Friday, May 11, 2012

Luther's Mary: Just Like You and Me

Like RCH, I also grew up Lutheran, so I was particularly curious to find what Luther's thoughts on Mary actually were. In my experience, Lutheranism teaches that Mary gave birth as a virgin, but is not particularly interested in discussing the theological implications of Mary, at least on a weekly worship and religious educational basis. Obviously, this is wrong, because I think Luther did have quite a bit to say about Our Lady. Two areas of interest in particular for Luther are how Mary is to be honored and his adamance that Mary is not the intercessor for our salvation.

Luther thinks Mary should be honored in the same way humans honor each other, because "she is the same as us; she came to grace through the blood of Christ" (36). On the one hand, equating Mary with every other human in need of grace could help further the idea of the ultimate helplessness of mankind. For if Mary, the most perfect and pure woman to exist, still stands in need of God, then naturally the rest of the world must need his grace as well. However, on the other hand, this equalizing that Luther does feels painfully lacking, in that Mary held within her the granter of grace Himself. While he does concede that "we cannot all be the bodily Mother of God,"(36) thus acknowledging her uniqueness, it does feel as though the awe-inspiring and praise-worthy fact of Mary's pregnancy with Christ is sort of lost on Luther. If we are not to praise her for containing God, then how are we to praise her? Luther says that we are to honor her "not with many 'Hail Marys' and hymns," but rather by acknowledging "what a truly poor maiden she was" (43). He echoes this thought again, albeit in a more emphatic way a bit later: "She wants to be praised because she has nothing so why do we praise her as if she has everything?" (43). I was struck by this especially because I am not sure how Luther expects people to practically praise someone as if they have nothing. Drawing again on my experience, I think this gets worked out by simply not praising Mary at all. However, the issue that I am now seeing with focusing exclusively on Mary's lowliness is that it fails to take into accounts the heights to which God lifted her. So, I think in this way, a failure to praise Mary for carrying Christ is in fact a failure to praise the miracle of God becoming human. 

In this same vein, it is interesting to me what Luther thinks the consequences will be if the people continue to praise Mary "with many 'Hail Marys' and hymns." He says that Christ is injured and that "poor needy Christians are forgotten" (35). First of all, gone is the argument of the Middle Ages that when the mother is honored, the son is honored. I think Luther's worry here is that the focus is being placed too heavily on the Virgin, which necessarily means that the focus is away from Christ. More troubling and interesting to me is the notion that excessive praise to the Virgin will cause poor Christians to be forgotten. Does he mean economically? Surely those who spend their time in praise to the Virgin understand the importance of caring for the poor. Our Lady is nothing if not caring, right? Or does he perhaps mean time-wise? I suppose that is a possibility that Luther might be entertaining, that if people spend all of their time honoring the Virgin, there will be no time to spend helping the poor. However, my mind is drawn to what we discussed when we talked about the Office of the Virgin Mary, which is that the ideal layperson is both active and contemplative. I don't know how successful the average person in living that out in daily life, but I think at least in the Office there is the expectation that action in the world must be taken as well.

Luther also makes it very clear that Mary is not to be the intercessor for our salvation. He demonstrates this with his sermon on the Wedding at Cana. Luther thinks that when Mary tries to intercede and then is harshly rebuked by Jesus is showing that "he did not let his mother's intercession move him" (55). Luther even goes so far as to say that Jesus gives us this example in the Gospel because Christ "noticed that over the course of time more honor would be given to his mother than himself" (55), and so with this foreknowledge decides to make it clear that Mary's interceding for our salvation does not in fact occur. I think again Luther attempts to equalize Mary by saying that it is just like when any one of us ask for help from God, but then must wait for him to deliver on his own time. This means that Mary's agency is entirely devalued; for Luther her part in salvation is passive - she is merely a vessel through which Christ, the agent of salvation, passes through. Luther also takes the Wedding of Cana story one step further to say that it shows that Mary erred. Personally, I can't seem to find where Mary went wrong: there was a need and Mary tried to get it met. However, Luther uses the fact of Mary's supposed error and then rebuking by Jesus to say that if Mary erred, then surely the Church and the Holy Father are not by any means infallible either.

Thus, Luther seems to use his vision of Mary to meet his own theological and political necessities. For example, Mary is an example of a human in need of grace, just like everybody needs grace. Mary also makes errors like other humans do, which goes to show that churchly institutions (like the Catholic Church, in Luther's opinion) must be open to the possibility that they might err as well. More generally, I think this equalizing that I have talked about in this blog of Mary with other humans is representative of the more individual focused religion that was a result of the Reformation. Mary ceases to be a queen worthy to be praised in lofty cathedrals, but rather becomes an example of the need for reliance on Christ's grace. 



  1. GENF:
    Your post highlights what I think is Luther’s wrestling his positions vis-à-vis Roman Catholic tradition. For example, as you show with Luther’s use of the Cana story, in making an overall reformation-oriented point, he still employs a good deal of traditional-style exegesis (e.g., Christ’s actions towards his mother was based on foreknowledge of excessive devotion to her).

    It’s true that Luther mentions that Mary “wants to be praised because she has nothing,” But remember, he also makes the point that Jesus allowed the unworthy sinners to be part of his lineage because “one is truly holy the closer one makes oneself to sinners.” In discussing Luther’s take on praising Mary you have touched on what seems to be a key concept in his transitional processes. When Luther speaks of “praising” Mary, does he mean the same thing that 16th-century devotees would mean by praising (“practically,” as you put it)? I’m not sure that failure to praise Mary in the latter sense is, in fact, failure to praise the miracle of God becoming human.

    I very much appreciate your insight into Luther’s take on Ave Marias *vs.* poor Christian saints in the present, because Luther seems to be confusing issues (perhaps to make his doctrinal argument more persuasive). Did the devotion St. Francis had for the Virgin preclude his devotion to and preaching about caring for the poor? Your general conclusion gets at a similar point and hits on another key in all of the sermons that we have read this quarter: the “use” made of Mary to make doctrinal arguments. In the end, however, this brings us back to the same questions of original motivations behind particular doctrinal axes to grind. If they are not to be found in Mary herself (devotion to her, doctrine about her), then where?


  2. "So, I think in this way, a failure to praise Mary for carrying Christ is in fact a failure to praise the miracle of God becoming human." --Exactly!!! (That is, yes, I agree!) Praising Mary is a way of affirming the miracle of the Incarnation.

    As for praising Mary as distracting from concern for the poor, I think here Luther is speaking economically rather than theologically: donations to Mary's shrines would be better given to the poor than to the shrine keepers. To which Francis might reply: "But if you do not give sufficient honor and praise to God, what is your motivation going to be to care for the poor at all?" It is a difficult argument, but after all Christ rebuked Judas for chastising the woman who anointed his feet for wasting money.

    What I find frustrating about Luther's position is that it is so either-or (as one of our other posts suggests): that Mary must be *either* a humble housemaid reliant on God's grace (which she was) *or* heavenly Queen (which, arguably, she now is). Surely the mystery is how she is both!


  3. I have a couple of comments/questions...

    The first is about this idea that "a failure to praise Mary for carrying Christ is in fact a failure to praise the miracle of God becoming human." I'm interested in seeing how you came to this conclusion. I never would have put the two together. How is it an affirmation of the Incarnation?

    The second thing was in regards to the exchange at the Wedding at Cana. While I am a fan of Luther, I do believe he does go a bit overboard with this idea that Christ's rebuke of Mary is somehow a symbolic future rebuke of the Church giving too much praise to Mary. This is not to say that Christ, being omniscient God Himself, didn't know that there would be a rise in Marian praise but to say that HERE at THIS MOMENT with THIS RESPONSE Christ refutes that is and can only be Luther's own invention.

    Finally, I do give Luther some credit in bringing to out attention that Mary can err. If Mary was pure and free from original sin from birth, why couldn't she be the savior of the world? Even if she couldn't, does this mean that mankind, with enough prayer and supplication to God, be perfect and blameless? And if this is the case, Christ's perfect life isn't extremely unique.

    Just some thoughts,

  4. I really like the title of this post, emphasizing how Luther equates all of man with the Virgin, which I strongly disagree with. Almost all of the texts we have read thus far depict Mary as the most holy, the Queen, the Bride of the Heavenyly Father, and the Mother of Christ. I feel that Luther's act of equalizing Mary doesn't do her enough justice. I agree with you that she is being 'devalued.' Luther seems to say that Mary was simply a woman, no more, when she was really such a divine being. He does not give her the necessary credit for carrying the Savior in her womb, for raising him as her child, for devoting her entire life to Christ.
    Without Mary, mankind would not have been saved. Luther cannot possibly say that Mary is no better or no more Holy than we are as humans. She should not just be respected as a faithful, religious, or strong woman; she should be revered of the Mother of Christ and the Mother of us all. We must pray to her for guidance, rather than looking up to her as a figure.


