I had a Southern Baptist friend who thought it was amusing, when visiting Catholic churches, to wave to the image of Mary and say, “Hi Mary!”
When I challenged him on what seemed a mark of disrespect he said cheerily, “Y’all say, ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘Hail’ just means ‘Hi’, so it’s my way of saying ‘Hail Mary!'”
The word “Hail” or “Ave” in Latin is a royal greeting. The Roman emperors on return from a triumphant campaign would be hailed by the crowds crying “Ave Caesar!” An unfortunate echo of this remains in the Third Reich sign of respect for the Fuhrer: “Heil Hitler!”
Therefore, when the angel Gabriel greets the Blessed Virgin and says, “Hail Mary” – “Ave Maria” the angelic messenger–one of God’s own archangels–bows the knee to the Blessed Virgin and thus marks her with respect and veneration showing that she is higher than the angels themselves. As we sing in the hymn, “Higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the cherubim, Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord.”
So when we say the “Hail Mary” or in Latin, “Ave Maria” we are kneeling before the Queen of Heaven just as the angel Gabriel did. In doing so we are acknowledging her royal status.
There is more. In his book The Eternal City — Dr Taylor Marshall recounts a nice detail from the German medieval mystic Mechtilde of Hackelborn. In contemplating the Annunciation she has a vision of the Blessed Virgin who says that she is honored when we say, “Ave” because it is the reverse of “Eva” and she as the second Eve reverses the bad decision of the first Eve. Within this vision, incidentally, Mechtilde (in the 1200s) had revealed to her that Mary was preserved “from all sin and its attendant misery”.
Scholars however, might scoff at the sweet and fitting pun that Mechtilde saw between the words “Ave” and “Eva”–after all, the pun only works when you fit the German “Eva” together with the Latin “Ave” and neither the Angel Gabriel, nor the Blessed Virgin, nor St Luke spoke Latin or German, and the gospel itself was written in Greek.
However Marshall pulls up an observation by the Bible scholar Cornelius a Lapide. He asks what language the Angel Gabriel would have used when addressing the Virgin Mary, and supposes that it was probably Hebrew. If so, the royal greeting rendered “Hail” or “Ave” in Hebrew would be “Live!” as in “Long Live the King!” or “Viva Christo Rey!”. Gabriel’s greeting in Hebrew then, would be “cha-ve” or “Long may you live!” According to Genesis 3:20, the Hebrew word for “Eve” is ‘Cha-ve”–which means: “Mother of All the Living” or “Mother of Life”.
The strangely wonderful thing about this is that a medieval German mystic, through a linguistic pun, saw that Mary was Eve reversed and therefore was the second Eve. She saw that when Gabriel addressed the Blessed Virgin the angel was saying, “Long may you Live Second Eve Mother of All Living!” Within this royal greeting therefore we not only see Mary as second Eve and Mother of the Living, but we also see her as Queen of Heaven–since she received the royal greeting, and a few verses later the angel predicts that her son will inherit the throne of his father David–making him King of Israel–and the Blessed Virgin the Queen Mother.
Holy Mary Mother of God? That’s in the Bible too. When the Blessed Virgin goes to meet Elizabeth she is greeted with the words, “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me.” The word St Elizabeth uses for “Lord” is the word used in the Old Testament for God himself. Therefore, the first witness to the Blessed Virgin’s status is St Elizabeth saying, “Who am I that the Mother of God should come to me.”
So what? It fits together with two other passages in the New Testament. The first when Jesus from the cross says to the Apostle John, “Behold your Mother” and thereby grants to all his disciples that Mary is our Mother, but also, by extension, the passage in St Paul where he tells us that we are adopted sons and daughter of God–co-heirs with Christ. If I am an adopted co-heir of Christ, then I am his brother or his sister, and if his sibling, then Mary is also my Mother.
Thus the church’s teachings that Mary is Mother of God and Mother of the Church and Mother of All those alive through Grace is grounded in Scripture, the mystical insights of the saints and the quirky connections in human culture and language.