Luther on “Hail Mary”
In his Personal Prayer book written in 1522, Luther wrote his commentaries about “Hail Mary” prayer (English translation from Luther’s Works Vol. 43). While he was against over-venerating of Mary, whom he referred as Mother of God, he believed that she was without sin, a privilege given only to her by God.
Take note of this: no one should put his trust or confidence in the Mother of God or in her merits, for such trust is worthy of God alone and is the lofty service due only to him. Rather praise and thank God through Mary and the grace given her. Laud and love her simply as the one who, without merit, obtained such blessings from God, sheerly out of his mercy, as she herself testifies in the Magnificat [Luke 1:46-55].
It is very much the same when I am moved by a view of the heavens, the sun, and all creation to exalt him who created everything, bringing all this into my prayer and praise, saying: O God, Author of such a beautiful and perfect creation, grant to me…. Similarly, our prayer should include the Mother of God as we say: O God, what a noble person you have created in her! May she be blessed! And so on. And you who honored her so highly, grant also to me….
Let not our hearts cleave to her, but through her penetrate to Christ and to God himself. Thus what the Hail Mary says is that all glory should be given to God, using these words: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee [Luke 1:28]; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
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.
But there are two things we can do. First, 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].
In the first place, she is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin-something exceedingly great. For God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil.
In the second place, 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.
In the third place, she is blessed above all other women, not only because she gave birth without labor, pain, and injury to herself, not as Eve and all other women, but because by the Holy Spirit and without sin, she became fertile, conceived, and gave birth in a way granted to no other woman.
In the fourth place, her giving birth is blessed in that it was spared the curse upon all children of Eve who are conceived in sin [Ps. 51:5] and born to deserve death and damnation. Only the fruit of her body is blessed, and through this birth we are all blessed.
Furthermore, a prayer or wish is to be added-our prayer for all who speak evil against this Fruit and the Mother. But who is it that speaks evil of this Fruit and the Mother? Any who persecute and speak evil against his work, the gospel, and the Christian faith, as Jews and papists are now doing.
The conclusion of this is that in 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.
Therefore, notice that this Mother and her Fruit are blessed in a twofold way-bodily and spiritually. Bodily with lips and the words of the Hail Mary; such persons blaspheme and speak evil of her most dangerously. And spiritually [one blesses her] in one’s heart by praise and benediction for her child, Christ-for all his words, deeds, and sufferings. And no one does this except he who has the true Christian faith because without such faith no heart is good but is by nature stuffed full of evil speech and blasphemy against God and all his saints. For that reason he who has no faith is advised to refrain from saying the Haft Mary and all other prayers because to such a person the words apply: Let his prayer be sin [Ps. 109:7].
Luther’s Works, Vol. 43, pages 39 to 41