by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.
Hail Mary: The Ave
The Ave also has a gospel origin, though not entirely. It was not offered there as a prayer, and the form we know only gradually came together. The earliest rosary or psalter of Mary was made up of the earliest form of the Ave - simply the angelic salutation: "Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you." In the little office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as it was recited in the monastic choirs, the antiphonal response to this angelic salutation was the greeting that Elizabeth gave to her cousin: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." The carryover to the psalter of our Lady was quite natural.
Pope Urban IV (1261-1264) asked the faithful to add "Jesus Christ." In the course of the following centuries, however, the title "Christ" got lost. Perhaps it was because one of the earlier popular forms of the rosary added a different modifying phrase after each repetition of the Ave (Jesus, born of Mary; Jesus, risen from the dead; and so on), and the inclusion of the Christ title proved too cumbersome.
Up to this point, the Ave is not a prayer in the sense of a petition. It is simply an honorific salutation. Phrases from the offices of the monks, such as "Pray for us, O holy Mother of God," led to further additions to the Ave. Various phrases were used until "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death" became common by the end of the fifteenth century. Pope Saint Pius V canonized this wording in his breviary in 1568.
It would be hard to doubt the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding this long evolution, for the result is an exquisitely beautiful prayer. With one of heaven's great spirits as our mentor, we approach Mary with gracious delicacy, honoring her greatest prerogatives: that she is totally pleasing to God, filled with God, worthy to be the mother of God. We honor her for what she is: woman. And we delight her in honoring her child, calling him blessed. Graciousness opens the way for grace. We can now make our petition. We pray to the mother of God, knowing that nothing ca be denied her. (Remember Cana.) She, as a mother, knows our needs far better than we, so we content ourselves simply to ask her intercession for us now, caring for our present needs, and at the hour when we will experience our greatest need and most want a mother near. It is not surprising to me how often a Christian who has used the rosary through life holds it in his or her hand at the hour of death - a witness of faith, a pledge to heaven, a silent but powerful prayer.