Who is the most beautiful woman in the universe? Many might say their wife, girlfriend, mother, or daughter. Catholics, however, know that one woman has all these beat—the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is for this reason we never tire of declaring “Hail Mary!” time and time again in prayers like the Rosary. Like a husband who could never put a limit on how many times he says “I love you” to his wife, Catholics should never tire of loving, venerating, and growing closer to our Blessed Mother. Indeed, as St. Bernard says, “Of Mary, there is never enough!”
If we are to repeat prayers like the Hail Mary often, however, it is important to pause periodically and reflect on what these sacred words mean, lest we forget their original poignancy. St. Thomas Aquinas, a man of great Marian devotion, offers one such reflection. In his Expositio De Ave Maria, a summary of his Lenten sermons, he starts by breaking down the prayer into its two parts: “Hail [Mary] full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” which comes from Gabriel’s greeting at the Annunciation, and “Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb [Jesus],” which comes from St. Elizabeth at the Visitation.
Aquinas begins by meditating on Gabriel’s first word: “Hail.” He points out the peculiarity that an angel—who is superior to humans by nature, intimacy to God, and participation in God’s grace—would bow down before a human. He concludes this would not be fitting unless “someone could be found in human nature who excelled the angels,” and “this person was the Blessed Virgin.”
By saluting Mary, the angel was telling her, "I show you reverence because you excel me in the fullness of grace." It is possibly for this reason that after the greeting of the angel, Mary was “greatly troubled, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Lk. 1:29). For us, this reality shows us that if Mary resembles God even more than the angels, she must be the most perfect model of a Christian. Whereas other great saints might particularly embody this or that aspect of the Christian life, Mary is the model of all the Christian virtues. “In every work of virtue,” therefore, we can “have Mary as [our] helper.”
Next, Aquinas addresses the rest of the salutation: “…full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” The Lord is with Mary in an extremely privileged way, because she is the daughter of God the Father, the mother of God the Son, and the mystical spouse of the Holy Spirit (for it was by Him that she conceived Jesus, yet remained a virgin). It is to fulfill these three great offices that Mary has been filled with a superabundance of grace. In fact, says Aquinas, “[She] has such an abundance of grace that it suffices for the salvation of all mankind.” With this in mind, the saint assures his audience, “In every danger you can obtain salvation from this glorious Virgin.”
Lastly, Aquinas addresses the greeting of St. Elizabeth, “Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb [Jesus].” Aquinas identifies Mary as the “New Eve,” compared to the “Old Eve.” By giving the forbidden fruit to man, Eve not only brought sin and death into the world, but also received just the opposite of what she desired, which was to be God and to have delight. On the contrary, Mary, by giving mankind the Fruit of her womb, not only brought salvation and life to all the world, but also “found all the things which Eve desired” in an even more stunning way. It is by this office of guiding all people to taste of the Fruit of her womb that we call Mary the “Star of the Sea.” As Aquinas beautifully states, “Just as by means of the star of the sea, navigators are directed to the harbor, so too are Christians directed by Mary to eternal glory.”
All these graces, gifts, and favors place Mary in a privileged spot not only in the heart of all true Christians but also in the heart of God. She is closer to Him than any person will ever be. It is for this reason she is the most beautiful of all women. Let us, then, enshrine and honor her in our homes, in our churches, and our schools—but most of all in our hearts.