Did the Angel Gabriel Venerate Mary When He Said “Hail?”

“The Blessed Virgin excels the angels in her closeness to God.” —St. Thomas Aquinas

El Greco, “The Annunciation,” c. 1600
El Greco, “The Annunciation,” c. 1600 (photo: Public Domain)

Luke 1:29 (RSV-CE) And he [the angel Gabriel] came to her and said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!"

I got to thinking recently about other scriptural uses of the word, hail (chairō in Greek: Strong's word #5463). As with most biblical Greek words, it has multiple meanings and usages in Scripture. The KJV translates chairō (which appears 74 times in the NT) as rejoice 42 times, and be glad 14 times.

It translates it as hail just six times. This raises the question: why is hail used so few times, as an exception to the usual translation?

We know that hail (ave in Latin) was used as a greeting for emperors and kings. “Hail Caesar!” immediately comes to mind, as well as Hail to the Chief: the official presidential anthem of the United States: written around 1812.

Here are the biblical usages of chairō as a salute:

Matthew 26:49 (RSV) And he [Judas] came up to Jesus at once and said, “Hail, Master!” And he kissed him.

Mark 15:17-19 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on him. [18] And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” [19] And they struck his head with a reed, and spat upon him, and they knelt down in homage to him. (cf. parallel passage of Mt 27:29)

John 19:2-3 And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and arrayed him in a purple robe; [3] they came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands.

In other words, even though this was mockery, and grotesquely sarcastic “honor” expressed by the betrayer Judas, it still nevertheless shows the usage (in the wider culture) of the term as a reverential address toward kings and other high authority figures (complete with accompanying kneeling or bowing).

And that, in turn, brings to mind the biblical argument for veneration of human beings, or what has been translated into English 22 times in the RSV as obeisance. As such, we see it used with reference to the usual honor shown to kings. In one striking instance, the same word (Hebrew shachah) was used to describe both worship of God and veneration or honor of the king:

1 Chronicles 29:20 Then David said to all the assembly, “Bless the LORD your God.” And all the assembly blessed the LORD, the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads, and worshiped [shachah] the LORD, and did obeisance [shachah] to the king. [KJV: “worshipped the LORD, and the king”]

The King James Version didn’t even bother to distinguish the two acts, and renders it (rather scandalously for Protestant “ears”!) as “worshipped . . . the king.” It does the same in another passage:

Daniel 2:46 Then King Nebuchadnez’zar fell upon his face, and did homage to [cegid] Daniel, [KJV: “worshipped Daniel”] . . . 

The reason that the KJV in 1611 could do this, was because the word worship in English had a wider latitude in earlier days. In fact, its meaning originally had more to do with honor of persons than with adoration of God. So the KJV was using it in the older sense, in referring to human beings like Daniel and David, being “worshipped.” No one need take my word for that. The Online Etymology Dictionary (“Worship”) substantiates this state of affairs:

. . . “condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown,” . . . Sense of “reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being” is first recorded c. 1300. The original sense is preserved in the title worshipful “honorable” (c. 1300).

This got me curious as to what the same dictionary would state about the history of the word hail:

salutation in greeting, c. 1200, from Old Norse heill “health, prosperity, good luck,” . . .

[cognate heil] “hail,” German from Sieg Heil (q.v.). Middle English cognate heil was used as a salutation implying respect or reverence (c. 1200;. . .).

I submit, then, the following Catholic analogical reasoning, given all of the above:

1) Kings were bowed to in the Old Testament and given obeisance (reverence, honor).

2) This is analogous to Catholic veneration and honor of Mary and other saints, and of angels (sometimes bowing before statues of them), which is not worship (reserved for God alone).

3) In the instances of the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus during His Passion, the soldiers are presupposing (as are the evangelists describing the scenes in writing) this cultural background, in using the word hail (chairō).

4) In English usage, starting c. 1200, heil, a synonym of hail, meant a salutation implying reverence.

5) Therefore, by analogy, Gabriel’s use of hail in addressing the Blessed Virgin Mary can quite plausibly be construed as an act of veneration, which is truly extraordinary, seeing that usually it is angels, who are venerated by human beings, and not vice versa.

St. Thomas Aquinas summed up why the Blessed Virgin Mary was venerated by the angel Gabriel:

In olden time an Angel would not show reverence to a man, but a man would deeply revere an Angel. This is because . . .an Angel is closer to God. . . . the Angels far exceed men in the fullness of the splendor of divine grace. . . . the Angel desired to show her reverence, and so he said: “Ave (Hail).” . . .

The Blessed Virgin was superior to any of the Angels in the fullness of grace, and as an indication of this the Angel showed reverence to her by saying: “Full of grace.” . . .

The Blessed Virgin excels the Angels in her closeness to God. The Angel Gabriel indicated this when he said: “The Lord is with you”—as if to say: “I reverence you because you art nearer to God than I, because the Lord is with you.”