Mary Did You Know? Then Again, Maybe You Didn’t

By: Thomas O’Neill

Along with the Christmas season, so come the annual Christmas controversies. Is using the term “X-mas” a way of removing Christ from Christmas, or a nod to early Christians’ use of “X” as a symbol for Christ? Is Santa Claus a materialistic stand-in for the true meaning of Christmas, or a reminder of our call to be thankful and generous given the Gift we have received? And should we even be calling it the “Christmas season,” rather than the correct term Advent? (After all, Christmastide doesn’t occur until December 25 and the 11 days thereafter, as I have been reminded.)

Of all the controversies swirling around this year, my favorite has to do with a little song called “Mary Did You Know?” Written by two Protestants songwriters in 1994, the song has re-emerged as a hit this year thanks to renditions like this one from Pentatonix:

As far as I can tell, the controversy emerged right along with it. The basic gist goes something like this: For some Catholics, “Mary Did You Know?” is a sweet, even moving meditation on the birth of Jesus through the eyes of his mother, Mary. For others, it’s a song with such imprecise theology (and a somewhat saccharine tone), that it borders on misleading, at least given the fuller understanding of Mary that the Catholic Church teaches.

There have been a number of thoughtful posts on it, including this one in Busted Halo and this one in Catholic Vote. For my own part, after hearing it for the first time last week, my first impression was this is a moving song about Jesus and Mary, very appropriate for Christmas (i.e. Advent). And it was written by two Protestants? Mary, your fan club is expanding! Praise God!

However, as a student of philosophy and the son of a lawyer, my favorite post by far was Mark Shea’s analytic post in Patheos. Taking the titular line at face value, Mark goes through the song line-by-line asking: “OK, so, Mary did you know?” His answers are both amusing and instructive (see Luke 2:41-51, repeatedly).

I’m not sure that I agree with Mark that Catholics shouldn’t sing this song. After all, most American Catholics have been “marinated” in the same theology as the songwriters themselves, and if the song elevates Mary (and Jesus) in our thinking, so much the better. Besides, we could all use some time contemplating Jesus through Mary’s eyes. And given the rosary’s prominent place in our culture as a rear-view mirror decoration, a catchy tune might be a good start.

But in terms of taking the song as literally as possible, and answering a few questions along the way, I say bravo! Happy Advent and Merry Christmas to all.

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