One is my dove, my perfect one is but one, she is the only one of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her…Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?
Song of Solomon 6, 9-1
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Isaiah 43, 1
And the angel being come in, said unto her:
Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women.
Luke 1, 28
καὶ εἰσελθὼν ὁ ἄγγελος πρὸς αὐτὴν εἶπεν Χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ εὐλογημένη σὺ ἐν γυναιξίν
The female vocative kecharitomene (κεχαριτωμένη), literally “highly favoured by grace”, can be paraphrased as “enduringly endowed with grace”. It is because Mary was to be the mother of our Lord, that the perfect past participle does “show a completeness with a permanent result” and denotes “continuance of a completed action”. Moreover, since the expression kecharitomene is in the vocative case, the angel is addressing Mary by identifying her as the embodiment of all that this expression denotes. When Gabriel greets her, he doesn’t call Mary by her given name, but by the complete fullness and endurance of her state of holiness.
Here we have the morphological aspectual (not tense marked) stem of kecharitomene: ke. This is the perfect stem of the root verb charitoo (χαριτόω) which may denote a perpetuation of a completed past action (mene). The root verb is derived from charis (χάρις) which means “grace” or “favour”. The completed past action itself, therefore, is “having been highly favoured and made acceptable by grace”, “lovely or agreeable.”
The perfect stem is distinguished from the aorist stem which we have in Ephesians 1:6, for example, escharitosen (ἐχαρίτωσεν): “He graced” or “has freely bestowed grace”. In this active indicative form, the aorist stem describes a completed action which has come to pass and is finished. It is temporal in aspect and a momentary result. The aorist stem does not signify a permanent state of grace. The perfect aspect, on the other hand, exclusively denotes a state which prevails after an event has taken place and which is caused by this event.
Catholics believe this past occurrence to be Mary’s Immaculate Conception – the first instant when God fashioned and sanctified Mary’s soul and redeemed her in the most perfect way, in view of the foreseen merits of Christ, because of her election to the Divine Maternity. By His gracious act, God redeemed Mary in the most perfect way by preserving her free from the stain of original sin and all personal sins so that she would be the most acceptable and loveliest mother of the Divine Word in his humanity. For no other reason did God favour Mary with this singular grace.
“You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others,
for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother.
Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?”
St. Ephraem of Syria
Nisibene Hymns 27:8
The perfect may denote an action as already finished, but it may also express the continuance of the result down to the present time. Our Lord’s expression “It is written” (gegrapti/Γέγραπται) is literally “It has been written.” And what has been written remains in force beyond the present time, that being “Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word coming from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). The perfect may implicitly include the future conceptually in its aspectual form. Ephesians 1:6 refers to our predestination to grace as opposed to glory. The active indicative aorist which modifies the root verb and is temporal in aspect indicates that not everyone perseveres in grace beyond the present time. Hence, escharitosen does not imply a permanent state of sanctifying grace for all believers. There is no such thing as “Once-saved-always-saved” in a distributive sense.
In Catholic theology, the endowment of sanctifying grace co-relates with our actions and co-operation with God’s actual graces. For this reason, St. Paul exhorts us “not to receive God’s grace in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1), for the soul is justified by sanctifying grace. Sanctification is the formal cause of justification. The soul is deprived of sanctifying grace by the commission of a mortal sin resulting in spiritual death (1 Jn. 5:16-17). So, the grace God had freely given to Mary endured beyond the present. God’s bestowal of grace on Mary was the permanent result of her being chosen to be the Mother of God (Isa. 7:14; Lk. 1:35, 43) which presupposes that she could never have committed any personal sins and thus forfeited her being in the state of sanctifying grace at any time in her life.
“The angel took not the Virgin from Joseph,
but gave her to Christ, to whom she was pledged in the womb,
when she was made.”
St. Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 140
Here are a couple of scriptural comparisons between the perfect and aorist aspects of verbs to better distinguish them.
“By grace you have been saved.”
– Ephesians 2:5
Christ’s formal redemption of the world continues. The grace of justification and forgiveness which our Lord has merited for humanity is the permanent result of his passion and death on the cross. God has reconciled the world to Himself through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (Rom 5:10-11).
“After that you believed (Aorist), you were sealed (aor.)
with the Holy Spirit.”
– Ephesians 1, 13
The believing and sealing are definite and complete acts confined to the present moment. Some of the Ephesians who believed, however, may eventually have lost their faith and fallen from grace. St. Paul is referring to their predestination to grace rather than glory.
We have in the Catholic Douay Rheims Bible: ‘And Stephen, full of grace and fortitude, did great wonders and signs among the people’ (Acts 6:8). Most Protestant Bibles also have “full of grace” (pleres charitos) except three versions which read “full of faith” (pleres pistin). The King James Bible is included: ‘And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.’ (See Acts 6:5.) It is important for us to note here that most Bible versions, including Catholic Bibles, do have “full of grace”, but not in the sense in which Mary is being described. What Luke means to say is that Stephen was granted the actual graces of faith and fortitude for the performance of his salutary acts by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, these actual graces do sanctify the person, but are present with the performance of the acts themselves and disappear with the end of the performance. Stephen was abounding in (“full of”/πλήρης) faith and fortitude while he was debating with the religious elders in the synagogue and performing great signs and wonders. If we look at the past tense verb ἐποίει (“was performing”) in Acts, we can place the noun χάριτος (grace) within a restricted time reference. The verb tense is imperfect past progressive, so it indicates that the action – performing great signs and wonders – is completed in the past and left there. Actual grace (faith or fortitude) aids the soul to remain habitually in the state of sanctifying grace, which itself is the quality of the soul sharing in the divine life. Stephen partook of the divine life in his apostolic zeal while evangelising in the Temple.
Whether Stephen remained faithful and resilient after this event is of no significance. The Evangelist isn’t concerned with the time before and after the event during which time Stephen was filled with a sufficient supply of actual graces that rendered him completely faithful and strong in his present task. But this is not so regarding Mary. Her maternal vocation extended throughout her entire existence from the time she was conceived, since she had been predestined to be the mother of the Lord. Stephen, on the other hand, wasn’t chosen by God to evangelise his entire life. Moreover, the grace that Mary is endowed with relates to the holy state and quality of her soul, not an apostolic action of hers at any present moment. The grace that the angel is referring to is the habitual grace of sanctification or justification itself which is distinguished from actual grace, though the latter does effect sanctification.
“A virgin, innocent, spotless, free of all defect,
untouched, unsullied, holy in soul and body,
like a lily sprouting among thorns.”
St. Theodotus of Ancyra, Homily VI:11
(ante A.D. 446)
As we have seen in Luke 1:28, at any rate, the original Greek text does not read pleres charitos, but kecharitomene, which is a perfect passive participle and singular female vocative. A participle is a verb that is used to describe a subject. The perfect tense describes an action (God’s bestowal of grace) in the present with a completed result. And since this term is used as a title, the evangelist does not intend to describe Mary’s state within the restricted time frame of the present moment. He presents the angel as saying: “Hail, “completely, perfectly, and permanently endowed with sanctifying or justifying grace.” Someone completely endowed with grace is obviously “full of grace”, albeit the verbal difference. Mary’s complete and perfect endowment of grace is a completed past action with a lasting effect which identifies who she is. Mary embodies in her interior life what it requires to be the mother of God incarnate: completely sinless with no place for the stain of sin in her soul whatsoever, grace being the antidote to sin.
When the angel Gabriel addresses Mary with the title Kecharitomene, he is not simply describing her state at a given instance of time in concurrence with any actions of hers, as Stephen is described to be in his state of grace. Nor does the angel mean any of the actual graces such as faith and fortitude, which help to sanctify the soul. The grace the angel has in mind with respect to our Blessed Lady is that of sanctification itself, which justifies her before God, making her most worthy to be the mother of the Son. The Greek singular female vocative can be paraphrased in Latin as “full of grace” (gratia plena), since Mary has been endowed with a fullness of sanctifying grace which renders her completely holy and fit to answer her divine call.
For Mary to conceive and bear the Son of God as a mother worthiest of him, the spiritual gifts of faith and fortitude, however plentiful and well-supplied these were in her soul, would not have been enough for her to meet her divine call. Mary had to be perpetually holy in every virtuous aspect – from the moment she was conceived to the time of her Dormition – to be the most fitting Mother of the Divine Son. Her Divine Maternity was lifelong, which demanded complete justice and holiness in soul and in body throughout her earthly existence (Isa. 61:10; Lk. 1:46-49).
“Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace
has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin.”
St. Ambrose, Sermon 22:30
The Greek word for grace in Ephesians 2:5, which we saw above, is charis, from which the root verb charitoo in the expression kecharitomene is derived. With respect to Mary, therefore, the grace she is endowed with is indeed the grace of sanctification or justification. God kindly bestowed this grace on our Blessed Lady when He sanctified her soul at the first instant of her conception in view of the foreseen merits of Christ. The perfect stem of the root verb charitoo (ke) indicates that her redemption is not only complete, but permanent, whose effect continues in the present at the time of the Annunciation and extends with her Divine Maternity, which itself is ever-lasting.
Mankind’s redemption was formally completed by Christ through his passion and death, but one’s personal salvation is still not guaranteed. The sanctifying or justifying grace that we have received through the Sacrament of Baptism is momentary, although habitual. Unlike the rest of us who have been baptized, but occasionally fall from God’s grace by the commission of a mortal sin, Mary’s salvation was assured, for she never committed any mortal or even venial sins, having been elected to be the mother of our Lord and Savior.
And so, Luke has Mary declare in the figure of Daughter Zion, who has been restored to grace with God in her mother’s womb: “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his handmaid” (Lk. 1:46-48). Mary’s form of redemption was most perfect when God fashioned her soul upon conception, for He preserved her from contracting original sin and thus falling short of His glory (Rom. 3:23). The words of the prophet Zephaniah (3:14-15) find their secondary signification in Mary’s exemption from all stain of sin, which she was subject to inherit along with mankind until God mercifully intervened by His grace:
Sing aloud, O Daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has cast out your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear evil no more.
