What does it mean to say, "the Hail Mary"? The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the Hail Mary (or Ave Maria) as a prayer to Mary:
Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death: By asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the "Mother of Mercy," the All-Holy One. We give ourselves over to her now, in the Today of our lives. And our trust broadens further, already at the present moment, to surrender "the hour of our death" wholly to her care. May she be there as she was at her son's death on the cross. May she welcome us as our mother at the hour of our passing to lead us to her son, Jesus, in paradise. (2677)Whatever nuances a Roman Catholic may want to add to this, the bottom line is that for Rome, the Hail Mary is a prayer for Mary's intercession. In Roman Catholic practice it is not simply an occasional prayer, it's intended to be a daily and spiritually important religious exercise. When Luther says "Whoever possesses a good (firm) faith, says the Hail Mary without danger," is he advocating praying to Mary? Is he saying that someone with a strong "faith" can pray to Mary? If one were to simply take the quote in question at face value, that's what Luther appears to be saying. We'll see below this is not the case.
As far as I can tell, the quote found its way to cyberspace originally in a sparse form like this:
"Whoever possesses a good (firm) faith, says the Hail Mary without danger! Whoever is weak in faith can utter no Hail Mary without danger to his salvation" (Sermon, March 11, 1523).The documentation provided refers simply to "Sermon, March 11, 1523." The form of the quote and documentation make it likely it was originally taken from an article by William J. Cole, "Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?" (Marian Studies 1970). Cole cites the quote verbatim to the way presented above:
Whoever possesses a good (firm) faith, says the Hail Mary without danger! Whoever is weak in faith can utter no Hail Mary without danger to his salvation (WA 11, 61, 25 to 32) [William J. Cole, "Was Luther a Devotee of Mary?" (Marian Studies 1970), p. 188].Most likely Cole is responsible for the English translation of the quote in the popular form it is in. It appears that, for some unknown reason, whoever originally introduced this quote into cyberspace ignored the documentation Cole provided. Cole cites WA 11, 61, 25 to 32. This refers to seven lines from Luther's sermon of March 11, 1523, Predigt über Das Ave Maria. Here are lines 25 to 32 on page 61:
It is often the case that the primary text for Luther's sermons are not from the pen of Luther. Rather, a large number of these sermons are the result of those who took shorthand Latin notes with German words mixed in while listening to him preach. The sermons were then adapted into a readable form. The wonders of the Internet never cease to amaze: this appears to be the actual copy of Rörer's handwritten notes for this sermon.
To my knowledge, this sermon is not available in English. The interesting thing though about Cole's citation is the multiple-page detailed overview he gives of this particular sermon and Luther's understanding of the Ave Maria in general. Below we'll examine the context of Cole's article, and in doing so, we'll notice that whoever originally took the quote from Cole's article did so by ignoring crucial qualifiers in the context.
The Context of William Cole's Article
Cole begins his exposition of Luther and The Hail Mary on page 183. He works through the subject in Luther's writings chronologically. He notes that by 1522, Luther "becomes more cautious about the Hail Mary" (p. 184). In a sermon on the Feast of the Annunciation, Luther says the Hail Mary is "no prayer... we cannot make out of the Hail Mary either a prayer or invocation, for it does not seem right to us that we should give these words a wider meaning than the Holy spirit Himself has given." Cole summarizes Luther:
Then Luther becomes practical. He claims that we make use of the Hail Mary in two ways: 1) as a meditation inasmuch as we recall the graces which God has given Mary and 2) as an expression of our desire that she would be recognized on this account by every man and be held in respect [WA 17 (2), 409, 8 to 17)]. Once he had adopted this position, he seems never to have abandoned it. (Cole, p. 184).Cole goes on to document another writing from the same year, Luther's Little Prayer Book. Cole cites Luther saying,
No one blasphemes this Mother and her fruit so much as those who bless her with many rosaries and who have the Hail Mary always in the mouth, for these are the very persons who blaspheme the Word of God and the faith to the greatest degree! (Cole, p. 185).Cole then explains,
Then Luther gives his own view of how the hail Mary should be used. He claims that there are two ways of really blessing this Mother and her fruit — a way according to the flesh and one according to the spirit. The former way, he points out, is "with the mouth and words of the Hail Mary" and this way he refers to as "blasphemy". But the second way, the spiritual way, is with the heart by which "I praise and bless her child Christ in all His words, works, and sorrows. this no one does unless he believes correctly, for without such a faith no heart is good, but us by nature full of curses and blasphemies against God and His holy ones" [WA 17 (2), 409, 8 to 17)] (Cole, p. 185-186).Cole then cites Luther's conclusion to this by saying it's confusing because Luther does not seem to be excluding the Hail Mary as a prayer:
Therefore, if one does not believe, he should be advised to leave the Hail Mary and all prayers alone, for of such persons, it is written: "His prayer must be sinful" —(Psalm 109:7) [WA 10 (2), 408, 13 to 409, 22; 17 (2), 409, 8 to 410, 12] (Cole, p. 186).It is here where Cole begins his exposition of Luther's sermon from March 11, 1523.
