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  • The Advent Postil and the Christmas Postil of 1522
  • Mary Jane Haemig

2022 marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther's first German postils. Luther's postils, collections of sermons on the pericopes of the church year, were some of his most important works in terms of practical impact on church life. Designed to give tangible help to preachers, they sought to put Luther's theological insights into sermonic practice. Because Luther, with the apostle Paul, believed that "Faith comes from hearing," preaching gained great theological importance in the Reformation. Further, since literacy was low, preaching was a practical means for reaching the masses with the reformers' message. Some scholars have even labeled the Reformation primarily "an oral event," an observation with both theological and practical bases and implications.

Luther did not invent the genre of the postil. Postils were collections of sermons, arranged according to the Sundays and pericopes (gospel and epistle) of the church year. Some postils also included sermons for festivals and saints' days. "Postilla" or "Postil" was shorthand for "post illa verba textus . . .", that is, "after reading these words of scripture, preach the following." In the late Middle Ages, while the center of the Roman mass remained the Lord's Supper, preaching rose in importance, particularly in urban areas. This preaching was demanded by and was designed to appeal to the increasingly educated and curious urban dwellers. With the rise of preaching came the rise of materials designed to assist in that preaching. While sermon collections copied by hand had existed for centuries, printed sermon collections appeared by 1470. From 1470 to 1520 numerous postils were printed and reprinted across Europe. [End Page 125] The most popular printed sermon collection in this period was the Sermones discipuli de tempore et de sanctis of the German Dominican Johannes Herolt (d. 1468). Eighty-four editions of this Latin postil appeared in northern Europe, with an estimated 49,000 copies. Other popular collections also were available to preachers. Such sermon collections were designed to appeal to clergy needing help composing sermons, but their appeal extended beyond clergy to laity who used them for devotional reading.1 Present in both clerical and private libraries, they were one of the most popular tools to influence thinking in late medieval Europe.2

Luther and others realized early on the need to provide preachers with a resource shaped by Wittenberg theology. Already in October 1519 Frederick the Wise encouraged Luther to concentrate on the exposition of the epistle and gospel texts designated for Sundays and festivals. In March of 1521 Luther was able to publish the first portion of a Latin postil; it contained expositions of the gospel and epistle texts for the four Advent Sundays. Luther dedicated these expositions, "which one usually calls postils" and which were furnished "for most pastors and laity," to Frederick. These were closer to commentaries on the text than they were actual sermons.3 Luther worked on a German postil during his time at the Wartburg.4 Although he had intended first to translate his Latin Advent postil into German, a delay in sending him a printed copy of this led to a change in plans. At the beginning of June 1521 Luther began work on the pericopes for the Christmas season. By November 19, 1521, he had completed sixteen expositions of the Christmas epistle and gospel texts in German, extending from Christmas Eve to Epiphany. This collection became known as the Christmas Postil (Weihnachtspostille). Luther changed his plan to translate the Latin Advent postil into German and instead, in his last months at the Wartburg, wrote new Advent sermons, with the result known as the Advent Postil (Adventspostille). These two were initially published separately with the Christmas Postil appearing at the beginning of March of 1522 and the Advent Postil appearing at the end of April.5 They were combined into the Wartburg Postil (Wartburgspostille), printed later in 1522. The Wartburg Postil in turn became part of the Winter Postil (1525) which contained a complete set of gospel and epistle sermons [End Page 126] from Advent to Easter.6 Luther published a revised version of the Winter Postil in 1540, updating biblical citations and...