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

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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17 Comments Post a comment
  1. You make a good point. I’m sorry you gave up on the hymn-writing. I would have done the same thing.

    December 3, 2014
  2. Janice #

    wow! Such a beautiful rendition if “Mary Did You Know” and your soulful posting.

    December 3, 2014
  3. Walter Ayres #

    Thank you for this.

    December 3, 2014
  4. I was raised Episcopalian. When my uncle died and we attended his funeral mass at a Catholic church, they sang the beautiful, “On Eagles Wings.” It was lovely. When my mother-in-law passed away, and we were planning her service, I asked the minister to include “On Eagles Wings.” He told me we couldn’t — it wasn’t used in the Episcopal church. I felt so angry and disappointed. I agree with you — and I especially love “Mary, Did You Know?”

    December 3, 2014
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      My mother had requested “On Eagles Wings” as the recessional song for her funeral, so it holds a really special place in my heart. But I know lots of Catholic writers like to bash that song as well.

      December 4, 2014
  5. Thank you, Mary. As the Choir Director and Co-Director of Music Ministry for our parish, I selected this piece the year it was first published. Our adult choir sang it for many years, until a change in priests, and we couldn’t sing it, anymore. That was about the time many articles and rants against the song appeared within the online Catholic music communities. The articles went viral. We retired the song for three years, but parishioners continued to ask for it every year. This year I brought it out, again. I experience both chills and tears every single time we sing it. I know the arguments and understand them; I also discount them from a pastoral viewpoint. It is quite true that those of us in ministerial positions – even lay ministry – are to take great care to uphold and promote the doctrines of the Church. At the same time, the universal language of music speaks to the soul in ways nothing else can. We’re trained that the decision to use a piece of music in liturgies and paraliturgies should ideally satisfy three concerns: musical integrity, doctrinal compliance, and pastoral nature. At the least, a piece must satisfy two of those. Well, “Mary, Did You Know” is beautifully composed, it acknowledges Mary as the Messiah’s mother, and parishioners love hearing it, and singing it. I seriously doubt that anyone – Catholic or non-Catholic – exposed to the song thinks for even a second that the Blessed Mother was unaware of her son’s uniqueness. I do think the listener or singer is brought “into” the Glorious Mystery for a brief moment sharing the things Mary kept and pondered in her heart. How can that not be good?

    December 3, 2014
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Melanie,

      Thank you so much for your comment, especially since you can give us a music minister’s perspective. I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling that this song can still speak to hearts and souls even if it wouldn’t pass the theological test. Although, quite frankly, I think it’s a little presumptuous for anyone to assume they know what Mary knew. We can guess based on Scripture, but we can’t truly know what was in this teenage girl’s heart as she confronted the reality of her role in salvation history.

      Peace and love this Advent season,
      Mary

      December 4, 2014
    • Emily Rushmore #

      Even within our profession there are disagreements! I have a degree in Liturgical Music and just “retired” to stay home with my children after 7 years as Director of Music at our parish. I purposefully never played that song at our parish. For most of us who understand Marian theology it may not pose a problem to our faith, but there is already so much confusion about Mary.

      It’s the same reason I wouldn’t play certain communion hymns. The fact that there are so many people that truly don’t even know that the Church teaches the Jesus present in the Eucharist means that I won’t take a chance to aid in someone’s continued misunderstanding or ignorance.

      December 6, 2014
  6. I like the song, but I am concerned about using songs that are weak theologically, especially in liturgy. Where do we say this much poor expression is OK, but not that much? Music has a way of staying with us that words alone do not. I imagine most parishioners can remember a song more than that day’s sermon.

    Sorry if that’s a bit of a rabbit hole, Mary. I am trying to learn when to hold on to things and when to let go. (I even put up lights this year before Gaudete Sunday!) I write songs myself, so maybe I over analyze?

