What Do We Mean By Full of Grace?

No greeting has ever been more troubling—or controversial.

Hail Mary, full of grace.

The words are beautiful, angelic, and rich in meaning. They are also a centuries-long fault line between Protestants and Catholics. Everything, it seems, hangs upon what is meant by full of grace, or whether full of grace is even the correct translation of Luke 1:28. In Latin, the phrase becomes two words: plena gratia. In the original Greek, it’s just one, the phonetically unwieldy but potent in meaning verb, kecharitōmenē.

The case for the Catholic reading of this is not only far more compelling than Protestant critics will let on, but also far stronger than many Catholics today probably realize.

But first, a word about how to read Scripture. A common Protestant critique is that it is irresponsible for Catholic apologists to read so much into just one word, phrase, or a single verse. It’s something we often hear in familiar Catholic-Protestant debates. Does the rock in Matthew 16:18 refers to Peter (the Catholic position) or his faith (the Protestant claim)? Or what is the meaning of “is” in the words of institution at the Last Supper? No matter how convincing the Catholic claim becomes, it becomes the ultimate fallback for the Protestant skeptic: one verse can hardly be the foundation for an entire dogma.

Setting aside for the moment that the dogmas at issue in the above debates actually have broad Scriptural support, such criticisms are extraordinarily disingenuous for a group that has made Sola Scripture the shibboleth of faith. It’s also out of character with the spirit of the early Church. Take this reflection from one Church Father, St. Basil:

Every deed and every word of our Savior Jesus Christ is a canon of piety and virtue. When thou hearest word or deed of His, do not hear it as by the way, or after a simple and carnal manner, but enter into the depths of His contemplation, become a communicant in truths mystically delivered to thee.

Basil is talking about Christ’s words in particular, but his statement could just as easily describe how the Church has traditionally approached all Scripture. They are just a few words, but God’s declaration to Moses in Exodus 3:14—I am Who I am—have shaped centuries of theological thought about God’s being. Christ is referred to as the Word just four times in Scripture (John 1 and 1 John 1), but Christology today is unthinkable without the epithet. The same goes for Christian anthropology and Genesis 1:27 (man was made in the “image” and “likeness” of God).

Now let’s return to Luke 1:28. The theological debate begins with a textual question. What exactly does Luke 1:28 say? Is he talking about grace, that most potent of theological words? Or is Mary simply ‘favored’ by God, as so many Protestant translations read?

Some evangelical Protestant apologists will play a semantic shell-game. They seize upon the fact that full of grace is taken from the Latin plena gratia, not directly from the Greek text. Full of grace, they point out, appears in the Greek in two other verses, not this one. (Click here to see one example.) The argument is presented as a rebuttal of the Catholic position and it plays neatly into Protestant stereotypes about Catholics not knowing their Bibles.

This raises the question as to how to translate the word at issue (kecharitōmenē) in the first place.  The word is a form of the verb charitoō. This word should look familiar, even to non-Greek speakers. It’s where we get our word charisma, which refers to someone’s gift as a leader. In ancient Greek, the companion noun was charis, the stock New Testament word for grace. Although it’s sometimes translated as favor, it overwhelmingly is rendered in the King James Bible as grace. (Out of 156 instances, 132 read as grace, while just 7 are favor. Most of the rest appear to be translated as a form of thanks.)

We are right to suspect that charitoō then has something to do with grace as we understand it. And that’s exactly how it’s defined. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines the verb this way: “to endow with charis, primarily signified ‘to make graceful or gracious,’ … ‘to cause to find favor.’” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon puts it this way: “to pursue with grace, to compass with favor.” Another dictionary drops “favor” altogether and gives us this definition: “kecharitōmenē … means endowed with grace.”

However, these definitions do leave it open-ended as to whether grace or favor is the way to go. Although favor and grace have related meanings they remain distinct. In a theological context, grace is a free and unmerited gift of God. Grace is something given to someone. Usually we think of a favor as something done for someone else. So which way do we go in Luke 1? Unlike the noun, the verb is used only one other time in the New Testament, so we don’t have too many verses to guide us on how it’s used. (For the record, the other instance is Ephesians 1:6 and the most common translation is grace.)

