This prayer, so called from the Latin word with which it begins, is one of the most popular in use amongst the faithful and it has moreover received the approbation of several Popes. It is said three times a day, morning, noon and evening, in honor of the Incarnation of our Lord. It is composed of three Hail Maries, preceded by a versicle and response taken from the words which Holy Scripture uses in describing the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin, announcing to her that she was to become the Mother of God. The Angel of the Lord de clared unto Mary—and she conceived by the Holy Ghost. Hail Mary, etc. Behold the handmaid of the Lord—be it done unto me according to thy word. Hail Mary, etc. And the Word was made flesh—and dwelt among us. Hail Mary, etc.
The Incarnation is both the basis and the completion of Christianity. Without that mystery Christ would not be, and therefore His Religion could have no existence. Christ is the name not of the Eternal Word, but of the Eternal Word, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, made Man. If there had been no Incarnation, human nature would not have been assumed, and there would have been no Christ. What the world would have been without an Incarnate God we do not know, but we do know that it is now in possession of infinite treasures of grace, each of which is the germ of many degrees of heavenly glory, all of which proceed from the merits of Jesus Christ the Man-God. Hence all practical religion can be reduced to faith in the Incarnation and love of it. He who believes this Adorable Mystery with a living supernatural belief is irresistibly impelled by the religious cravings of his mind and heart to admit an infallible Church and the Mystery of the Blessed Eucharist. God’s works of love succeed each other in an increasing ratio; each seems to surpass its predecessor in its manifestation of divine beauty and condescension. The Law of Moses, though one of fear, was a greater revelation of love than the Law of Nature. Christ’s Law of Grace is the reality and the substance of which the Mosaic Dispensation was the type and the shadow. There are these three—Nature, Grace and Glory, and of these the greatest is Glory.
Let us apply this canon of divine action to the Incarnation. Earth was once blessed with the presence of the God-Man. The mountain winds of Judea had heard the breathings of His midnight prayer, the storm-lashed waves of its lakes had obeyed His voice and lulled themselves to rest, His feet had wandered through its fields and villages and towns, His words of peace and hope and love had echoed in the ears and spoken to the hearts of its people. But He stayed not always; He passed away from earth to His rest in the Bosom of His Father. Was God’s usual loving mode of procedure to be reversed? Were the world’s future ages to look upon the Incarnation as a past historic fact, just as the Patriarchs and the Prophets had looked forward to it as future? Men once had their Jesus amongst them, were they and their children to lose Him? Ah no! our Lord is too good. He would not leave His children orphans. The Incarnation is an abiding fact on earth, in the Church and in the Blessed Sacrament. There is a divine and a human element in the Church, just as there is the Divine and the Human Nature in Jesus Christ. Its divine element is its infallibility and its sacraments, or, in one word, the Papacy; its human element, its individual human members. And what is the Blessed Sacrament but Jesus Himself, the Incarnate God, dwelling with His own unto the end!
The Angelus is the prayer of the Incarnation; this suffices to recommend it to the reverence and love of the faithful. The thrice-renewed daily sound of the Angelus bell is, in Catholic countries, the signal for general prayer. From the soaring spire of Gothic Cathedral, from the modest belfry of the village church, from convent, school and hospital, the blessed notes of the Angelical salutation float out on the breezes of heaven. For a moment “labor ceases to knock with her hundred hands at the portals of morn, noon and even.” Prince and people, rich and poor fall on their knees and bend their heads in prayer; they hail the advent of the Word made Flesh.
This beautiful devotion prevails to a great extent even among us, though so far removed in distance, but not in love, we trust, from the associations and traditions of Catholic Europe. The Angelus is regularly rung from our steeples, but still we do not obey the holy invitation to the extent we might. It is not required, of course, that we should expose ourselves and our religion to insult by kneeling down in the streets of a Protestant or infidel city at the sound of the Angelus bell, but does any valid reason exist why we should not say the prayer at home, faithfully and devoutly? Could we not say it when walking along the streets, and even take off the hat at the versicle: The Word was made Flesh, without at all attracting observation?
Benedict XIII, by a brief, dated Sept. 14, 1724, granted a plenary indulgence once a month, on the usual conditions, to those who say the Angelus three times a day, and a partial indulgence of one hundred days for each recitation.
Benedict XIV. has decided that the Angelus is to be said standing on Saturday evening and the whole of Sunday, but at all other times kneeling. In Lent, however, it is to be said standing on Saturday at noon, because first Vespers have already begun.
The anthem Regina cœli is to be said, in standing posture, in place of the Angelus, during the Paschal time, that is from Vespers of Holy Saturday to the 1st Vespers of Trinity Sunday. They who do not know the Regina cœli may continue to recite the Angelus and gain the indulgences. Persons residing in places where the Angelus-bell is not rung, or who cannot hear it, do not lose the indulgences, if they are faithful to recite the prayer morning, noon and evening.
The Popes suspend indulgences for the living during the Jubilee or Holy Year, which occurs every twenty-fifth year. This is done in order to make the faithful more eager to gain the indulgence of the Jubilee. The Angelus, however, is exempted from this general regulation as a mark of the peculiar favor with which it is regarded by the Holy See.