The Greek of Luke 1:28 is kecaritwmevnh, which is transliterated kecharitomene. It is a Greek perfect, passive, participle, literally meaning “having been graced,” which is from the active indicative verb, caritovw, which means “to grace, to favor, to exalt.” The Greek ejcarivtwsen (the indicative, active, aorist), which means “he graced us,” is used in Ephesians 1:6, and there it refers to our salvation, so we know that the verb has a New Testament precedent for being used in a verbal form which refers to the presence of grace in the individual. The LXX at Ecclesiasticus 18:17 (ajndri; kecharitwomevnw/) uses the exact morphology of Luke 1:28 in the dative case but only the adjectival sense (a “gracious man”). Other derivatives in the LXX appear in 2Macc 3:33 (the deponent verb, kecavristai, which means “to grant, give, deal graciously with, forgive, pardon”); and 4Macc 5:8 (the same deponent form as in 2Macc 3:33 but in a perfect, middle, participle, kecarismevnhV).
The one distinguishing feature of Luke 1:28’s use of kecaritwmevnh is that it is titular, since it follows the greeting cai:re (“hail” or “greetings”). In English we would say that it was a “title of grace.” The closest we might be able to compare it to something in English is what the American Indians did when naming their children with participles. For example, a child may be named “Running Dear” (because his birth was associated with a running dear). In Mary’s case, since a participle is given as her title, we could use the title: “The Graced One” or “The One Having Been Graced” and maintain the sense of the Greek. The problem for Catholic theology, however, is that the connotation “full” does not appear explicitly in the Greek word kecaritwmevnh, yet “full,” which is from the Vulgate translation “full of grace,” is, theologically speaking, the quantitative reason why Mary’s reception of grace has been understood by the Catholic Church as referring to the immaculate conception, since Mary is said to have received a “full” measure of grace, which necessarily implies no room for Original Sin. Likewise, we receive the same “full” measure of grace in Baptism, which necessarily eradicates the stain of Original Sin simply because there is no room for Original Sin in the soul any longer.
To be less dramatic and informative, however, the Greek could have easily used a simple noun to address Mary, but Luke uses this complex verb (perfect, passive, participle) and his choice to do so may be to get the most out of the verb as possible when presenting it as a title. The perfect tense denotes that:
(1) the state of grace began in the past;
(2) that it is a completed and accomplished action;
(3) its effects continue in the present;
(4) that it is a title of grace received from an outside entity,
…all of which can be applied to Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
We have some caveat emptors, however. On the one hand, we as Catholics must admit that Luke 1:28, although it may imply Mary’s immaculate conception, does not explicitly teach it. The verse would not explicitly teach the doctrine unless it said: “Hail to the one who has been immaculately conceived.” Luke
1:28 would be on a slightly higher level than the Old Testament passages that allude to but don’t explicitly teach Mary’s immaculate conception (e.g., Genesis 6:14f; 28:12; Exodus 25:10; Song of Solomon 4:4; Isaiah 6:1f).
On the other hand, if we were looking for a verse that was in keeping with the doctrine of the immaculate conception, Luke 1:28 would be the strongest verse. Interestingly enough, it was the Protestant translations that began to change the traditional translation. Whereas the Douay-Rheims had “hail, full of grace,” the KJV, which was modeled after the Douay-Rheims but came eight years after the first Douay translation, changed the words to “hail, highly favored one,” to eliminate even the implication that Mary was immaculately conceived. The ASV, RSV, NIV, and even some Catholic Bibles whose translators may have been influenced by the Protestants, such as the New American Bible and New Jerusalem Bible, followed suit. Although most of the revision was based on the wholesale Protestant rejection of Marian doctrine, some of it was due to the Protestant concept of grace which sees it as being an extrinsic and forensic event, which is opposed to the Catholic concept which sees grace as an infused and intrinsic state of being. As such, the Protestants could not conceive of Mary being infused with grace at conception. Conversely, the Vulgate translates Luke 1:28’s kecaritwmevnh as “gratia plena” (“full of grace”) denoting an intrinsic quality of grace in Mary, what Catholic theology knows as “the quality of the soul.” Hence, when God infused Mary’s soul into her conceived form, He infused an immaculate soul, so that, at no time, even a moment, would Mary have the stain of sin.
As a side issue, the New Testament uses plhvrhV cavritoV (“full of grace”) to describe Jesus (Jn 1:14: “the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth”) and Stephen (Acts 6:8: “And Stephen, full of grace and power…”). On the one hand, Jesus is “immaculate” and we see that “full of grace” is applied to him; whereas Stephen, although bound for heaven in his state of being “full grace,” we can not say that he was sinless (venial) then or at his birth, hence, “full of grace,” in itself, does not give a definitive answer to the question of sinlessness.
We as Catholics must also admit, however, that even if we translated Luke 1:28 as “full of grace,” this does not necessarily mean that Mary was immaculately conceived. It only demonstrates that Mary was full of grace at the time the angel spoke to her. Extending Mary’s full state of grace back to Mary’s conception in St. Anne’s womb (which extension the Greek perfect participle of Luke 1:28, kecaritwmevnh, allows and which any Greek grammarian would have to admit) is the prerogative of the Church in her dogmatic decrees, since there is no explicit verse of Scripture teaching Mary’s immaculate conception. What the Church has in the way of credible and verifiable testimony on the immaculate conception is from oral tradition, and which the Church chose to dogmatize in 1854, which Scripture allows the Church to do even though the doctrine is not explicitly taught in Scripture (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15; Matthew 16:18-19; Acts 1:15-25; 15:1-11).
As for patristic, conciliar and papal testimony, we have the following:
Ambrose: “Gabriel himself, when sent to Mary, said, ‘Hail, full of grace,’ plainly declaring the grace of the Spirit which was in her…” (On the Holy Spirit, 1, 7).
Augustine: “We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins” (Nature and Grace, 42).
Gregory Thaumaturgos: Thus, the holy virgin, while still in the flesh, maintained the incorruptible life…being a pure and immaculate and stainless image herself…” (Four Homilies, 2nd Dis.).
Hippolytus: “…in the flesh which he received from the holy, immaculate Virgin” (App. 18).
Fulgence: “…inasmuch as the Virgin…conceived and bore the God of heaven, and remained inviolate, Virgin and Mother, she, of course, is truly designated by the angel ‘full of grace’” (Letters, PL 65, 17, 5).
Council of Constantinople II (681): “…but as taking flesh of the immaculate Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, he is perfect man.”
Council of Nicea II: “…we confess that he who was incarnate of the immaculate Mother of God and Ever Virgin Mary, has two natures.”
Pius IX: “We declare…that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception…in view of the merits of Jesus Christ…was preserved free from all stain of original sin…” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854).
Robert Sungenis, Ph.D.
June 2, 2008