by William Weedon
Whatever are Lutherans to make of Mary?
Looking around at the contrary approaches to Mary that other church traditions take, it’s easy to be confused. At times it seems that Christians in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches elevate Mary almost to the status of a goddess. They pray to her, sing hymns to glorify her and even commend their souls into her keeping at death. On the other hand, many Protestant Christians believe her to be “just like us” — nothing special. That surely is not right either. After all, who among us has been visited by an archangel and been declared highly favored of God? Who among us has conceived a child by the power of the Holy Spirit and given birth to the long-promised Savior, the eternal Son of God? Nothing about this screams “just like us.”
So is there a third way? Yes.
Before we can identify that third way, however, it is important to understand that the contrary teachings about Mary we see all around us today have their roots not in the Bible, but in some extra-biblical traditions that arose in the history of the Church.
Mary in the Early Church
In the early years of the Church, there was no apparent devotion to the Virgin Mary. There was, however, a growing theological reflection upon Mary’s role in the salvation narrative. She was frequently depicted in sermons as a “new Eve,” and her faithful obedience to the angel’s message was seen as a counterpoint to Eve’s disobedience. In the art of the catacombs she was often depicted praying, her hands raised in pious supplication. The idea of her perpetual virginity was also beginning to take firm root in the minds of the faithful, but there was still plenty of room for diverging opinions on this question.
Reflection on Mary grew with intensity as the Church began to hammer out the language of the two natures in Christ. By the third great ecumenical council, held at Ephesus in 431, Mary was very much a topic of discussion. Was she just the mother of the human Jesus, or the very Mother of God (Theotokos, God-bearer)? The Church came down solidly on the latter interpretation. By this, the Church Fathers were not saying or implying that Mary was eternal or divine in her own right. Nonetheless, they affirmed that to call Mary the Mother of God was thoroughly biblical. After all, as Isaiah had foretold in chapter 7, she is the mother of Immanuel, God-with-us. She conceived and bore in her womb and fed at her breasts God the Son, eternally begotten of His Father but born in time of His mother, from whom He received a human nature by the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit.
Mary in the Middle Ages
As time passed, the traditions surrounding the Virgin and her place in Christian devotion and piety continued to expand, and these practices gradually moved from private piety and speculation into public worship. Beginning with the churches of the eastern half of the empire but later spreading also into the West, prayers and hymns began to be offered to Mary in various liturgies. The picture that took firm hold in the hearts of the faithful during the High Middle Ages was of Christ as a stern and forbidding judge who needed to be appeased and made kind toward us. His mother was thought to be the one for the job. Mother Mary thus became a refuge for sinners, who fled to her and begged her to implore her Son on their behalf — to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” as Catholics repeat to this day in the Rosary. Hand in hand with the invocation of the Virgin came the teaching that she was granted by her Son an early resurrection and enthroned at His side as the Queen of Heaven. This is the tradition of Mary’s Assumption that came to be celebrated on August 15th. The notion that Mary was conceived without original sin arose also, though not without some significant opposition.
Reform and Reaction
During the Reformation, Lutherans and Protestants alike sought to critique and rein in the unscriptural elements of medieval devotion to Mary. Some of the more radical reformers even destroyed all statuary and pictures of Mary (and of the other saints and even of Christ Himself) and pretty much scrubbed her from their piety entirely. “She’s just like us,” was their thought. “Nothing special about her.” It’s sadly true that this more radical approach came to influence later generations of Lutherans. Just ask yourself: Among all the St. Peter and St. Paul and even St. James Lutheran churches, have you ever noticed a St. Mary Lutheran Church in your neighborhood?
The Lutheran approach, however, as witnessed in the Book of Concord, differed from that of those more radical reformers from the start. While acknowledging and eliminating the abuses attached to devotion to Mary and the other saints, early Lutherans still envisioned a place in the Church of the Augsburg Confession for a positive remembrance of all the saints, including the Virgin Mary. Thus Lutherans continued to celebrate the memory of the Virgin Mary in the chief feasts associated with her: Annunciation, Visitation, Purification and, of course, Christmas. The non-biblical feast of the Assumption was largely discontinued in Lutheran use (and where it did remain, it was redirected, as in our own hymnal where it simply commemorates the traditional day of her death). All invocation of the Virgin or any other saint was set completely aside; Lutherans prayed, as we still do, to the Triune God alone. All nonsense about saintly merit was discarded by the Lutheran reformers without question, even as they continued to honor Mary in a biblical way.
A Lutheran View of Mary
How, then, should Lutherans view Mary today? Through the Bible, of course!
In the Gospels, we learn that this young virgin, betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph, was a descendent of King David. Before the betrothed couple came together, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and bear a Son and call His name Jesus. In great faith, Mary responded to the angel’s words: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”
After the angel left her, Mary made her way into the hill country of Judea and arrived at the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth. As Mary called out a greeting, John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy and Elizabeth cried out in amazement: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? … And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (LUKE 1:42–45). Shortly thereafter Mary herself prophesied: “For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (LUKE 1:48, 49). It has thus been a pious custom ever since — and one that Lutherans can certainly embrace — for Christians to speak of Mary as “the Blessed Virgin.”
Mary speaks of people calling her blessed not because she is great or has done great things, but because God her Savior has done great things for her. Elizabeth specifically calls Mary blessed because she believed what God said; this in contrast to her husband Zechariah, who doubted the angel’s words and was stricken with nine months of muteness! Many years after the events in Luke 1, a woman would cry out to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!” To which He replied: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (LUKE 11:27, 28). In saying this, Jesus was not disrespecting his mother, but He was making sure we don’t miss out on what made His mother truly blessed: not merely that she was privileged to give birth to Him, but rather, that her deepest blessedness came when God spoke His promise to her and she believed it — and not only believed it, but kept and “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (LUKE 2:19; 2:51).
All of this means that Mary is the virgin mother foretold in Isaiah 7:14. She is the Mother of Immanuel, the Mother of God-with-us. This, of course, is not saying that she herself is divine, or eternal, or anything at all like that. We confess instead that this truly human creature, who freely admitted herself in need of a Savior (LUKE 1:47), was chosen by God’s grace to become the mother of the Eternal Word. She really is the Mother of God. God the Eternal Word took on flesh in her womb, nursed at her breasts and was swaddled in the warmth of her embrace.
Mary is not, then, “contrary” to our confession. As Lutherans, we remember her and thank God for her life. We find our own faith strengthened when we ponder the way God’s grace worked in her. We certainly want to imitate her joyous “yes” to the will of God and her holding tight to the words and promises she heard.
Fittingly, Mary’s last recorded words in the Bible are, “Do whatever He tells you” (JOHN 2:5). In this, Mary sets a fine example for us to follow — one that invites us all to trust in her Son’s love and join the psalmist in crying out: “Not to us, O Lord! Not to us but to Your name be glory” (PS. 115:1).
The Rev. William Weedon is director of worship for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and author of Thank, Praise, Serve, and Obey: Recover the Joys of Piety (new this month from CPH).
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 print edition of The Lutheran Witness.