Perhaps Luther's meaning becomes clearer in a sermon that he preached on March 11, 1523. It has come down to us in a shortened Latin version. The contents of the sermon, inasmuch as they relate to the Hail Mary, are very interesting. Luther mentions that a Christian must know three things: the Ten Commandments, the faith (the Apostles Creed), the Our Father. He then makes mention of the Hail Mary and gives as his reason for doing so that he does not wish to pass over it, since it is in use, but unfortunately, for the most part, has been abused. He then explains his point:
"Mary should be honored, but Christ should not be neglected because of this. We must again return to the right track. Christ has done everything for us. It cannot be said of Mary: "I believe in you"; that would be a blasphemy against God. This honor belongs to God alone, for we have no other mediator, neither Mary, nor the Apostles and the Prophets. This is the right faith—that we come to the Father through Christ. If Mary had not had this faith, she would not have been blessed. To keep this faith inviolate we must all be on our guard against honoring Mary too much."
He then complains of the common teaching of Mary as mediatrix which is accompanied by the portrayal of Christ as a strict Judge whom Mary renders gracious. He returns to his description of the Hail Mary and advises us that:
"It were best that the Hail Mary should entirely be laid aside because of the abuses connected with it. It is no prayer; it is a formula of praise (Lobpreis). When we think of it in this way, we use it correctly, but this is not the custom. Man prays in order to attain something."
He then proceeds to point out that Mary is on the same level as we are, in support of his contention that we really should not pray to her:
"We are brothers and sisters of Mary; we call her Mistress of the world, Queen of the Heavens. She is bodily virgin and is adorned with more gifts, but these are exterior advantages; in spiritual things, she is not better than we since she has no other Christ, no other Gospel, than we have. I would wish that the Marian cult were removed alone because of the misuse" [WA 11, 59f.].
This famous statement of Luther's must be seen in its context. It certainly cannot be used to support any contention that Luther purely and simply wanted to destroy the Marian cult, For in the same sermon he goes on to declare that the Marian cult must be dealt with in such a way that we remain in the faith and serve our neighbors, because nothing is perfected except through a firm belief in God and love of neighbor. He then concludes:
"Whoever possesses a good (firm) faith, says the Hail Mary without danger! Whoever is weak in faith can utter no Hail Mary without danger to his salvation" [WA 11, 61, 25 to 32].
Five years later (1528) Luther declares of the Hail Mary:
"It is a great text, because the Mother is blessed and even more, because the Son is such a great child. Still there is no one on earth who truly prays the Hail Mary. Whoever once rightly prays it, prays it more often. But it was prayed perversely, just as the hypocritical Jews prayed so often, but perversely" [WA 27, 232, 17 to 23 — July 21, 1528] (Cole, p. 186-188).
