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Mary and Christian Formation

By Leander S. Harding

I have been led by a convergence of prayer and reflection on the challenge of Christian mission to the study of Mariology. I am surprised to find that this will be the fourth article on Mary that I have written for Covenant. I continue to discover new reasons for taking the person and office of Mary, the Mother of God, more seriously. My friend Fr. Martin Yost, the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Catskill, New York, recently brought to my attention a brilliant and inspiring reflection on the Marian teaching of John Paul II by Lutheran theologian David Yeago, a regular contributor to the Mere Anglicanism conferences.

Yeago’s conclusions are significant for the renewal of the role of Scripture in the formation of individual Christians and for the Church. Missionary fidelity and fruitfulness require a return to faithfulness to Jesus Christ as presented in Scripture. Yeago takes the first article of the Barmen Declaration as a touchstone for his paper: “The one word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death: Jesus Christ as He is attested for us in Holy Scripture.” This, Yeago reminds us, is the message of St. Irenaeus in The Apostolic Preaching. Contrary to the trajectory of much modern theology, the real Christ comes to us clothed in Holy Scripture.

Is Mary in any sense a “presence” within the redemptive relationship of the believer to Christ? The answer must be:

Yes, Mary is present within the redemptive relationship of the Church and of the believer to Christ by virtue of her presence in the scriptural testimony to Christ. … The Church’s awareness of Mary as a presence in the mystery of salvation arises from the Church’s confession that the real and only Savior is the scriptural Christ. (p. 151-52. Italics original)

Yeago finds that Protestant estrangement from “the Marian consciousness of the ancient Church” gives rise to alarming consequences, including a “Christological disease, and an alienation from the literary particularity of the scriptural Christ.” This Christological disease can manifest itself in the abstract Christ of Protestant orthodoxy, who becomes “a central moving part in a soteriological mechanism,” or in the Christ of Protestant modernism, who becomes a tame mascot for secular agendas.

The Jesus of Protestant modernism is a Savior on a short leash. He must be firmly taken in hand, functionalized within a theory of religion and our religious need, construed as a signifier transparent to the universal humanistic values which he signifies and therefore under strict control. Otherwise he might lead his followers along strange paths of penitence and apocalyptic expectation, and thereby reduce their economic and moral productivity as citizens of the secular city; he might cruelly demand with all seriousness the death of the sovereign modern self; he might even turn out to be a Jew.” (p. 152-53. Italics original.)

Yeago has identified the loss of Marian consciousness as a central evangelical and missionary problem. An authentic missionary encounter between the gospel and modernity requires a presentation of the real Savior. The real Savior is Jesus Christ as attested in the Scripture. And we cannot find that Christ without at the same time finding Mary, the Mother of God.

That Mary is the prototype of the individual believer and the believing Church is not ecumenically controversial. St. Augustine was merely reporting the common teaching of the ancient Church when he observed that Mary conceived in her mind and heart before she conceived in her body. Both the individual believer and the Church must retrace Mary’s response to the proclamation of the angel. Yeago points out that Martin Luther reiterated this teaching.

Mary is not only the arch-believer but also the arch-prophet who brings not only the words of God to the world but the Word himself. She is not the redeemer, the one to whom we must be conformed, what Yeago calls the forma formans (the forming form), but is the forma formata (the formed form), “which has received formation, the prototype precisely of those who are not the Savior, but cling to him by faith, and on the way of faith’s pilgrimage endure the protracted inscription of his image on their being” (p. 161).

