In the Magnificat, Mary shows us the nature of God, and instructs us upon a right response to God’s goodness. Luther takes up the Magnificat precisely to demonstrate how “the tender Mother of Christ . . . teaches us, with her words and by the example of her experience, how to know, love, and praise God.” (Works, vol. 21, p. 301) Furthermore, Luther addresses his commentary to his patron, Elector John Frederick of Saxony, stating that “in all of Scripture I do not know anything that serves such a purpose so well as this sacred hymn of the most blessed Mother of God, which ought indeed to be learned and kept in mind by all who would rule well and be helpful lords.” (p. 298) Clearly, Luther considered the Magnificat a most significant passage of Scripture.
The central element of the Magnificat in Luther’s eyes is Mary’s response to the angel of the Lord, who in the Annunciation reveals God’s plan of salvation to this lowly human, little more than a girl.
“My soul magnifies the Lord.” These are the first words of praise. For Luther, they signal Mary’s total dedication to the work of God. But Mary says, “My soul magnifies Him’ — that is, my whole life and being, mind and strength, esteem God highly. She is caught up, as it were, into God and feels herself lifted up into God’s good and gracious will.”
Recall Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel — “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Mary responds to the Annunciation with trust in the plan of God and belief in the promise that she, though a virgin, will bear a son.
Mary lets God have God’s will with her and draws from it only a good comfort, joy, and trust in God. Thus we too should do.
“My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” So says the Mother of God. Mary not only instructs us to rejoice in the gifts that God has given, but by her example shows us how to do so. Mary does not boast in that which God has done for her.
In Luther’s words, Mary confesses that the foremost work God did for her was that God looked at her, which is indeed the greatest of God’s works, on which all the rest depend and from which they all derive. For where it comes to pass that God turns His face toward one to look at them, there is nothing but grace and salvation, and all gifts and works must follow. (p. 321)
Mary goes on to say, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Indeed, “all generations will call me blessed.” But why? For what Mary has done, bearing the Son of God? For who Mary is, the holy Virgin, chosen Mother of God? No. “For he who is mighty has done great things for me”. Mary is to be called ‘blessed’ for the works of God, not the works of Mary. Mary recognizes her lowliness, and directs us to praise God for God’s great deeds done through the willingness of this woman.
What is Mary had said “Yep, I’m pretty blessed. It’s because I’m such a good person. I really deserve all this blessing. After all, I’ve lived holy all my life. Aren’t I great? I hope people worship me someday”?
Mary deserves the highest praise that human beings can give. Luther tells us
humans have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her theotokos. No one can say anything greater of her or to her, though they had as many tongues as there are leaves on the trees, or grass in the fields, or stars in the sky, or sand by the sea. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God. (p. 326)
Yet what is the nature of this most lofty station? Has Mary earned it by her merits? Luther repeats the teachings of the Church catholic that Mary lived without sin (p. 327). Yet this did not entitle her to become the Mother of God. She did not look for this blessing, but it came upon her suddenly and unexpectedly. If Mary has deserved such status, she would have expected the angel to come to her and deliver his message. Instead, Luther tells us, “The tidings took her all unaware, as Luke reports [Luke 1: 29]. Merit, however, is not unprepared for its reward, but deliberately seeks and awaits it. (p. 327)”
Luther also teaches that Mary is rightly called Regina Coeli, ‘Queen of Heaven’. To most Lutherans, this is a most surprising discovery! Has Mary earned this title by her merits? Certainly not, says Luther, for she is Queen by grace, not reward.
We are thus left in a difficult position. Mary is not to be praised for her merits or accomplishments, yet is, as Luther states elsewhere, the “noblest gem in Christianity after Christ”. How then are we to approach the Mother of God? Are we to approach her at all?
Many if not most Lutherans consider an address to Mary pointless at best, idolatry at worst. Yet Luther himself felt quite differently. He invoked Mary in the introduction to the Magnificat itself, saying “May the tender Mother of God herself procure for me the spirit of wisdom profitably and thoroughly to expound this song of hers (p. 298)” He concludes the commentary with the words: “We pray God to give us a right understanding of this Magnificat, an understanding that consists not merely in brilliant words but in glowing life in body and soul. May Christ grant us this through the intercession and for the sake of His dear Mother Mary! Amen. (p. 355)”
This is certainly not a case of Luther’s idiosyncrasies, either, for the Apology of the Augsburg Confession itself acknowledges that Mary lives in heaven and prays to her Son for the Church militant.
Luther, however, was keen to place Mary in a right relation to God the Father and to God the Son. He condemned the practices of his day which elevated Mary to a high station when she herself admits only her “low estate” (Luke 1: 48). Those who praise the merits of the Virgin in fact spoil the Magnificat, make the Mother of God a liar, and diminish the grace of God. (p. 322)
He especially condemned those who looked to Mary for aid and comfort when they should instead look for it in God Himself. Luther was guilty of this practice as a young man, and thus was particularly critical of it in later life. Witness the words of a 19th century French priest: “The holy Virgin is so kind that she always treats us affectionately and never punishes us. The Son wields His justice, while the Mother wields nothing but love.”
Nonsense! says Luther. First, such talk diminishes the grace of God, who bestowed blessings upon Mary out of God’s own goodness, not out of Mary’s goodness. Second, it violates the Mother of God’s own wishes, all those who heap such great praise and honor upon her head are not far from making an idol of her, as though she were concerned that we should honor her and look to her for good things, when in truth she thrusts this from her and would have us honor God in her and come through her to a good confidence in God’s grace. (p. 322)
Mary does nothing herself. There is no reason to believe prayers offered through Mary are heard more or better than those offered without her intercession. The only reason we might care to call upon Mary is to invoke her example and pray to God that God may do unto us as God did unto Mary, that is, show unlimited grace in our lives which we in no way can deserve or merit.
Luther notes throughout his commentary on the Magnificat that we do not owe praise to Mary. This would call attention to her merits, her greatness, her powers, when, being a creature of God, she has none. What we do owe her instead is honor and devotion (p. 322). Why honor? For being the Mother of God, the greatest honor that God has bestowed on any of God’s creatures of any site or century. Why devotion? For she is the tender Mother who served Christ when he was but a baby, and whose willingness to act as God’s servant made the salvation of the world possible. Why her example, apart from the examples of saints throughout the ages?
She should be, and herself gladly would be, the foremost example of the grace of God, to incite all the world to trust in this grace and to love and praise it, so that through her the hearts of all should be filled with such knowledge of God that they might confidently say: ‘O Mary, Mother of God, what great comfort God has shown us in you, by so graciously regarding your unworthiness and low estate. This encourages us to believe that henceforth God will not despise us poor and lowly ones, but graciously regard us also, according to your example.’ (p. 323)
In the Magnificat, Mary continues to show us the great works of God: mercy, breaking of spiritual pride, putting down the mighty, exalting the lowly, feeding the hungry, and sending the rich away empty. She reminds us that our God is a God of the lowly, the humble, the weak, the poor, the anonymous, the peripheral people. In many ways Mary herself was all of these things, making her even more the model of our faith. By her experience, shown in the Magnificat, Mary shows us “how to know, love and praise God.” (p. 301) We should ask no more and no less of this Saint Mary, Mother of Our Lord.