In Martin Luther’s 1532 sermon on the day of the annunciation, he calls Mary “pious child” (39). Our class discussion brought up this epithet but our conversation centered on Luther’s depiction of Mary as “pious” (39). What strikes me, however, is not this adjective “pious” (39). Rather, I am intrigued by Luther terming Mary a “child” (39). This reference feels distinct from our previous portrayals of Mary. What accounts for this epithet? Why would Luther refer to the mother of God as a “child” (39)? I believe the answer lies in two strands of the Protestant Reformation: the new freedom for priests to marry and the assertion that Mary is like any other Christian.
Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Weisner-Hanks’ introduction to Luther’s sermons supports the first strand’s influence. They observe a trend in “visual depictions” of Mary:
Visual depictions of Mary in much of the Middle Ages showed her as a fully adult woman, sometimes with the infant or adult Christ, but often standing or sitting alone. During the fifteenth century she gradually grew younger, softer, and more dependent, and Joseph appeared, first as an old and feeble man at the edge of the scene, but gradually becoming younger, stronger, and more central to events. (34)
This visual trend complements the verbal trend seen in Luther; both depict a young Mary. Indeed, Luther also calls Mary “young woman” within the same sermon, further emphasizing her youth (38).
Karant-Nunn and Weisner-Hanks couple this observation with the fact that Mary’s mother and grandmother faded from view. Together, they argue, these changes point to a new ideal. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus function as a model of sorts:
Pictures of the Holy Family, both Protestant and Catholic, thus began to look more like the ideal human family envisioned by theologians: responsible and protective father, caring and loving mother, obedient and charming child. (34)
As noted in class, Protestants, priests and non-priests, alike could pursue this “ideal human family,” since the Reformation allowed priests to marry (34). Thus, Luther’s terming of Mary as “child” and art showing Mary as younger than previous depictions had reflects this Protestant change. In class, we noted that Mary often served in our pre-Reformation readings as more a model for priests than a model for women. Here, too, then, Mary can be seen as taking on an aspirational quality as part of the model family clergy should strive for.
This explanation, however, while compelling does not seem wholly satisfying. After all, though “child” certainly encompasses ideas of youth, it still seems somewhat extreme (39). “Young woman” seemingly would encompass the same function in situating Mary as a model family member (38). I propose, then, that some other strand of Reformation thinking might offer further insight into Luther’s language choice. I believe that Luther calls Mary “child” not only to reflect familial ideals but also to emphasize his belief that Mary is like any other Christian (39).
A fuller examination of Luther’s references to Mary as a “pious child” hints at this belief (39). First, while musing on what Mary might have been doing before the annunciation, he supposes: “Or perhaps the Virgin Mary, as a pious child, was alone in the corner praying for the salvation of Israel” (39). Later on in the sermon, Luther describes Mary grappling with the news she has received: “These are great and mighty words, which upset the pious child, so she wondered what sort of message this could possibly be” (39). Luther continues in the same vein: “Such words made the pious child blush and took her breath away with shock, for she did not know what they were about” (39). As the first use of “pious child” indicates, Mary devotes attention to God; the description of her as “pious” refers directly to the religious exercise in which Luther imagines her engaging (39). The phrase “pious child” seems to refer less to Mary’s behavior in the social and familial sphere and more to her behavior in the religious sphere (39).
The other reference to “child” within the sermon bolsters this impression. Luther, speaking of how Mary obtained salvation, explains: “But she is God’s child and comes to eternal life only because she held her child to be what the angel had foretold him to be” (40). Mary is not merely any child; Mary is “God’s child” (40).
What does it mean to Luther for Mary to be “God’s child” (40)? His sermon on the birth of Mary discusses Mary using a similar phrase. When laying out his views on how and how much Mary should be honored, Luther offers the following:
So let her receive the honor that is appropriate to her as a child of God, praise God in her, as she herself praised God in the Magnificat. And everyone should pay more attention to the saints living her with is, and not run all over the place…(37)
In other words, Luther finds no differences between Mary and between other Christians. To Luther, all “saints,” all Christians are equal (37). No one deserves “attention” more than another (37). Further, Luther speaks of this “honor” (37), this “attention” (40) as something “that is appropriate to her as a child of God” (37). In doing, so he implicitly asserts that all children of God are equal and that Mary, through her identity as a “child of God” is just like other Christians.
Perhaps, then, when Luther calls Mary a “pious child,” the “child” draws on this idea (39), this idea of Mary as “God’s child” (40). Perhaps when Luther calls Mary a “child,” he means to emphasize not only Mary’s youth but also her role as “God’s child” (40).
In this way, two elements of Reformation theology come into play here, molding the way in which Luther presents Mary. Here both the newfound freedom of Protestant priests to marry and the Protestants’ claim they want to scale back on alleged over-devotion to Mary come together.
Sources: Martin Luther, Luther on Women: A Sourcebook, ed. and trans. Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 32-57.