For the longest time I thought a “Hail Mary” was a desperate, last-ditch throw at the end of a football game; a frantic attempt to win at the final second. Having been raised in one of the more contrary factions of Protestantism, you can’t blame me. I was taught to avoid Catholicism with the same amount of fierceness as avoiding card-playing and dancing. They were all equal spawns of the same Satan, or so I was instructed.
Well, all these years later, I haven’t picked up the habit of praying the Rosary, but I have come to appreciate it. And I understand why some believers find the “Hail Mary,” or Ave Maria, so gripping. “Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” comes straight from the Christmas text of Luke. It is Gabriel’s announcement that Mary will give birth to the Christ child, the Son of God.
There are plenty of “divine births” in religious literature. God (or the gods) comes down from heaven, assumes physical form, has intercourse with some fair maiden, and the resulting pregnancy is a mix of the human and divine – demigods – we call them. This is a common narrative, and is especially true of the Greeks.
Greek mythology is filled with tales of classic heroes who claimed paternity from the gods, but were birthed by human mothers (Theseus, Perseus, and Heracles to name a few). In most cases the divine father is Zeus who was nothing short of a cosmic philanderer with children scattered all over the Mediterranean and Mount Olympus.
This is not the nature of Mary’s pregnancy. What happens with her is unique in literature and in religion. That God’s spirit would come upon her – reminiscent of God’s Spirit moving across the waters in the primal act of creation – is a Jewish concept with its own flavor. And it has given Christianity the virgin birth.