“Full of Grace.” For many of us Catholics who routinely recite these words of Gabriel in the Hail Mary, the expression “full of grace” may be so familiar that we might fail to catch its profound significance.
This is no ordinary greeting. In fact, no one in salvation history had ever been addressed like this before. And note that the angel does not say “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” Gabriel says, “Hail, full of grace.” The angel addresses Mary not by her personal name, but with the title “full of grace.”
As some Scripture scholars, such as Joel Green in his commentary on The Gospel of Luke, have pointed out, it is as if Mary is being given a new name. John Paul II, in reflecting on this passage in his book Theotokos, said “full of grace” is “the name Mary possesses in the eyes of God” (p. 88):
In Semitic usage, a name expresses the reality of the persons and things to which it refers. As a result, the title ‘full of grace’ shows the deepest dimension of the young woman of Nazareth’s personality: fashioned by grace and the object of divine favor to the point that she can be defined by this special predilection. (p. 90)
But what does this unusual title mean? The Greek word in this passage commonly translated “full of grace” is kecharitomene. This word is in a past perfect participle form, indicating an action that began in the past and continues in the present. It literally can be translated “you who have been and continue to be graced.” In fact, the same verb is used in Ephesians 1:6–7 to describe not simply grace in the general sense of God’s showing his favor on someone, but the particular kind of divine favor that is associated with forgiveness of sins and redemption. Therefore, it is as if the angel is saying to Mary, “Hail, you who have been and continue to be graced . . . Hail, you who already have received the forgiveness of sins and the gift of redemption.”
One can appreciate why many have turned to this verse for biblical support for the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception—the belief that Mary was conceived full of grace and without the stain of original sin. Indeed, this verse indicates that Mary already had the working of grace in her life before the Annunciation scene. In other words, while certainly not serving as a definitive “proof-text” for the Immaculate Conception, Luke’s Gospel clearly reveals that Mary already had forgiveness of sins and redemption before the angel Gabriel ever appeared to her.
Gabriel’s words, therefore, reveal the most significant aspect of Mary’s early life. On the surface, she may appear to be simply a young, betrothed woman dwelling in nowhere Nazareth. But in the midst of this seemingly uneventful life, God has made her “full of grace” as He quietly prepares her for the most important mission any woman ever embraced in the history of the world: to become the Mother of God.