This coming Sunday is Mary Sunday among churches 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. 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, that the faithful on earth could access through penance, plenary indulgences and donations to 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…. None can say of her nor announce to her greater things, even though he had as many tongues as the earth possesses flowers and blades of grass: the sky, stars; and the sea, grains of sand. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God." (LW21:326ff)
You can see how Luther is drawn into the mystery of the incarnation, and Mary’s utterly 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 BVM, 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. 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 already. She never has sex with husband two, so she remains a virgin, and Jesus has half-brothers. (Seems like a big stretch to me.)
Luther can’t seem to decide if Mary is sinless or not. At times he thinks so, but later writes:
Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit covered her, sanctified and purified her so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood. The Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we. However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are. For in that moment when she conceived, she was a holy mother filled with the Holy Spirit and her fruit is a holy pure fruit, at once God and truly man, in one person."
It is interesting to see the pre-modern theologians trying to work out all the implications of a high christology.
Luther supports praying with Mary and even to Mary, though this gets thumped out in the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy. Luther and 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, Pastor Pedro Surez has pointed out to me that the Virgin Mary, for various cultural reason, has a very high level of importance in various Latino culture. She is blessed among all women. She is a person of low degree that God uses in powerful ways. There may be an opportunity here. Having a picture of Mary, or a statue Mary is likely to make Latinos feel more welcome. At the same time, Latinos may have a gift for us in reviving a sense of the importance of Mary. Churches 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?
One particular expression of Mary is particularly dear to Mexican Lutherans. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s day is tomorrow, December 12. It is interesting to dig into her symbolic importance. When Latinos come, they bring their Marian piety with them, just as Russian Lutherans have a love of St. Nicholas.
The story of the Virgin of Guadalupe dates back to an apparition of Mary in Mexico, to an Aztec man named Juan Diego in 1531 (ironically, the same year Luther composed his 15-stanza Christmas hymn "Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her" "From Heav’n Above to Earth I Come.") She was clothed with the sun and stars as in Revelation 12. Perhaps due to the incredible hardships of Latinos/as, there is tremendous resonance with Mary’s song: "He has lifted up the lowly…"
She speaks on behalf of those of low degree, the poor, huddled masses, the hungry, uninsured, vulnerable, oppressed. I am ever astonished that there are those who simply don’t seem to be the slightest bit troubled by the number of people in our world who are hungry at this very moment. They don’t appear to care. La Virginita shows that God cares about these folks, these forgotten and marginalized people of the world.
Some Catholics are embarrassed by the apparition story of Juan Diego. (See a great article in The Lutheran Forum on Mary, apparitions and skepticism) Embarrassment aside, 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.
As with so much of religious iconography, we must get past the literal to understand the truth that is being symbolically expressed beneath the surface. God is simply not at work in a male-only cast of characters mortal and divine.
God chooses to act decisively in history, not through the rich and powerful, but rather through a very young, very poor, peasant girl, a pregnant teenager no less. (Girls in Mary’s culture were generally betrothed at the age of 12 or 13 according to Culpepper.)
The Virgin of Guadlupe is not only female, she is Mestizo, pejoratively referred to as a half-breed. She is racially mixed, another powerful symbol. She becomes symbolic of the universal. As such she was a welcome face for the indigenous peoples of Mexico, and for its new mixed population. Perhaps she is a sign for our newly mixed population in Texas as well. She is la morenita for a browning America.
Just as a church might have a picture or statue of John the Baptist, it would be perfectly appropriate for a church 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 woman of the people. She is beauty. She is compassion. She too touches something deep within us.
Can Protestants celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe? In his book, "The Virgin of Guadalupe: Theological Reflections of an Anglo-Lutheran Liturgist" (2002), Maxwell E. Johnson says we must embrace her, because she proclaims the gospel – the good news of God who in Christ scatters the proud and lifts up the lowly. She represents what the church should be in the world.
Mark Mummert, musician at Christ the king Lutheran Church in Houston, composer of various liturgies and hymns, says the Magnificat, Mary’s Song is the canticle that the church needs to learn the most. It proclaims the Gospel.
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.
Jose David Rodriguez (LSTC) says the Virgin of Guadalupe is a dangerous narrative that counters colonial and imperialistic power. Is this not a message we need to hear, in a society that seems terrified at the thought of not being the overwhelmingly dominant force in the world militarily, economically or otherwise? Rodriguez says:
This popular expression of Mary’s witness dating from the sixteenth century in Mexico constitutes an important symbol of our tradition of faith to resist the forces that throughout time and space, intend to oppress our people and tear down our human dignity.
I am ever humbled by Mary’s response to the tectonic events in her life, "Let it be done to me according to your word." Wow. If only I could respond with such grace.
Preachers looking for a way to connect by drawing upon the American psyche might use the Beatle’s lyrics. They do, I feel, capture some of the sense of her song, sung on behalf of the lowly and downcast of the world:
When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness
she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be
And when the broken hearted people
living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted,
there is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be…
Enjoy singing Mary’s song with her this Sunday. There are very many settings on this sacred song. Marty Haugen’s Magnificat from his setting of evening prayer has become extremely popular in many of our congregations. It is in ELW. Mark Mummert says the version of the Magnificat in evening prayer on pages 314 and 315 is marvelous. It’s an arrangement by Schultz, in Austin, Texas. There are also arrangements in the hymn section of ELW, 234, 235, 236, 251, 573, 723, and 882. Another hymn that has become extremely popular in our congregations is the Canticle of the Turning, ELW 723, which has the bulk of the song of Mary, with this marvelous phrase "and the world is about to turn." Mary is no "anemic white waif" as someone gibed with me this week. Her song is the powerful voice of justice, reminding us that the arc of history bends toward justice.
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 this world.