Monday, February 5, 2007

Sixteenth Century Lutheran Views of Mary

So what did Lutherans think of Mary in the Sixteenth Century? Today we hear precious little about the Mother of Our Lord, save those times when her presence is unavoidable, such as Christmas or late Advent. On the other hand, there appears also to be a revival, of sorts, in Marian devotion among some in Lutheran circles. In a review of Beth Kreitzer's 2004 book Reforming Mary: Changing Images of the Virgin Mary in Lutheran Sermons of the Sixteenth Century (Oxford Univ. Press) in the January issue of the Concordia Journal, Dr. Timothy Maschke of Mequon gives a nice overview of the Marian views of our 16th century predecessors.

Preachers of this era (including Luther) retained the traditional Marian festivals for their Christological significance (Annunciation, Visitation, and Purification). However, the Mary in these early Lutheran sermons was not the Queen of Heaven or the great intercessor of mankind, but rather "an example of the faithful believer." They saw in her a model for all women and a good witness to God's grace. However, they did not shrink from her humanity, and freely noted the sinful weakness she possessed in common with all believers, or where it appeared that her actions may have been the result of sinful tendencies.

The Ave Maria, while popular even today in Catholicism, was also roundly critiqued in many of the sermons of this era, noting that the angel's words "are not a prayer, but a simple and proper greeting." Obviously Lutherans would have struggled with the AM from the perspective of Mary's role as a kind of "redemptive intercessor," especially the call to "pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death." Although it should be noted that the Lutheran Confessions do not deny that the saints of heaven pray for us (as a part of our understanding of the Communion of Saints and Una Sancta.) We simply find no command in Scripture to pray to them.

All told, however, it would appear that Mary was publicly recognized in sermons with greater frequency than we are accustomed to do today. The early Lutherans preachers saw in her an exemplary example of genuine Christian piety. Even her "chaste manner of travel" as well as her "neighborliness" were duly recognized. Still, these early Lutherans were careful always to note that Mary possessed no intercessory powers and did not actively participate in the actual redemptive work of our Lord.

A lack of Marian attention in sermons today is due, in part, to the lack of use of the minor festivals. One would be lucky to find a parish today that even retained the Ascension, let alone a festival such as the Visitation or Presentation. Still, this may be a good reminder that among Lutherans there is a need to recognize this previous and humble saint more than we do.

Note: While the January 2007 is only available in printed form, past issues of the Journal appear to be archived on the St. Louis Seminary's site here, for those who would like to read other excellent material from this good resource.


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