    December 4, 2014
    • Emily Rushmore #

      Yes, this. This is exactly why I feel words are SO important. They come to us in our sorrow and joy. They actually teach us. We can’t dismiss the importance of words. Singing a song for personal edification is one thing. Liturgical singing is another.

      We all have a lot of opinions on music, and therefor church music. However, in her wisdom, the church gives us guidelines to work within. They are very generous, actually, but theology is non negotiable.

      December 6, 2014
  7. Walter Ayres #

    The more I think about this song, the more I believe that it provides one of those teachable moments. Mr. Shea’s dissection of the song provides a sound theological appreciation of our understanding of Mary. I have never understood the song to mean that just because the question “Mary Did You Know?” is asked, that the answer is always assumed to be “No.” However, that fact that this is not hammered home does not take away from the power of the words or the music.

    December 4, 2014
  8. Margo #

    I just read the blog that you are reacting to. Personally, I’m having a hard time understanding why it isn’t theologically sound. It seems to me the same questions any mother might ask and dream about her child and the theological questions all seem to come not from the song but from putting the song into a social construct. Not knowing anything much about Protestant ideas on Mary, it seems bizarre to say that the song is in any way meant to question her importance. But I guess people bring their own knowledge and perceptions into their interpretations.

    I agree whole heartedly though that we need to be more welcoming as a church. Gosh I hate hearing people bash anyone because it is an excuse for many people not to come back. It was an excuse for me for a long time until I decided that I didn’t care if people bashed me for my sins and I would come back anyway and come to terms with things in my own time. I couldn’t even begin to do that without coming back first.

    December 4, 2014
  9. Sam Schmitt #

    The song may be a moving and help some people, but this is not enough for it to be chosen for the liturgy. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to hold that as long as people like a song or feel God’s presence while singing it, it’s OK to sing at mass.

    You may not be aware that the Church has laid out guidelines about what can be sung at the liturgy. The lyrics in Catholic hymnals are carefully reviewed before they can be published.

    Among other things, the U. S. bishops have said that any song sung at the liturgy must conform to Catholic teaching, and this is just common sense, since the liturgy is meant to express the faith of the Church. Having a song which muddles what we believe or calls it into question shouldn’t be sung.

    This is not a judgment on the song as music or a condemnation of those who like the song, but just a common sense guideline. How can you worship God while at the same time singing something that (you know) doesn’t clearly express what he has revealed?

    December 4, 2014
    • Emily Rushmore #

      Agreed, Sam.

      Again, personal prayer or worship is different from communal worship of the Liturgy.

      December 6, 2014
  10. Thank you for this. I hope many Catholics already understand the theology, but I agree with you that reaching the heart is the most important thing.

    December 5, 2014
  11. Mike Tant #

    I was raised Catholic but left the church after college. Eventually landed in a conservative Presbyterian church and was there for 30 years. I returned to the Catholic Church six years and received a MA in Pastoral Theology last year from St. Meinrad’s Seminary. One of the writers of “Mary Did You Know?” has been a personal friend for 20+ years. I think I know his heart and i believe he would be seriously offended if exposed to Mark’s blog. One of the reasons I left the church originally was reflected in Mark’s blog post. Mary, I thank you for this article which so wonderfully expresses my thoughts and beliefs. And yes, I have some good and rewarding conversations with my Protestant friends and they ask many questions about why I returned to my roots. If I gave them Mark’s type of response, those conversations would cease.

    December 14, 2015
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Hi Mike,
      Thank you for your comment. I was reading yet more rants about this song again this year, but I just didn’t have it in me to go over the same old arguments. I’m glad you left a comment because it made me go back and re-read my own post on the topic. I still love the song and I still don’t get how otherwise intelligent people can miss music’s power to bring us to a spiritual place even if the words don’t completely convey our faith or any faith at all. It’s a beautiful song, and it will always be one of my favorites — no matter the season.
      Peace and blessings,
      Mary

      December 14, 2015

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