What Did Mary Know?

Each year, with the turn of the new liturgical year and the observation of Immaculate Conception that follows, it’s become a reliable phenomenon that some degree of annual eruption over the song “Mary Did You Know?” will occur, frequently on social media. This has been going on for some time, though the song is not even thirty years old. If you’re not familiar with this song and its lyrics, you can find it here.

A good number of objectors point to the Lucan Annunciation scene, and hold that of course Mary knew, because Gabriel told her. But if we look at the Lucan narrative, Gabriel was a bit thin on the details. Here’s every word of Gabriel from that account:

“Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” (Lectionary for Mass.)

Gabriel doesn’t say HOW all of this will be made manifest or accomplished. No mention of the miracles, the adversarial relationship with religious and civil authorities, the suffering, the death, the resurrection. Even Gabriel may not have known, for angels are God’s messengers, sent to earth to bear the divine message they have been given. Simeon does a bit better than Gabriel at giving Mary some insight: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Again, precise details are lacking. As the ministry of Jesus unfolded, Mary no doubt recalled these words, but in the moment they would not have given her foreknowledge of the events as they would occur.

Other objectors raise Mary’s Immaculate Conception as evidence that she had to have known everything that the song refers to. Here is the complete definition of the Immaculate Conception from Pius IX:

“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

The doctrine makes no mention of Mary’s knowledge, does not grant her a divine nature placed in union with her human nature. Though the Church would come to honor her as the Seat of Wisdom in Christ, that honorific does not claim omniscience for her.

It is understandable that some see a contradiction, in light of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, for the song to ask Mary if she knows that the child she delivered would soon deliver her. This is only a contradiction if we think that God exclusively exists in—or operates in—linear time, as we do. One of the great gifts of Mary’s life is the profound mysteries that her life allows us to enter into. The doctrine states that it is through the “merits of Christ, Savior of the human race” that she was preserved from sin. In other words, it was through the salvific act of Christ that the saving power of the divine holy arm reached out to preserve Mary from sin at the moment of her conception. As Mother of God, Mary gave birth to the One who created her; as Mother of Christ – the Savior of all – she gave birth to the salvation granted in her Immaculate Conception. Another magnum mysterium of her life for us to ponder in our hearts! Nothing will be impossible for God.

If Mary had been granted omniscience, her challenging question to Gabriel “How can this be?” might have been delivered with a broad, knowing wink. At Cana, she could have told the stewards “Hang tight; my son will make some more wine for you.” Instead, in her faithful witness, we see a companion disciple, limited in knowledge and understanding as we are. We likewise behold a steadfast model of faith, inspiring us to seek and follow God’s will humbly, and to follow Christ, doing as he tells us to do, even when perplexed or troubled by it.

For us as liturgists and musicians, a principle to recall and observe in the preparation of Marian liturgies is that “Mary always stands with the saved.” (I am grateful to a theologian friend for introducing me to this maxim.) I also like to state it in a less elegant manner: in the economy of salvation, there are ultimately only two categories … God and not-God.

Like us, Mary stands as a recipient of the saving graces that spin outward from the cross and empty tomb. In the midst of life’s questions and unexpected events, we are strengthened by her example to make the Word of God incarnate, enfleshed in our daily living. During these Advent days and beyond, we can be places for Wisdom to be enthroned, and allow the light of Christ to radiate outward. At the end of it all, the question will not be what did we know, but how did we live?

Artwork: The Annunciation/Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898
Mary, Seat of Wisdom/Michael O’Neill McGrath OSFS

7 comments

  1. Jesus didn’t want to die. Our Father wouldn’t take away our freedom to kill Him. In doing so we reflected our Original Sin of killing Life, that is why all living things must die.. Mary was free from Original Sin. As she is the Blessed Mother of Life and has the fullness of Life within Her. This fullness of Life is the reason she didn’t die and was assumed into Heaven Jesus is the Ressurection and the Life and all living things that embrace death, will rise to the fullness of Life just as Mary did. Deacon’82 Environment and Global Justice…

  2. Thank you, Alan. Since we celebrate in our liturgies the stories at the center of our faith, in which Mary has such a central place, we can allow her to answer. That is the kind of hymn that I think can and should be sung, since we know very well what she would say. In Luke it is fairly evident that she knew what every mother knows, which is that anything is possible for God and every child is a miracle. It is also evident that she learned specific details as the events unfolded, and like everyone else could respond to those events by trusting more deeply. So when I have Mary sing, she embodies what we all aspire to be, the ever-grateful and ever-wiser child of God.

  3. A few complications :
    1) We have more scriptural evidence to work with than just the Annunciation. The song is referring to “the child that you’ve delivered,” so everything revealed prior to the Nativity is admissible. When the song asks whether Mary knew her son “would save our sons and daughters,” it seems to ask us to presume that Mary hadn’t pieced together the implications of the Magnificat and Benedictus (and to presume that Joseph kept secret the revelation that “[Jesus] will save his people from their sins”).

    2) The scriptural record is not per se sufficient to establish a Catholic position on Mary’s foreknowledge; the witness of Tradition would also need to be taken account. I can’t speak to where the consensus of Tradition lies, but I strongly suspect it will lie closer to full than to sparse or non-existent awareness of her son’s identity as savior (which need only be grasped in one sense of the word in order to make the song’s question ill-conceived).

    3) While it’s true that the lyric “will soon deliver you” can be *construed* in at least one true way, we are not dealing with an even balance between Mary “delivered” from the past standpoint of her conception and “yet to be delivered” by the Passion/Resurrection. One must remember that “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption. Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of his cross, but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life: -already in his Incarnation[…]” (CCC 517). Though expressed in varied ways, (e.g., by Thomas’ conviction that Christ’s merit began at His conception [ST III 34.3.c] or Athanasius’ position that the very union of humanity with divinity was salvific), I think the Tradition gives us ample ground to maintain that Mary, at the Nativity, was saved even from a perspective within time. So the limitation of deliverance depending on a later historical act of Christ is prima facie false, usable in narrow framing but more misleading than not (somewhat akin to the…

  4. 4) Did Mary know her son “would one day rule the nations”? We don’t need to posit one specific understanding of Messianic sovereignty. From the wealth of scripture that may have informed a given Israelite’s understanding of the unending Davidic rule – coupled with the raft of possible expectations afloat in Jewish culture – we’re supposed to think it hadn’t occurred to Mary that this kingdom would also, like David’s own, rule over other nations? That’s asking quite a lot.

  5. I personally love the hymn. I remember about 8 years ago one of the music ministers sang this during Mass (I think it was during the presentation of the gifts, I don’t fully remember though). It was pretty well known that this song meant a lot to her spiritually and most parishioners loved listening to her sing it. But someone cornered her and told her how heretical the song was and how terrible it was she sang it during Mass, bringing the music minister to tears. That was the first I ever heard of the arguments around Mary Did You Know and since then it always seemed silly to me people would get so worked up about the hymn.

  6. Alan, this is a beautiful reflection that points out the popular theologizing that takes place at this most wonderful time of the year. Lyricists add on different notions of their reality and apply it to the day and I think it helps challenge us as to what we are seeking in the whole story.

    Christians have sung carols throughout the years that add on to the Christmas story and Nativity Narrative. Some of these notions now hold gospel truth like the drummer boy who waited for Mary to nod it would be OK to start playing and every parent’s standard of infant behavior beginning with no crying the child makes.

    I appreciate your “let’s just clarify what we have officially said” about the Mother of Jesus. It allows our imagination to be grounded.

  7. What a beautiful reflection about Mary and a song that I love! I hope someday the Catholic Church will adopt this song!

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