Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
There are many differences between Lutheranism and Catholicism, as well as many common elements of our faith. One of the differences that has emerged over the years is with respect to the Virgin Mary.
This prayer, the Ave Maria, epitomizes that difference.
For a devout Roman Catholic this prayer is second only to the Lord’s Prayer in common piety.
And for many Lutherans, praying to the Virgin Mary as opposed to praying to Jesus, is something we just haven’t done.
Let me share with you some statements on the Virgin Mary from a devout Roman Catholic:
1. ". . . she is full of grace,
proclaimed to be entirely without sin. . . . God's grace fills her with
everything good and makes her devoid of all evil. . . . God is with her,
meaning that all she did or left undone is divine and the action of God in
her. Moreover, God guarded and protected her from all that might be hurtful to her."
(Commentary on the Hail Mary (Luther's Works, American edition, vol. 43, p. 40 , ed. H. Lehmann, Fortress, 1968)
2. ". . . she is rightly called not only
the mother of the man, but also the Mother of God. . . . it is certain that
Mary is the Mother of the real and true God."
(Sermon on John 14. 16: Luther's Works ( (St. Louis, ed. Jaroslav,
Pelican, Concordia. vol. 24. p. 107: )
3. "Christ our Savior was the real and natural
fruit of Mary's virginal womb. . . . This was without the cooperation of a
man, and she remained a virgin after that."
(On the Gospel of St. John: Luther's Works, vol. 22. p. 23, ed. Jaroslav Pelican, Concordia, 1957):
The devout Roman Catholic who so venerated the Virgin Mary in this way was, wait for it, Martin Luther himself.
Luther’s Commentary on the Magnificat is considered one of his richest and most profound works.
So what about that prayer?
Holy Mary Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Notice that in the prayer, strictly speaking, we are not praying to Mary, but rather asking Mary to pray for us. So contrary to Lutheran criticism, the Ave Maria is a request that Mary intercede on our behalf.
Have you ever asked someone to pray for you?
People ask me to pray for them all the time, but that doesn’t mean that they are putting me in the place of God and praying to me, as opposed to Jesus and the Father.
So let’s just put aside some of our anti-Catholic bias and consider again just why she has been called blessed for all generations.
Mary is introduced to us in the opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel:
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
Two statements of Mary stand out:
1. “How can this be?”
2. And “Let it be.”
Mary’s life was a journey of faith, and her faith is a model of perfect obedience and submission to the Word of God.
Mary knew how things worked.
One of the facts of life, is virgins don’t conceive and bear children. This fact was not lost on Mary.
"How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
There are those in the Church today that question whether Mary was truly a virgin or whether this was a later theological development, rendered in order to support the belief that Jesus was sinless.
Those who have thought this way have been quick to point out that the term for “virgin” in Hebrew also simply means a ‘young maiden’ who has not yet given birth.
Every woman remains a maiden, until she becomes a mother. This logic allows the modern mind to avoid the stumbling block of believing that God did the impossible.
Yet it avoids Mary’s own assessment and question. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Faith. It is to believe and trust in God’s Word above all else. In Mary’s case it is to believe that all things are possible with God, and that, if it be God’s will, she could indeed conceive and bear a child as a virgin.
"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
Joseph could have had Mary punished for infidelity. To be found to be with child, when one is already betrothed to another, was a great sin. Adultery. And a woman who was found guilty of adultery could be stoned to death.
The risks were high for Mary.
Let it be to me according to your word.
In saying that she exhibited the ultimate faith, trusting not only that what the angel said would happen, but trusting also that God would protect her from all harm and that she would be allowed to bear the child.
In this way Mary is the pioneer of our faith, our teacher.
“Let it be to me, according to your word.”
These should be the words on all of our lips. Let it be.
Elizabeth declared: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
John, Elizabeth’s baby, leapt for joy within her womb as Mary approached.
The Orthodox refer to Mary as the Theotokos, literally, the God bearer, the Mother of God.
Why do they hold Mary in such high regard?
Because it was within her womb that the Word became flesh.
And it was she, that young maiden, who bore the Christ Child into the world for us.
To encounter Mary, is to encounter Jesus within her.
Imagine this young maiden, bearing the Son of God within her womb. God within her.
It was a holy communion.
We will gather at the altar to receive our Lord, in, with and under the bread and the wine.
With Mary, we too ask “How can this be?”
And the answer is the same: by the power of the Holy Spirit.
“This is my body. This is my blood.”
God within us, as God was within Mary.
And as she was blessed, so also are we blessed.
Mary sang her song:
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
God has looked upon our low estate with favor and grace. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”
And God has done great things for us.
Mary’s song is our song of praise, as well.
One final word, about the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Sometimes only a mother will do.
This is, I believe, the reason why Mary has been held in such high regard by Christians throughout all generations, including Martin Luther.
As the Mother of God, Mary bears witness to the tender compassion of our God and his mercy and love.
And whenever Christians have been embraced by this compassion and mercy, they have been embraced by God.
It’s not that Mary is God, but rather that through her God is with us.
And for this, we call her blessed.