When we come to the Hail Mary, we come to a very different prayer than the two previously discussed. It is of a different nature. The Apostles' Creed and the Our Father are prayers that are given to us, the one as the rule of our faith, handed down by the Apostles and their successors, the other as the rule of our petitions and desires, handed on by the Lord. In fact, when one becomes a Christian as an adult, passing through the catechumenate to baptism, one participates in the ancient practice of traditio and reditio. The Creed and the Lord's Prayer are handed over ( traditio) to the catechumen during Lent so that he or she might learn them, and the catechumen returns them (reditio) by professing the Creed and praying the Lord's Prayer. They are gifts given to us from an authority higher than us, treasures that we must preserve, a part of our official liturgical prayer.
The Hail Mary comes from a very different place. It has no place in any official liturgy of the Church. Rather, it comes from the humble and affectionate private prayers of the faithful. It is a prayer that developed over time, changing more and more as generations of Catholics sought to speak more fittingly to their mother. The Hail Mary is a personal prayer, a devotional prayer, a prayer that arises from the heart, not a prayer that descends from heaven. It is, moreover, a prayer directed to Mary, not an act of worship, but rather a request of another human being. It is the request of a child to his or her mother, a request for help, for consolation, for prayers. Like children who sit with their parents in the pews, watching their parents worship, asking their mother what is going on, and what it all means, when we pray the rosary we sit with Mary, watching the life of her divine Son, praying with her, worshiping him, and asking her what it all means.
I have done no personal research on the origins of the Hail Mary, but from what I have been taught, the earliest strands of the prayer are the two biblical verses that stand at its beginning: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!" and "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" The first is the salutation of Gabriel at the Annunciation. The second is the expression of wonder by Elizabeth at the Visitation. Both come directly from Luke's Gospel. I hope to have greater occasion to speak about the meaning of these words when I discuss the first two joyful mysteries of the rosary. For now, let me simply say that the heart of the Hail Mary - and for a long time, the entirety of the Hail Mary - is from the Bible. It is a biblical prayer. Like children, we learn first to address our parents by imitating other adults. So also, we address Mary by imitating the words of the Archangel Gabriel and St. Elizabeth. These two great saints, and, even more so, the word of God, teach us how we should address Mary.
The next strand is the addition of the names of Jesus and Mary, so that the prayer becomes, "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus." By the time St. Thomas Aquinas preached on the Hail Mary (ca. 1260-1270), the name of Mary had been added to the prayer, but the name of Jesus had not yet been added. I imagine - and this is nothing more than a supposition - that the names were included more frequently and readily during the 1300s, when preachers like St. Bernardine of Sienna spread devotion to the names of Jesus and Mary. And those names are powerful! We remember the Second Commandment, that we shall not take the Name of God in vain, because in the Bible a name is not simply an appellation, it is also a sign, a pointer, to the deeper nature of the thing discussed. We see this in how God creates things by names, and how Adam not only gives things names, but names them from their very essence - "This one at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, and so she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man." (Gen. 2:23) The name of Jesus means Savior in Hebrew, and when we call on the name of Jesus, it has saving power. "There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) Calling on the name of Jesus makes him present, and makes his salvation present.
Through some fanciful interpretation of the Hebrew, the name of Mary was taken by the great saints of the Middle Ages to mean things as diverse as bitterness, star, and queen. St. Bonaventure elaborated poetically in one of his homilies on our Lady, saying that Mary helps to purge of us of our sins by the bitterness of self-denial, to illumine us with the truth as a shining star of example, and to perfect us with love as Queen of our hearts. So to call upon to the name of Mary was to ask to be purified, illumined, perfected. We can also point out that Mary shares a name with Moses's sister, which in English is normally pronounced closer to the original Hebrew as Miriam. (Mary comes from the Latin transliteration of Miriam as Maria.) Mary and Miriam are the same name; Mary was named for Moses's sister - the sister who made sure he was drawn from the river, who helped to raise him in Pharaoh's court, who witnessed his leading of the people out of Egypt, who sang the song of rejoicing as the people were led through the Red Sea. So also Mary raised Jesus, witnessed his works of salvation, and rejoiced to see the Church led into freedom. As Miriam helped her brother, so Mary helped her Son - though much more faithfully than Miriam. Calling on Mary's name links us to salvation, but it also links us to the Exodus, and the great works of God in the Old Testament.
The final strand of the prayer is: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death." There is so much packed into this simple sentence that, in order to preserve brevity, I must skim. This final strand of the prayer ties into Catholic doctrine both about Mary, and about us. We allude to two of the four Marian dogmas. The first is her immaculate conception - "Holy Mary" - declared in 1854 in Ineffabilis Deus, and the second is her divine motherhood - "Mother of God" - declared by the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Hail Mary summarizes a large part of Catholic Marian doctrine in five words. Then we have the teaching on sin and grace, formulated by St. Augustine, clarified by the Second Council of Orange, defined by the Council of Trent, and still in our Catechism. We are sinners, both because of original sin and actual sin. We are sinners: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8) We are sinners, and we stand under God's wrath, and we need a Savior. We also need prayers, and who better to ask than the Mother of the Savior? We need grace both to avoid sin, and to avoid hell. We cannot completely avoid sin without grace, and without grace we cannot repent from the sins that would lead us to hell. And so we ask Mary to beg for grace from God "now," that we might avoid sin, "and at the hour of our death," that we might avoid damnation. God's grace alone saves, but God wills to grant his grace in answer to our prayers, and in answer to Mary's prayers. And so we ask her to pray that our souls might be full of grace and empty of sin, and that our eternal life might be full of joy and empty of pain.
What a powerful prayer! A prayer that developed over time, a prayer that arose from the words of the Bible, from the devotion of the faithful, from meditation on the teachings of the Church. It is this prayer that we repeat again and again in the rosary, turning toward Mary, asking Mary's help, following Mary's example. A powerful prayer from powerless children to a powerful mother.