Gabriel says to Mary: “have gratia plena!” Or at least, that was Jerome’s Latin translation from around 400AD. In English it would read “Hail Mary, full of grace.” But that’s not a good translation of Luke 1:28.
Jerome’s version sounds as though Mary is a repository of some spiritual substance called grace. And if we believed that then we might seek deposits of “grace” from the blessed virgin. Yet that is not right.
It is right to call her “The Blessed Virgin Mary”. After all, Gabriel does:
“Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 1:28)
It is right to call her “Mary, the mother of God.” She does indeed bear the Son who is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6).
But it’s not right to call on her as some storehouse of heavenly blessing. Mary is not full of grace, she is graced by God – “highly favoured” as the KJV has it. If we’re looking for a Storehouse of divine blessing we should look to the Child who she carries. He is Grace Himself – the One in Whom is all heavenly blessing (Ephesians 1:3).
But the reason Christ can offer this grace to the world has everything to do with the virgin Mary. You see Mary’s virginity is vital to Christ being full of grace for the world.
Mary’s virginity is triply underlined in Luke 1. She is twice called a virgin before she is even named (Luke 1:27). And when she’s told she is to carry the Christ-child she exclaims: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34)
The virgin birth is a non-negotiable of the Christian faith. And this is not simply the assertion of a biblicist. The logic of the gospel demands this supernatural conception.
You see, Mary’s child is not the result of human reproduction. We did not produce the Messiah. He was a pure gift:
“Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.” (Isaiah 9:6)
And this Gift from on high is something completely new. This child is not the son of men – He is the Son of God! He takes a full and perfect humanity from Mary. But He is the true and eternal Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary (as the creeds say).
This is so important, because this world is full of the sons of men. And that, really, is our problem.
Luke chapter 3 ends by running us through a potted history of humanity. From Christ back to Adam, Luke charts our family tree as a succession of men who give rise to more men. But at the top of the tree we find something curious:
“Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.” (Luke 3:38)
Everyone else has been described as the son of a man. But in the history of the world there are two exceptions – one is Jesus, the other is Adam. When Adam was brought into existence, his family tree was just him and the Lord God who formed him. He could be described as a son of God.
Think of him, standing alone in the garden of Eden: All of humanity was in him. Even Eve herself was in Adam and came out of Adam. And between them came the whole world.
Therefore, when Adam fell, he took the human race with him. And ever since, humanity has been born in Adam – born into his estrangement and sin.
So the last thing we need is a Messiah who simply belongs to that slow-march towards the grave. What we really need is something new. We need the original Son of God. We need Him to come as the Second Adam, the Man from heaven. We need Him to be born of a virgin to restart the human race in Himself.
And just as we were born into Adam’s old humanity, so through Christ we are born again into His new humanity.
As the carol says: “Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” (Hark the Herald!)
That’s the meaning of Christmas, and it’s the virgin birth that guarantees it. So don’t Hail Mary as full of grace. But thank God for her. Through her came the Second Adam, who invites the whole world into His new humanity. This is the fullness of grace that we all need. And it’s the fullness of grace which Christmas brings.