Fortunately, the text does not leave us hanging. After Mary’s initial apprehension, the angel tells her, “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God” (Luke 1:30). Grace here is the noun charis, which we’ve already established usually means grace and only rarely favor (in the New Testament at least). If Luke 1:28 was unclear, Luke 1:30 is our clarification. This should settle it. We’re talking about grace.

Now our question becomes: How much grace did Mary receive and when? The dogma of the Immaculate Conception holds that Mary was fully graced from the moment of conception, that through the grace of God, Mary’s life was one without sin. Is this supported by Luke 1:28?

For the answer, we now turn from the dictionary to the grammar book. As mentioned above kecharitōmenē is a form of the verb charitoō. Our focus will be on the tense. A verb tense at the most basic level refers to the time of action. “I wrote an article” is an example of the past tense. “I am writing” is present and “I will write” is future. Now in ancient Greek there were more than just these three simple tenses. There were other tenses that tell us something about the action done and its enduring impact. And that’s where things get exciting.

Kecharitōmenē is the “perfect” tense of charitoō. According to Herbert Weir Smyth’s A Greek Grammar for Colleges—still the bible for Greek grammar today—defines the perfect tense this way: “The perfect denotes a completed action the effects of which still continue in the present.” So Mary received grace in some complete way and remains completed in that grace. We’re coming awfully close to the Catholic dogma.

Or are we reading too much into this? Here’s the conclusion two scholars draw: “It is permissible, on Greek grammatical and linguistic grounds, to paraphrase kecharitōmenē as completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace” (Blass and DeBrunner, Greek Grammar of the New Testament, as cited by Catholic apologist Phil Vaz here).

Indeed, to say that Mary was “completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace” is not only a restatement of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, it also points forward to the traditional teaching that Mary is a “Mediatrix of all graces” (yet to be dogmatically defined). If anything, “full of grace,” seems to understate what the Greek text is saying. But “filled completely, perfectly, and enduringly” is a mouthful, so it’s easy to see why the Vulgate went with the more poetic approximation “full of grace.”

By turns the dictionary, concordance, and grammar argue for the Catholic reading of Luke 1:28.

Three facts from the narrative seal the case. First, as St. Thomas Aquinas notes in his commentary on the Hail Mary, the angel’s reverent salutation of Mary is a complete reversal of roles from the Old Testament, in which men revered angels. Such reverence was due to angels because angels have a spiritual and incorruptible nature, are more familiar with God, and “partake most fully of the divine light.” In revering Mary, then, then Angel Gabriel is showing that she surpasses the angels in these three aspects. Only someone “full of grace” could merit such extraordinary reverence.

Second, in the Greek text, as Aquinas points out, Mary’s name is missing from Luke 1:28. The text literally reads as “Hail, full of grace.” Mary has become so “full of grace” that it has consumed her completely—it has become more who she is even than even her very name.

This omission makes the most sense if we translate the verb as grace and not as favor. A favor does not involve the interior man (or woman). It chiefly is concerned with their exterior circumstances. I can do a favor for you without changing who you are (for example, buy you a car, or get you a job). God’s grace changes who we are. Grace implies a spiritual state or interior condition (hence the phrase “state of grace”). One can imagine, then, that someone could be in such an intensive state of grace that it defines their whole personality.

Third, Mary’s reaction to the angel’s words is a giant clue as to their significance. Here is the text again (Douay-Rheims translation):

[28] And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. [29] Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be. [30] And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.

[31] Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. [32] He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. [33] And of his kingdom there shall be no end. [34] And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? [35] And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

This is a lot to take in. Mary is “blessed among women.” Her son will be the “Son of the Most High” and a king after David. And she will do this while remaining a virgin. Instead, she will conceive by the “power of the most High.” Terror-inducing words for any mortal ears, not to mention an unmarried teenage virgin. Readers may recall that Mary was “troubled” by the words of the angel.

But go back and read at what point she was “troubled.” Mary’s apprehension comes before the angel foretells the birth of Christ and His kingdom. It comes after just this one line: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. One wonders, were this just an act of divine “favor” what would be so troubling to Mary? Favors are always welcomed, never feared. Divine grace, on the other hand, is powerful, awesome, even fearsome.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception can indeed be “troubling.” Our best response, however, is to follow the example of Mary and accept God’s words in faith.

Avatar photo


Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage