“Mary, Did You Know?” and the Immaculate Conception

Note: Don’t forget that Fr. Gerald Murray and I will be in EWTN’s “The World Over,” tonight with Raymond Arroyo. And also, please remember that we are trying to finish up our end of year fundraising drive. We still need you to click the button and help, at whatever level you are able. – Robert Royal

We live in a time when Truth is often sacrificed in the service of cheap sentimentality. Such is the case with the now-ubiquitous Christmas carol, “Mary, Did You Know?” as opposed to the very real Truth of the Immaculate Conception. “Mary, Did You Know?” is a beautiful song. The melody – so gentle, with just a hint of hope fused with sadness – mixes with lyrics that draw us into one of the most relatable and beautiful moments of the human experience, a mother contemplating her newborn child. The song has become so popular that it is not unusual to hear it played in Catholic churches during both the Advent and Christmas seasons. The problem is that it’s both unbiblical and heretical and, thus, offers us a false image of Mary. which masks the true beauty of her whole story.

The specific questions the song asks us to consider about the Blessed Mother break down into two categories. The first category asks if Mary knew who Jesus was – e.g. that He would “save our sons and daughters,” “would one day rule the nations,” etc. The second category of questions asks if Mary knew what Jesus would do – e.g. “walk on water,” “give sight to the blind,” etc.

With respect to the first set of questions, the answer is an emphatic, “Yes, she knew who her son was.” The Angel Gabriel tells her so in Luke 1: “you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” “Jesus,” is the anglicized version of the Hebrew, “Yeshua,” which means “God saves.” Similarly, Gabriel goes on to tell her in the next two verses: “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.”

Throw in such biblical evidence as Elizabeth calling Mary, “Mother of my Lord,” and Mary’s observation that all generations would “call her blessed” and it’s pretty obvious she knew her baby boy had come to “save our sons and daughters,” etc. – an archangel had told her as much.

With respect to the second set of questions, did she know what her son would do, the answer is a bit more speculative: “Well, maybe not exactly, but she could have guessed much of it.” Mary certainly had at least a basic understanding of her Hebrew faith and would have known the coming of the Messiah would be occasioned by a variety of miracles such as the blind seeing, the lame walking, etc. Every Hebrew would have known this; the Old Testament predicted that what the Messiah did would prove who he was. To take just one example: In Matthew 11, when John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus asking if he is the Messiah, Jesus responds (v. 4) by telling them, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk” His acts proved who he was.

Immaculate Conception of El Escorial by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1660 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

Most troubling in strictly dogmatic terms, though, is the last line of the first stanza which states, “This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.” This is not a question but a statement which specifically contradicts the dogma of The Immaculate Conception in that it assumes Mary is not yet “saved.”

Here, the very troubling, unbiblical questions of the rest of the song give way to an asserted heresy, which serve to blind, to mislead, the listener from just who Mary was and is. Pope Pius IX in his 1854 bull, Ineffabilis Deus, infallibly declared her to be who she confirmed herself to be four years later when she appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous – the Immaculate Conception. The sentimentality dulls the spiritual palate just as a candy cane would spoil the rich, textured flavor of the Christmas prime rib. It throws a gauzy haze over the true beauty of the Christmas story and prevents us from entering into the authentic mysteries of the whole event.

In the Annunciation, for instance, we see not some clueless teen questioning just what’s going on. Instead, we see Innocence, itself, personified. An angel appears to the Blessed Mother and she’s bothered by it not one wit. The same angel appears to Zechariah, and he’s fearful. Gabriel appears to the Blessed Mother and she’s troubled only by the greeting, “Hail, full of grace,” as if speaking with an angel were the most natural thing in the world. The same angel tells Zechariah he’s going to have a son, but Zechariah demands proof. Gabriel tells Mary she’s going to have a son and, in the humility with a purity of a soul seeking only God’s will, and she asks simply, “How?”

Again, at the Nativity we see not some puzzled figure trying to understand what her role in this all might be. Despite the title of the song: Mary knew. So in the Biblical account, we’re invited to ponder, to meditate on, the almost unfathomable mystery of God’s Son choosing to enter the world in a stable – and we’re invited to see this through the eyes of an Immaculate Heart, in its complete purity and innocence, that knew exactly what it was witnessing.

It is our call – our challenge, really – to enter into these mysteries, to see their beauty and to aspire, with God’s grace, to such holiness and knowledge. We shouldn’t be distracted by anything – song, story, or otherwise – that invites us to opt for what’s warm and fuzzy instead of the full beauty of truth.

Alan L. Anderson worked at the parish and diocesan level in catechetics in the Catholic Diocese of Peoria for over twenty years. He writes on culture and the Faith from Roanoke, IL.