Originally posted December 12, 2011, at Bishop Mike. Republished with permission of the author.
Editor’s note: This blog entry has been edited from the original.
This coming Sunday is Mary Sunday among congregations that use the lectionary.
The first Sunday of Advent often focuses on the second coming. The middle of Advent focuses on John the Baptist. The fourth Sunday in Advent often has us walking in the footsteps of the mother of Jesus.
Martin Luther holds Mary in very high regard, something that has become a bit lost in Lutheran devotional life.
The cult of the saints in the 16th century was so abused that the reformers used very strong rhetoric to oppose it. The idea that the saints had some treasury of extra works in heaven, which the faithful on earth could access through penance, plenary indulgences and donations to the church was an offense to Luther.
But it is hard to imagine that he would agree with the disappearance of Marian devotions entirely, as well as the eradication of statues, icons and other manifestations of longstanding Christian piety. For Luther, Mary was “Theotokos,” bearer of God, mother of God.
For example, Luther said,
She became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child. Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God. (Luther’s Works 21:326ff)
You can see how Luther is drawn into the mystery of the incarnation, and Mary’s unique role in this. Nor was this Luther’s piety alone. Listen to these words from the Lutheran Confessions and their reference to her as the Blessed Virgin Mary:
On account of this personal union and communion of the natures, Mary, the most blessed virgin, did not conceive a mere, ordinary human being, but a human being who is truly the Son of the most high God, as the angel testifies. He demonstrated his divine majesty even in his mother’s womb in that he was born of a virgin without violating her virginity. Therefore she is truly the mother of God and yet remained a virgin. (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration 8:24)
Most Lutherans do not espouse the perpetual virginity of Mary (that she was a virgin her whole life), but interestingly, Luther did. The thing is, Mark’s Gospel even names Jesus’ brothers and sisters. One author got around this in her midrash by having Joseph die and Mary remarry another man who had children. She never has sex with husband two, so she remains a virgin, and Jesus has half-brothers. (Seems like a big stretch to me.)
Praying with saints
Luther supports praying with Mary and even to Mary, though this gets thumped out in the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy.
Luther and Philipp Melanchthon both believed the company of saints prayed for people on earth. In our communion liturgy we pray, “And so with Mary and Peter and all the witnesses of the Resurrection, with earth and sea and all their creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim we praise your name and join their unending hymn ”
We embrace the idea of praying with the saints and angels. We are part of the communion of saints.
It’s no stretch for the idea of praying with Mary. Praying to Mary is more debated. Luther did, and on our Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogues, theologians have pointed out that there is no scriptural prohibition against praying to the saints.
The Magnificat is of course scriptural and can be prayed by Lutherans. Peipkorn says Lutherans can and should pray the pre-Reformation first half of the Hail Mary.
Our new director of evangelical mission, Pedro Surez, has pointed out to me that the Virgin Mary, for various cultural reasons, has a very high level of importance in various Latino cultures.
At the same time, Latinos may have a gift for us in reviving a sense of the importance of Mary. Congregations in our tradition won’t hesitate to have a statue of Luther and sometimes a statue of St. Francis. But put out a statue of Mary and people start worrying that maybe you’re too Catholic. Does Mary belong only to Catholics?
100 percent human
The Virgin is approachable. She is human, and, in contrast to so much of our patriarchal society, she is female. Perhaps there is a natural yearning to reclaim the feminine that was drummed out of Christianity after the Great Schism, with an all-male clergy, an all-male Trinity and an all male lay-leadership. Mary is the corrective to men’s club Christianity.
Just as a congregation might have a picture or statue of John the Baptist, it would be perfectly appropriate for a congregation to have a picture or statue of Mary. Lutherans would not place her front and center, to detract from Christ as our devotional center, but she would be held in reverence, certainly above Luther, as an important part of the story of incarnation, and as a model of a life submitted to God. Like John, she points to Christ.
Perhaps the Virgin is a gift to American Christians. She is a kind and gentle Mary, shining like the sun, and yet a woman of the land and a woman of the people. She is beauty. She is compassion. She too touches something deep within us.
In a Christmas Eve sermon Luther said:
This is the great joy, of which the angel speaks, this is the consolation and the superabundant goodness of God, that man (if he has this faith) may boast of such treasure as that Mary is his real mother, Christ his brother, and God his father. … See to it that you make (Christ’s) birth your own, and that you make an exchange with him, so that you rid yourself of your birth and receive instead, his. This happens if you have this faith. By this token you sit assuredly in the Virgin Mary’s lap and are her dear child.
I hope you enjoy Mary Sunday and move into it fully, marveling at the magnificent willingness of Mary to be an instrument of God’s grace to this world.
Find a link to Michael Rinehart’s blog Bishop Mike at Lutheran Blogs.
You might also like to read:
Finding favor with God
Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter comes to life
Why the virgin birth matters