The Suffering of the Blessed Virgin

“Therefore, this holy Virgin was a true martyr during these three days, and they were much harder for her than the external pain and torture was for any other saint.  She was in anxiety because of her Son that she could not have suffered a more bitter hell.  The greatest torture and grief, beyond all suffering, is when the heart is assailed and tormented.  Other sufferings that happen to the body are all the more bearable; the heart can even be joyful in such things when it despises all external suffering, as we read about St. Agnes and other martyrs.  This is a beautiful division and only half the suffering, since it happens only to the body, but the heart and soul remain full of joy.  But when the heart alone carries it, then only great and high spirits, with special grace and strength added, can endure it.” Martin Luther, “Sermon for the Gospel for the First Sunday after Epiphany,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 76, p. 197. [Emphasis added]

In this sermon Martin Luther used a medieval understanding of the Blessed Virgin’s ‘martyrdom’ and suffering with her Son at the cross. Luther described her as a ‘true martyr,’ since she suffered emotional distress while looking for her Son when he remained in Jerusalem in His Father’s house (the Temple).  Medieval theologians explained how Mary was greater than a martyr because she suffered in her spirit and not her body as martyrs did.*  Here Luther followed this tradition to explain how internal (emotional) pain and anxiety often brings greater suffering than bodily affliction.  He often described spiritual torment, temptation, and anxiety (Anfechtung) as a central part of the Christian’s life with the crucified Christ. (See Luther on Spiritual Anguish)

*On this medieval exegetical tradition see Rachel Fulton [Brown], From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York 2002), 262, 425-26, 452, 454.

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