Luther’s reaction against Marian devotion was less extreme than many of the other sixteenth century reformers like Latimer or Calvin. He was happy to allow statues and images of her to remain in churches and continued to celebrate those Marian feasts that had biblical precedent. Having said this, he still preached for a fairly major change in the nature of this devotion, with Mary’s ‘lowliness’ emphasised as her key virtue. Her position shifts from intercessor and intermediary to example and perhaps even teacher. Through looking at his homilies to the Virgin, you can see what motivates this shift and how he articulates it, along with he is so focused on Mary’s lowliness.
In his ‘Sermon to the birth of Mary’ in September 1522, Luther begins by stressing people are right to honour Mary, ‘But it is right that she is honoured correctly.’ I think it is helpful to see his opinion on Marian devotion in the context of his wider religious mission. In this sermon, he makes an interesting distinction that helps to illustrate his grievances, showing how incorrect practice can injure both Christ and the ‘common people’. I think this shows Luther pulling his criticism of Mary in line with his wider project of promoting an individualised relationship with God for every believer and attacking church abuses. I’ll start by looking at the abuses of the church. In his essay, Mccculoch claims that it was sites like the newly construct ‘Beautiful Mary’ shrine in Regensburg that drew such fury from Luther (p197). He claims it was similar to Luther’s attacks on Tetzel concerning the selling of indulgences. This is an interesting parallel as it suggest that Luther’s frustration is less focused towards the act of devotion itself but rather the corruption and the inequality that surrounded it. In the lesson we claimed the reformers sometimes accused mainstream Marian worship unfairly, falsely representing their devotion then attacking it as sinful. However, if seen in the context, although such devotion may not have been strictly blasphemous, it was is so intertwined with the abuses that surrounded it so became tainted and difficult to defend. It is true that Marian pilgrimage could be done in a totally orthodox manner, yet its spiritual legitimacy cannot be separated by the corruption, commerce and misinterpretation that it accompanied.
Luther is equally concerned with the harm the incorrect honouring of Mary has upon believers ability to honour Jesus. His rejection of the feast of the Mary’s Ascension illustrates this. In his ‘Sermon on the Visitation’ in 1532, which was held on the same day as the Virgin’s Ascension, Luther claims The Ascension is a process that should be limited to Christ. In giving Mary the honour, you make the mother equal to the son. As there is no mention of it in the New Testament, for Luther it amounts to ‘witchcraft and all types of superstitions’ (p47). Luther is attempting to promote the individualization of faith, foregrounding the direct link between believer and God. Anything outside of that relationship is to him extraneous. This is not just a problem of misinterpretation on behalf of the masses. In his 1522 ‘Sermon to the birth of Mary’ he says, ‘But we should absolutely not make her into a goddess, as the priests and monks pretend we should.’ Luther clearly believes that overzealous Marian devotion is not merely problem of ‘popular religion’ but a genuine flaw in the way the church propagates faith. This is, in a sense, a given as if it were merely a problem of misinterpretation, the dramatic break from Rome would not have been necessary.
The aggressive way Luther expresses these perceived Marian abuses shows his strength of feeling. Luther says in the ‘Sermon to the birth of Mary’ (1522) that Catholics ‘grab scripture by the hair, forcing it into places it does not belong.’(p37) This tone is echoed in his Sermon on the Visitation and Magnificat (1523), saying attaching our self to Mary instead of God amounts to ‘copulating with his creatures.’ (p42) The Holy Scripture itself is violently disfigured and sullied when the Mary is lifted above her station. I found Luther’s aggressive, almost sexualised use of language here is surprising but it points to the centrality of the correct use of scripture to his theology.
The role that Luther does give to Mary is centred upon her ‘lowliness’. For Luther, Mary did not ‘earn’ the right to be the mother of God. It was not a position she deserved through her own merit as no-one could deserve the honour of being the Mother of God. It is God who therefore deserves our honour, not Mary. There is sometimes a slight tension in these ideas. In his 1521 ‘Sermon on the Magnificat’ he says ‘her sole worthiness to become Mother of God lay in her being fit and appointed for it.’ (46) In a sense he is saying Mary was merely in the right place and the right time. He stresses her lowliness to show that she is just as worthy of praise as any other Christian. However, a few lines later he says ‘What great things are hidden here under this lowly exterior.’ Sometimes Luther’s view on Mary appears slightly contradictory. Luther almost constructs a prayer to her lowliness and is keen to stress he does not mean simply modesty but a genuinely menial status. For him her only actively impressive feat is her ability to avoid pride despite the gift that is bestowed upon her. Mary lacks any agency in Luther’s sermons, and is in fact praised because of this lack of agency. She is above all an example of commitment to God. At most, she can be seen as a teacher, who ‘teaches us, with her words and by the example of her experience, how to know, love and praise God.’ She is worthy of respect, but God should be the sole recipient of praise.