  5. This post was very interesting, and made me think about how this account of Mary affects my relationship with God. Luther’s assessment of Mary as being “just like you and me” is valuable in its connection to the relatability that we talked about in previous classes. He describes her as a lowly handmaid who by God was given graces and the honor of carrying Christ in her womb. She is any woman, any person and therefore she is all of us. And her meekness emphasizes the fact that even the lowest sinner can attain grace through God. But I agree with the Professor in that Luther seems to deny an important aspect of Mary’s role in Christianity when he denies her greatness and her queen-ship. He underscores the fact that it was not through any act of hers that Mary was chosen by God. “She did receive great grace, but this did not happen because she earned it” (Luther on Women, 36). So is it impossible for anyone to aspire to be like Mary not only in that no one else can be “the bodily Mother of God” (36), but also because she did nothing to earn it and thus there is no model to which to act accordingly or adhere. Although Luther intends this to instill hope, for he says that this makes her “the same as us” (36) and thus we can all come to grace as she did, it does not do so for me. Instead, this lessening of Mary’s cooperation in her acquisition of grace makes me feel that I too cannot cooperate with God, and thus I feel that my relationship with God is lessened as well.


  6. I think your post highlights some of the concerns that I myself had while reading Luther’s work on Mary. I also found that the role of Mary as humble servant and merely human vessel as being incomplete and missing the point of why and how Mary becomes the same example Luther wants her to be. It is a one-sided understanding of who she is for the human race. Her humanity which unites us with her, which Luther wants to emphasize is greatly undermined, I think, when we fail to consider who she is fully. When reflecting on the container metaphors that we were reconsidering during class discussion, I was taken aback by the complete disregard for Mary as container of the UNCONTAINED. Luther stops at container. Mary’s humanity seems to limit her role for Luther as our intercessor and makes her like you and me, but isn’t the fact that Mary, a human, is chosen, is exhaulted to carry the Son of God and not only carry but nurture and unite with and in her flesh an incredible sign of God’s own desire for union with humanity? Humanity is precious to God and Mary emphasizes this point only second to Christ himself! I also agree with you that Luther seems to conveniently maneuver the humanity of Mary as he wishes, which is evident in the his interpretation of the Wedding at Cana. If Christ’s humanity is so important and if Mary’s is even more important (it seems) why not read the passage of the Wedding at Cana as an encounter with human relations? --A mother asking her son to do something, the son whining about it but then thinks about it and does what she says. (This is perhaps not the most orthodox or pious interpretation, I realize!)

  7. Luther’s commentary on the wedding at Cana confuses me. Luther claims that “[Jesus] did not let his mother’s intercession move him,” but this is simply not true. Indeed, he did listen to her, rewarding her faith with His action. In this case, Luther’s insistence on faith without works is interesting in that Mary was rewarded for her faith in Christ with a manifestation of His divine power by coming to the rescue of the newlyweds, acting only in instructing the servants to have faith in the commands of Jesus. If she was encouraging the increase in faith of those around her, what could she have done to err?

    Also, I would like to add to Professor Brown’s comment, if Luther is concerned with faith and not works, why does caring for the poor even bother him very much? What is the problem with spending more time in contemplating the absolute faith of Mary as an example, if nothing more, of how serve the poor so that the poor can be served more perfectly? Isn’t there something inherently lacking if the poor are served without the right mindset?

    OGC, in response to the last point of your comment, Mary is not capable of redeeming the world. The price of sin was far too great for one who was only human, even a perfect human, to fulfill. Also, the love God has for His people would not become manifest to the world if He just sent an “emissary” to do the dirty work for Him; He chose to come pay our debts Himself through the person of His Son. Mary, because of her preservation from original sin, is the first who can fully understand and appreciate the sacrifice that was made. That is to say, because she is the most capable of conforming her will to Christ’s, she is thereby most capable of sharing in His suffering for the salvation of the world. It is for this reason that we should honor her—she is the ultimate model for us to follow, since she is the epitome of what we are to become when the stain of original sin is finally washed away by the blood of the Lamb. She needed God herself to give her the wonderful gift of protection from original sin which she deserved as a member of the human race. Christ is still her Savior, but His saving happens at the same moment as His creation of her.