The Greek appellation Kecharitomene implies, that by the foreseen merits of Christ, God removed His judgment on mankind from Mary when He preserved her free from the stain of original sin. Suffering and death were no longer penalties exacted upon her because of her exemption from sin. Suffering and death entered the world on condition that all have sinned being descendants of Adam (Rom. 5:12). So, Mary had no cause to fear these evils, since she was preserved free from all the moral ill-effects of original sin and remained personally sinless throughout her life by the efficacy of all God’s actual graces. Mary had been liberated from being associated in mankind’s collective guilt by her Immaculate Conception (Gen. 3:15).
“She is born like the cherubim,
she who is of a pure, immaculate clay.”
St. Theoteknos of Livias
Panegyric for the Assumption, 5:6
Hence, the basic thought of the Greek perfect tense is that the progress of an action has been completed and the results of the action are continuing in full effect. The progress of the action has reached its culmination and the finished results are now in existence. Unlike the English perfect tense which is used to express actions that began in the past and continue in the present, the Greek perfect tense indicates the continuation and present state of a completed past action. For instance, Galatians 2:20 should be translated “I am in a present state of having been crucified with Christ,” indicating that not only was Paul crucified with Christ in the past, but he is existing now in that present condition. The apostle continues: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The Greek perfect tense has to do with the person’s present condition or state that has resulted in the past.
And so, Luke is telling us that the grace Mary was endowed with in the past was the state of grace she continued to exist in at the Annunciation. Theologically, we may assume that Mary remained in this state of grace after the angel departed, since he left as soon as Mary consented to be the mother of the Lord, for which reason God highly favoured her with His grace (Lk. 1:38). Nor was Mary endowed with this singular grace upon conceiving Christ. In Luke 1:30, the angel says: “Fear not Mary, for you have found favour (grace) with God.” Mary’s permanent state of grace was the result of a completed past action prior to the Annunciation, which reasonably would have occurred at the instant God created her soul and predestined her to glory because of her election to the Divine Maternity. God commissioned the angel to call the Blessed Virgin Mary by the name Kecharitomene upon greeting her because of her singular and most perfect form of redemption (Isa. 43:1).
“Today humanity, in all the radiance of her immaculate nobility, receives its ancient beauty. The shame of sin had darkened the splendour and attraction of human nature; but when the Mother of the Fair One par excellence is born, this nature regains in her person its ancient privileges and is fashioned according to a perfect model truly worthy of God…. The reform of our nature begins today and the aged world, subjected to a wholly divine transformation, receives the first fruits of the second creation.”
St. Andrew of Crete
Sermon I, Birth of Mary
In his Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, 8 December 1854, Pope Pius lX cites the Divine Maternity as the “Supreme reason for the privilege” of the Immaculate Conception. We should keep in mind that when God predestined Mary to be the mother of Christ our Lord (Lk 1:43), He knew that she would pronounce her Fiat that first instant He fashioned and sanctified her soul. The perfect tense itself does not function to indicate that this state of grace will necessarily continue to exist after the present time. Paul continues to be in the state of being crucified with Christ on condition that Christ lives in him, and as long as he lives his life “by faith in the Son of God,” just as Mary continues to be in the state of sanctifying grace and justified before God provided she is the mother of our Divine Lord. God clothed the Mother of the Son with “garments of salvation” and arrayed her in a “robe of righteousness” so that she would be worthiest of being the Mother of God (Isa. 61:10).
We should keep in mind that the expression kecharitomene is in the vocative case. Kecharitomene is the name the angel gives Mary when he first greets her. The name defines who she is in her standing before God as our Lord’s mother. So, the state of grace Mary continues to exist in at the time of the Annunciation can be of an enduring and permanent quality. In Scripture, the names God gives his servants (Abram-Abraham, Sarai-Sarah, Jacob-Israel, Simon-Peter, Saul-Paul) refer to their defining characteristics as God’s servants. The name Sarah (“exalted princess” in ancient Hebrew), for example, points to her status of being the Matriarch of the Covenant, who prefigures the Davidic Queen Mother (Gebirah) and ultimately the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven.
The name Kecharitomene points to something essential about Mary’s position with God. She isn’t simply described as being full of grace but is called “full of grace”; she embodies in her person what it means to be completely, perfectly and perpetually endowed with sanctifying or justifying grace. The names God gives His servants are permanent and originate from all eternity in accord with His design. Grammatically and linguistically, therefore, we must keep both the verb tense and the form of case in mind to fully understand what God is revealing to us by the epithet Kecharitomene. The perfect tense is being used here in an extraordinary way that never is for any person in the Scriptures, save the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God (Isa 7:14).
The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle,
so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time,
out of the serpent’s reach.
Revelation 12, 14