The church’s fulfillment of its Marian vocation as a prophetic community, clothed from on high with the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), requires obedience to the command of Christ: “wait in the city” (Luke 24:49). It is in this waiting that Yeago identifies as so contrary

to our contemporary can-do evangelism ideologies — that the Church identifies most fundamentally with Mary the Virgin Mother, acknowledging its sheer incapacity to be what it is called to be. Like Mary, the Church cannot bring Christ into the world by any strength or ingenuity of its own … The Church’s assumption of prophetic office begins therefore not with a “Grow Your Church” seminar but with the persistent and expectant prayer of the community of disciples in the “upper room” (Acts 1:13), surely an allusion to the “upstairs room” (Luke 22:12) in which the Eucharist was instituted. In the midst of this waiting and praying community, St. Luke is careful to tell us (Acts 1:14), stands Mary the Mother of Jesus, in whom both the poverty and the dignity of the Church are prototypically embodied. (p. 162)

Mary is not only a prototype. She is an agent to us because she speaks to us her word, which is uniquely taken up into “this one word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” As the scriptural Christ is a literary Christ, so Mary as an agent of formation for the believer and the church is a literary agent through her words. “She speaks a word to us within the word.”

Surprisingly, Yeago finds that Martin Luther directs us to this word of Mary, which is found in the Magnificat. Mary’s song, which is “simultaneously thanksgiving and proclamation, is Mary’s word spoken to us within the word. Here she is most certainly presented not simply as a model or example but also as a speaker to whom we should pay heed; that is, she is presented as exercising agency toward us” (p. 164). In this agency is her motherhood of the believer and the Church.

Luther calls Mary our professor and teacher (unsere liebe Meisterin und Leherein) because she teaches us to “understand the Old Testament scriptures as witness to her son.” Luther tells us that the Magnificat is the “most concentrated and adequate articulation of the very heart of the Christian faith.” Yeago quotes from Luther: “She is a good painter and singer; she sketches God well and sings of him better than anyone, for she names God the one who helps the lowly and crushes all the great and proud. This song lacks nothing: it is well sung, and needs only people who can say yes to it and wait. But such people are few” (p. 165).

To find the Jesus Christ of Scripture, and with him his mother, who is also our mother and can teach us to sing of him, is essential to our life in Christ and to our evangelical and missionary fruitfulness.

To be formed by Mary our Mother means in the first place to stammer and lisp along with her in her song; in so doing we take our stand with her in faith and join with her in prophecy and praise, and it is chiefly in this way that she shapes us as worshipers and servants of the great King whom she has brought into the world. (p.166)[/End]

Yeago closes his remarkable essay with three words of advice for regaining the ancient Marian consciousness of the Church. First, we should keep all those feasts of Christ in which Mary plays a significant role, “in addition to Christmas, the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.” The loss of these feasts means that Mary’s literary presence in the Church is diminished and “the figure of the scriptural Christ is truncated.”

Second, we should sing the Magnificat at home and in the Church, and restore Evening Prayer as a regular feature of parish life. Third, when we sing the Magnificat, we should not neuter the language by translating handmaiden as servant.

The Magnificat is the Church’s song because it is the song of the specific Jewish woman Mary, whom God’s election and promise have set in the midst of the Church as the prototype of the Church’s faith and prophecy and therefore as the archsinger of the praise of God’s mercy in Christ. When we sing the Magnificat, all of us, male and female together, take our stand with Daughter Zion, the Lord’s slave-woman, identifying with her and joining her song, the primal and in this life unsurpassable, articulation of the joy of the kingdom. (p. 167)

There are many signs pointing to the recovery of sung Evening Prayer as a particularly promising missionary and evangelical liturgy. Perhaps this is because we are here able to join with Mary in her song and the world is able to hear our joy and wonder about the cause.


  1. Thank you very much Dr. Harding for another wonderful contribution to a recovery of Marian consciousness within the contemporary Church! The Society of Mary looks forward eagerly to being with you in Albany on May 20th.

    One thought: In addition to the Marian feasts of the Christmas cycle (Annunciation through Candlemas) we encounter Mary at critical points in the Passion and Resurrection cycles as well: at the foot of the cross on Good Friday; in the Upper Room with the disciples after the Ascension. For those to whom it is given to assent and believe, the images of Dormition, Assumption, and Coronation are integral to the picture Mary gives us of life in Christ brought to its completion and fulfillment.

  2. Another recent book is Matthew Milliner’s Mother of the Lamb (Fortress, 2022). the introduction and copious notes reveal the thick world of Marian theological thinking. Interestingly, Milliner is an art professor at Wheaton.


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