The Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today the Church celebrates the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when the Mother of God fell asleep in the Lord and entered the gates of Heaven.


Lutherans tend to be suspicious of Marian feast days — and not without reason. Throughout their writings, the early Lutheran reformers point to instances of misplaced devotion to the saints. In one notable example, Phillip Melanchthon points to a monastery in which a statue of the Blessed Virgin was rigged to nod its head as though answering prayers. As Melanchthon puts it in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:

…in the court of public opinion the blessed Virgin has completely replaced Christ. People have called upon her, trusted in her mercy, and through her have sought to conciliate Christ, as though he were not the propitiator, but only a dreadful judge and avenger.

But just before that, Melanchthon writes:

Now we rant that the blessed Mary prays for the Church….Even though she is worthy of the highest honor, nevertheless she does not want herself to be made equal with Christ but instead wants us to consider and follow her example.

The earliest Lutherans were, to greater or lesser degrees, willing to grant the Blessed Virgin some degree of devotion.* Luther maintained the use of the Ave Maria (albeit omitting the petition for Mary’s prayers at the hour of death), and recent excavations of the Luther household have produced a rosary likely belonging to Martin’s wife, Katharina.

Luther himself stopped preaching on the Dormition in Wittenberg after 1522. (As with most things, Luther’s positions on the Blessed Virgin constantly changed and were largely driven by context.) Other Lutheran cities continued to celebrate the feast.

In his writing on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) from 1521, Luther himself says:

She became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child….. Hence men have corwded all her glory into a single word [Θεοτόκος; lit. God-bearer], calling her the Mother of God…. None can say of her nor announce to her great things, even though he had as many tongues as the earth possesses flowers and blades of grass: the sky, stars; and the sea, grains of sand. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God.

*Here it is helpful to note an old distinction between degrees of devotion. In the Middle Ages, the Church differentiated between dulia, a form of honor or veneration towards the departed saints, and latria, the worship reserved only for God. But of course, again, popular understanding often differentiates from the official teachings of the Church.

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