Question: I love teaching young children their first prayers, especially the Hail Mary. Any advice for teaching them the meaning behind its words?
VIRGINIA M. KIMBALL RESPONDS …
The Hail Mary is a deeply meaningful prayer, and it’s one that children usually learn easily. This beloved prayer is divided into two parts. The first is actually the biblical greeting of the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. The second part is a prayer petitioning Mary’s intercession. If we focus on the first part of the prayer — the greeting of the angel — we can offer children a lesson on discovering joy and happiness in this prayer.
Joy comes from trusting God
In the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary in Luke’s Gospel, we find the young Miryam (Mary’s Hebrew name) of Nazareth and her joy — a happiness that came from her absolute trust in God and God’s call to her to be the mother of Jesus. Trust in God was Mary’s joy, and prayer to her as a mother will strengthen children as they grow and mature in a broken and sorrowful world.
Children will naturally sense the true meaning of the first part of the Hail Mary since it speaks of a relational, spiritual bond that the very young Jewish Mary experienced with God. Children have an integral and intuitive experience of God that should be nourished as they grow and mature. Children who inherently know spiritual realities will naturally relate to Mary’s joy.
Let’s turn to the biblical text:
“Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28).
Unfortunately, the English translation of this passage through the years has not carried
the full meaning of the original text by Luke. When translated into English, after the Greek was translated into Latin, the original joy of Mary may seem lost to readers.
“Rejoice … full of grace”
The word hail in the English translation in Luke 1:28 is distracting and distorts the original meaning. To children, hail means something like “hello.”
Instead, let’s visit the original Koine Greek of the text. (Greek was the original language of the New Testament.)
The Greek word that begins Gabriel’s message is chaire, with the best English translation being “rejoice.” The core meaning, or root of this word is “joy.”
When this word was translated into Latin, the word became gratia, meaning “gift” or “grace.” Therefore we have the words we pray today: “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
The most important word in Gabriel’s greeting written by the evangelist Luke (which only appears once in this exact form in the New Testament) is the Greek word kecharitomene, translated to Latin as gratia plena, and then to English as “full of grace.”
Examine the word kecharitomene. One immediately sees at the center of this word a
form of chaire — meaning once again “joy.” The ke simply explained belongs with the mene at the end of the word. Mene is the verb that means “to remain,” and the ke indicates a continuing experience, beginning in the past and continuing into the future. Putting it all together, this special word that Luke gives us — kecharitomene — can be translated better as “having remained in and remaining in the joy (of knowing and being united to God).”
Understanding the deeper meaning of the Greek text in Luke, we find the following meaning:
Rejoice (chaire), you are remaining in the joy (of trusting God)! The Lord
is with you!”
Sharing this lesson
■ Explain to the children that Mary’s acceptance of God’s will to become a mother was very special — she was to be the mother of Jesus, the long-awaited Savior — and a source of her great joy and happiness.
■ Discuss with the children the meaning of “joy” in their lives (for example, birthday parties, new baby brother or sister, Christmastime).
■ God is with us all the time — but especially when we say this prayer. Discuss with the children how we are all called to trust God as Mary did. Have they had an experience when they sensed God was with them in a special way?
■ When praying the Hail Mary, encourage children to try saying, “Rejoice, Mary” and “Happy are you” for a new and wonderful way to pray this prayer.
■ Remind children that Mary listens to our prayers and takes them to her Son. If children want people in their lives to be kind, to be happy, to love them … ask Mary!
■ When the children learn the words of the Hail Mary and know their meaning, encourage them to pray to Mary every day — silently by themselves when they wake up, during the day, at school recess, at home when they finish their homework, joining with the family prayer at the supper table, and at bedtime.
Virginia M. Kimball, STD, is an adjunct professor of theology in the Career and Continuing Education Department at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is a member and past president of both the Mariological Society of America and the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This article was originally published in Catechist Magazine, April/May 2019
PHOTOS: LISA JULIA PHOTOGRAPHY/BAYARD