[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ . . . She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures. (Sermon, Christmas, 1531).
Back in 2007, I speculated that the quote entered into cyberspace via its use by Roman Catholic apologists. The quote appears to have been taken from William Cole’s article “Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?” (Marian Studies Volume XXI, 1970, p.131). Cole states:
In a Christmas sermon of 1531, Luther speaks of Mary as the "highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ." He goes on to claim that "she is nobility, wisdom and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures” (WA 34, 2, 497 and 499).The quote as cited by Cole is actually two quotes from two different pages, separated by an entire page (Yes, that's Rome's apologists at their best). Some years later I revised the entry to include links to the primary sources cited by William Cole WA 34, 2, 497; WA 34, 2, 499. The irony is that I had an English translation of the context all along and didn't realize it. First, the sermon is actually in vigilia nativitatis christi not In festo natalis domini. Second, WA 34 2 is a volume dedicated to Luther's 1531 sermons, but this sermon in particular says "conciones viri dei lutheri anni 1532." Is this is a typo in WA? When the English edition of the House Postils was put together, they cited this sermon as "Preached Christmas Eve, 1532, at the parish church." Because of the date variants between the way Rome's apologists cite the text as compared to WA 34 2, I never put these clues together. The sermon can be found in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 209-220. The sermon is entitled, "Festival of Christ's Nativity" (first sermon) and it's based on Isaiah 9:1-7. An edited online version can be found here.
Typical of Luther, the majority of the sermon isn't about Mary. Rather, the first sections are about the blessed mystery of the humanity of Jesus. Luther goes on for the first 16 points and barely mentions Mary. In point 16 he states,
16. The first thing to learn in this prophecy of Isaiah is that a child is born to you and is your child, just as we sing, “A child so praiseworthy is born to us today.” We must accentuate the word “us” and write it large. That is, when you hear, a Child has been born to us, make the two letters US as large as heaven and earth and say, The child is born, it is true; but for whom is he born? Unto US, for us he is born, says the prophet. He was not born solely to his mother, the Virgin Mary, nor solely for his compatriots, his brethren and kinfolk, the Jews. Much less was he born to God in heaven, who was in no need of the birth of this child; but he was born unto us humans on earth. Thus the prophet wants to say to you and to me, to all of us in general, and to each and every one in particular, Listen, brother, I want to sing a joyous song to you and proclaim the joyous news to you. There, in the manger at Bethlehem, lies a young child, a fine little boy; this little child is yours, he is granted and given to you.
Section 17 then follows up:
17. Ah, Lord God, everyone ought open his hands here, take hold of and joyfully receive this child, whom this mother, the Virgin Mary, bears, suckles, cares for, and tends. Now, indeed, I have become lord and master and the noble mother, who was born of royal lineage, becomes my maid and servant! Ah! for shame, that I do not exult and glory in this, that the prophet says, This child is mine, it was for my sake and for the sake of us all that he has been born, to be my Savior and the Savior of us all! That is the way in which this mother serves me and us all with her own body. Really we all ought to be ashamed with all our hearts. For what are all the maids, servants, masters, mistresses, princes, kings, and monarchs on earth compared with the Virgin Mary, who was born of royal lineage, and withal became the mother of God, the noblest woman on earth? After Christ, she is the most precious jewel in all Christendom. And this noblest woman on earth is to serve me and us all by bearing this child and giving him to be our own! It is about this that this beautiful festival preaches and sings: "To you this night is born a child Of Mary, chosen virgin mild; This little child, of lowly birth, Shall be the joy of all the earth. This is the Christ, our God and Lord, Who in all need shall aid afford; He will himself your Savor be From all your sins to set you free."As mentioned above, the rest of the quote occurs further into the text.
24. Under the papacy only the mother has been praised and extolled. True it is, she is worthy of praise and can never be praised and extolled enough. For this honor is so great and wonderful, to be chosen before all women on earth to become the mother of this child. Nevertheless, We should not praise and extol the mother in such a way as to allow this child who has been born unto us to be removed from before our eyes and hearts and to think less highly of him than of the mother. If one praises the mother, the praise ought to be like the wide ocean. If either one is to be forgotten, it is better to forget the mother rather than the child. Under the papacy, however, the child has all but been forgotten, and attention riveted only on the mother. But the mother has not been born for our sakes; she does not save us from sin and death. She has, indeed, begotten the Savior! for this reason we are to wean ourselves away from the mother and bind ourselves firmly to this child alone!
One will notice there are some differences between this English translation and that from Cole. Particularly notice Cole says, "She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified." I don't see the "wisdom and holiness personified" in the text. Nor do I see "injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures." Perhaps someone with better Latin / German skills can look over WA 34 2 and compare the translations. It's quite possible that there are two versions of this sermon: most of Luther's sermons are the result of those who listened to him and wrote down what they heard. It wouldn't be uncommon for there to be more than one version of the sermon. It could very well be the English translation I've utilized was based on a different set of sermon notes: that put together by Georg Roerer (see p. 14-15 in the preface in vol. 5 of Luther's Complete Sermons). The sermon I've cited above is based on the St. Louis edition volume 13b. In the St. Louis edition, the first part of the quote is found here, the second part, here, in German. In WA 34 2, the text is a mixture of German and Latin.
Once again, there's no denying Luther said nice things about Mary. Luther though abandoned the distinction between latria and dulia. If you search out all the times Luther used the word “veneration,” you will find an entirely negative meaning applied to the term. The question that needs to be asked is what exactly is Marian devotion and veneration? What does it mean for a Roman Catholic to be devoted to or venerate Mary, and what does it mean for Luther to be devoted to or venerate Mary? If you look closely at point 24 above, Luther chastised the papacy for its treatment of Mary. So, challenge the Roman apologists to define their terms. They need to be able to tell you what Marian devotion is. They cannot be allowed to equivocate: Luther saying nice things about Mary does not equal Rome's version of devotion. I do not deny that Luther spoke favorably about Mary, but when Catholics say "honor" or “devotion,” they mean something quite different than Luther.