One of Rome's defenders argues that the quote under scrutiny demonstrates Luther is "only forbidding a use of Marian devotions apart from heartfelt faith." Is this so according to Cole's overview? If in Roman Catholicism the Hail Mary is fundamentally a prayer to Mary, that's not what Luther had in mind when he is recorded as saying, "Whoever possesses a good (firm) faith, says the Hail Mary without danger." Luther explicitly says, "It is no prayer." Note Luther's words above, "she is not better than we since she has no other Christ, no other Gospel, than we have." For Luther, one could praise God for the gifts given to Mary, but praying to her, or using her as an intercessor was not spiritually appropriate. When Luther states, "Whoever possesses a good (firm) faith, says the Hail Mary without danger! Whoever is weak in faith can utter no Hail Mary without danger to his salvation," the implications are those who pray to Mary or view her as any sort of intercessor, or pray to her in order to obtain something are those who utter the Hail Mary with danger to their salvation.
One interesting aspect brought out by Cole is Luther's attempt to present the Hail Mary in an evangelical context. Luther was not a radical reformer. He seems to have realized how ingrained the Hail Mary was in the tradition of the church and sought to allow for its use with a different meaning poured in. Martin Brecht point out, "Something new was his interpretation of the Ave Maria, which was intended to put an end to the practice of praying the rosary. In Mary, the only thing to be praised and honored is God and what he did in her" [Brecht, Martin Luther, Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521-1522, p. 120].
Luther says in his Personal Prayer Book:
You see that these words are not concerned with prayer but purely with giving praise and honor. Similarly there is no petition in the first words of the Lord’s Prayer but rather praise and glorification that God is our Father and that he is in heaven. Therefore we should make the Hail Mary neither a prayer nor an invocation because it is improper to interpret the words beyond what they mean in themselves and beyond the meaning given them by the Holy Spirit (LW 43:39).He goes on to suggest that while one shouldn't use it as a prayer, "we can use the Hail Mary as a meditation in which we recite what grace God has given her. Second, we should add a wish that everyone may know and respect her [as one blessed by God] (LW 43:39-40). He adds, "...[I]n the present no one speaks evil of this Mother and her Fruit as much as those who bless her with many rosaries and constantly mouth the Hail Mary. These, more than any others, speak evil against Christ’s word and faith in the worst way [LW 43:40]. Those who pray "with lips and the words of the Hail Mary; such persons blaspheme and speak evil of her most dangerously" [LW 43:40].
Instead of abandoning the Hail Mary, Luther allowed it as a form of meditation and a way to praise God, even though "It were best that the Hail Mary should entirely be laid aside because of the abuses connected with it." If it has to be used at all, this is how one uses it correctly with a "good (firm) faith," as a contemplative meditation. In his sermon on the Feast of the Annunciation, he compared meditating on it in the same way one would meditate on the magnificence of creation: one thanks God for the splendid glory of creation, one could also praise God for the mother who brought the messiah into the world. He says also, "We cannot make of the 'Ave Maria' either a petition or a call for help to Mary for these words must say nothing more than what they actually say and what the Holy Ghost has established" [Joel Basely, The Festival Sermons of Martin Luther (Michigan: Mark V Publications, 2005) p. 284-285 ].
Addendum #1: Luther's Form of the Hail Mary vs. Its Contemporary Form
This author asserts that the form of the Hail Mary in Luther's Prayer Book was, "Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Amen." He contrasts this to its contemporary wording: "Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; blessed art 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 death. Amen." This makes sense as to why Luther did not overtly reject the Ave Maria but rather reinterpreted it.
Addendum #2: Rome's Defenders React to Luther's Interpretation of the Hail Mary
Like his other writings, Luther’s Personal Prayer Book was subjected to attack. In 1524 Christoph von Schwarzenberg published a pamphlet branding Luther’s book as a subtle mixture of poison with much that was good. He charged that Luther disparaged the prayers of Christians in the past and encouraged moral laxity (e.g., one was to observe the Sixth Commandment “as much as possible”). Schwarzenberg contended that Luther taught that all would be saved, even the devils, because they believe in God. However his main objection was Luther’s evangelical interpretation of the Hail Mary, which was bound to offend many who were accustomed to, the cult of the Virgin. Shortly thereafter, in 1525, Christoph’s father Johan Schwarzenberg attacked his son’s criticisms in a book himself, and a lengthy debate ensued between son and father, attacking and defending Luther’s Personal Prayer Book. [LW 43:9-10]
Addendum #3 (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2009. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.
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