What did Mary know, and when did she know it?

December 3, 2014 | Advent

Earlier this week another Catholic blogger decided to do a line-by-line dissection of the popular Christmas song “Mary, Did you Know?” Nothing he said was new to me; I’ve heard it all before from other writers who have harped on the misguided theological aspects of this pop-culture take on Mary and Jesus.

All I can say is this: If we don’t understand that people are moved by songs that make them feel some sort of spiritual stirring (even if the songs are theologically incorrect or not theological at all), then it’s no wonder our pews are empty. People respond first to the tug of the spirit. Then we get to theology.

Or I could put it something like this, with all due respect to my fellow Catholic blogger:

Mark Shea did you know what today’s Catholics need is not intellectual discourse?

Mark Shea did you know sometimes even a pop song can put us in touch with the Source?

Did you know God makes himself known in ways we might not think,

And the lyrics you are dissing could be the missing link?


Mark Shea did you know that some people hear this song and feel God’s presence?

Mark Shea did you know that we Catholics turn away more with our condescending offense?

Did you know if this song can make one person stop and in prayer clasp her hands

then I’m sure Mary and Jesus won’t mind and will probably thank the band.

But seriously, getting hung up on song lyrics like this and making a big deal of showing how off the mark the songwriter was — according to Catholic standards — serves no purpose other than to put people off and make them feel less-than. It certainly doesn’t bring people to God, and isn’t that what this journey is all about, helping people grow closer to God, deeper in faith? From where I’m standing, that’s all that matters, even if I don’t always choose liturgically or theologically appropriate songs. Music moves the soul, and sometimes the most unlikely songs can bring a person to God.

I remember when I was young and wrote church hymns for the 9:30 folk group at my parish. Every holiday I sang a new original song. They weren’t great, but they were written from the heart of a young Catholic girl who just wanted to know God in a deeper way. Then one day someone asked me to sing a particular song I had written at a special Mass, and the priest coordinating the liturgy told me I couldn’t sing the song because it wasn’t quite theologically correct. I don’t think I ever wrote another spiritual song after that, and I didn’t sing again at Mass until I was an adult with children of my own. And guess what we sang? “Mary, Did You Know?” Yes, that’s right — in a Catholic church!

And do you know what’s the real kicker? As I sang this song for the first time (it wasn’t my choice but that of our group leaders), I got chills up and down my arms as I sang the final line: “Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect lamb? The sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM.” Now, I didn’t get chills because this was news to me or because I pondered what Mary did or did not know about this fact. I got chills because as I sang those words, the enormity of the Incarnation hit me again, as if for the first time.

That’s what music does. It gives us an emotional, sometimes physical reaction that stirs our soul. It helps us leap across the great divide to come one step closer to heaven. It helps us look at old things in new ways, and in doing so we find joy and light and hope that wasn’t there before.

So maybe we should lighten up a bit and perhaps give people a little more credit. Maybe no one — including the songwriter — is really wondering what Mary knew. Maybe we’re all just trying to remind ourselves of what we should know and what we should be contemplating during this season of waiting.

That being said, I look forward to what I can only assume will be an upcoming post on the theological problems surrounding “The Little Drummer Boy.”  Oh, and here’s a cool new version of “Mary, Did You know?” by Pentatonix:


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