Christmas songs are abounding here in the second week of Advent. Omitting some background story, I committed myself to explaining, according to the Catholic faith, what is lacking in a particular popular Protestant Christmas song. I really don’t have to do much to analyze the lyrics of Mary Did You Know,because Fr. Geoff Horton has already done it (and given permission to share, as I do below). However, this all being on my mind, I happen to have noticed the same, soppy, low-Mariology Christmas sentiments almost word for word in another song which I had enjoyed many times. It was almost surprising. Listening to Brandon Heath’s Just a Girl, I was struck even more by the presumed (even if only poetic) assumption of the Biblical ignorance or Scriptural naivety of Jesus’ mother.
Just a girl
Does she even know that she just changed the world?
Does she even know that He will save the world?
Does Mary know that He will save the world?
She’s just a girl
Just a girl
It is usually Catholics who are accused of not knowing their Bible. It seems now acceptable in contemporary Christmas songs to insinuate that Mary did not know her Bible. But I offer the simple thought, that if we read our Bibles, we will find that we should be a little more cautious to do so. Here is the caution. One might say Mary was “just a girl” who would not have known her Bible (all the Old Testament Scriptures for us), but reading all of Luke 1:26-56 seems to say otherwise. Gabriel spoke very directly to Mary. I guess you can say it was too direct and all too much over Mary’s head, except for the fact that Mary displays such a thoroughly biblical vocabulary and mindset in the immediately subsequent Gospel events. I need not repeat the entire account of the Visitation or the Magnificat (I’ll paste below). I only point out that if we take it as a literal historical account of the words of Mary with the Archangel Gabriel and with her cousin Elizabeth (something most every Protestant would do), then we get an entirely different idea: Mary could not only recall well known Old Testament prophecies, but she was such a biblically minded woman it was always in her heart to burst forth with praise in the very faith and words of the Old Testament. Mary speaks like she knows Miriam and Moses (Exodus15:1-21). She sings like she has been hanging out with Deborah (Judges ch. 5). She thinks and talks in a way that strangely self identifies with Judith (Judith16:1-17). It is not just the words and way of speaking of these great Old Testament women that Mary has picked up (by a kind of mysterious holy peer influence), it is the great language of salvation – we might almost call it high-falutin’ Bible lingo – that she seemed comfortable throwing around: hesed-mercy, Covenant, Servant of the Yahweh, anawim. To answer these questions that are being asked in our popular Christmas songs, the Biblical picture of Mary seems itself to say, “yes, Mary knew.” She knew her Scriptures. If she could quote such things, she could recognize them, and contemplate their meaning. If we are going to be soppy over Christmas (and I most certainly am myself here and there) I still recommend sentimentalism that doesn’t revolve around Mary’s supposed Scriptural ignorance
Here is where Catholics especially ought to know better. There have been Catholics who said, “Mary was just a girl. Clearly the words attributed to her are later additions to tradition because they are ‘too perfect’ to be the actual words of a Jewish teenage girl.” Such Catholics might be selling short the grace of the Immaculate Conception. Take St. Therese of Lisieux for comparison. She was “just a girl.” She wasn’t even immaculately conceived or free from the guilt of sin. And yet at the age of 13 she had The Imitation of Christ memorized, “chapter and verse.” It’s a small book compared to the Bible, but the comparison shows a little of what would be possible for the Queen of all saints.
In the end, there is no crime in being a sop about poetic lyrics which some find to be rhetorical questions unfitting for more devout opinions of high-Mariology (and Christology at the same time). Some call the above Biblical literalism sentimental. Neither is heretical. But there is one question which cannot be left to theory or sentiment or preference in Christmas music. That is the question whether Christ actually made his mother in the pattern of the new creation. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” 2 Cor. 5:17 applies to the “Woman” of John’s Gospel (John 19:25-27), Mary. Mary was immaculately conceived. Mary’s baby boy did not come to make her new, because he had already made her new. Mary did not need to be delivered. She had already been delivered. She of course knew she was unworthy to be the mother of the savior; but only because she was aware that the grace she enjoyed was never owed her; not because she was a sinner who needed to be delivered and made new. It is not the least inconsistent to say, that along with all of the above, Mary had no knowledge of personally offending God, because she had no guilt of personal sin nor original sin.
So if we are going to be sops who love to sing Mary Did You Know, let us at least correct the one part that would deny the witness of the Scripture, as understood by the Fathers of the Church, as interpreted by the successors for the Apostles and Saint Peter, as has been clearly written in the Catechism, and has been devoutly believed by all the saints. Let us sing the mystery of the Immaculate Conception as a true indispensable Christian doctrine which displays the power of the Cross of Christ; “Mary did you know, that your baby boy is making all things new? This child that you’ve delivered IS WHO DELIVERED YOU!”
Did Mary know that her baby would save our sons and daughters?
Yes; Gabriel told Mary more than enough to identify her son as the promised Messiah who would bring salvation.
Did she know that her baby came to make her new?
No, because she didn’t need to be made new, having been preserved from all stain of sin from the moment of her Immaculate Conception. Since she was preserved in view of the merits Christ won at His Passion, one might say that He would soon deliver her in a certain sense, though that delivery had already had its effect on her. (I realize that a Protestant songwriter wouldn’t think this way.)
And even in that certain sense, yes, Mary knew what HIs mission was. She knew what the prophets had foretold. (See the story of the encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus if you don’t think Jesus’s redemptive death was in the Old Testament.)
Did Mary know that her baby would give sight to a blind man?
Yes; Isaiah said so.
Did she know that her baby had walked where angels trod? And that His face is the face of God?
Yes; Gabriel told her that her son would be Son of the Most High. For good measure, Gabriel told St. Joseph that the child’s name would be “Immanuel”, which means “God [is] with us.”
The blind seeing, the deaf hearing, etc.?All in Isaiah.
Lord of Creation? Gabriel told her.
Ruler of the nations?Gabriel told her that her son would inherit the throne of David, and the prophets said that David’s heir would rule the nations.
Heaven’s perfect lamb?Read the Servant Songs of Isaiah. It’s in there. (Remember the road to Emmaus.)
So we’re left with walking on water and calming the storm as the only two things Mary did not know in advance, and she certainly knew that He could do those things if he wanted.
Yes, Mary knew.
The Account of the Annunciation and Visitation in the Holy Gospel according to Luke
Biblical Cross References from the NAB
1:26 In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.l 28And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”m 29But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31n Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. 32o 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, 33and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”p 34But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”* 35And the angel said to her in reply, “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.q 36And 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; 37for nothing will be impossible for God.”r 38Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Mary Visits Elizabeth. 39During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,s 42cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.t 43And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord* should come to me? 44For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. 45Blessed are you who believed* that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”u
The Canticle of Mary. 46v And Mary said:*
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;w
47my spirit rejoices in God my savior.x
48For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.y
49The Mighty One has done great things for me,
50His mercy is from age to age
51He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.b
52He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.c
53The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.d
54He has helped Israel his servant,
55according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”f
56Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.