure of the language of Scripture, means that she had already been graced (from the very beginning, according to Catholic theology), and she stands graced at this moment. That means that it wasn’t the Incarnation that made her full of grace (though we can hardly begin to imagine the magnificent blessings with which this divine indwelling enriched her), but she was already full of grace when the Archangel arrived, for that is what he called her—and angels, as you recall, don’t say anything except what God tells them to say.

(It's a similar case, in thought and theology, though not in linguistic construction, when we speak of the Virgin Mary. When we say the "Virgin Mary" we don't mean the "once-used-to-be-a-virgin" Mary, we mean, like the Greek perfect means: once a virgin and still a virgin. Hence the Church has called her, at least for the last 16 or 17 centuries, the Ever-virgin Mary.)

So if you want to be academic and secular, say “favored.” If you want to be more Christian, say “graced.” But if you want the whole truth, say “full of grace.” And don’t say “hail”; say “rejoice”!