Back in my Baptist days I attended the church which was home to the lyricist of the popular modern-day Christmas song, “Mary, Did You Know?” The words to the song were penned in 1984; it wasn’t until 12 years later that music was added to create the song that we know today. “Mary, Did You Know?” is now as much a staple of the Advent season as “Deck the Halls” and “What Child is This,” although a tad more controversial, at least in Catholic circles. You see, many Catholics have an objection to the words of this Evangelical carol, pointing out that the Evangelical Protestant concept of Mary and the Catholic understanding of the Blessed Virgin are two very, very different things.
The song poses a series of questions concerning Mary’s “fiat” – her “yes” or “amen” to the message of the angel. Some of the questions are quite innocuous: Mary, did you know that your baby boy would some day walk on water? Mary, did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man? Not really controversy-provoking ponderings – unless you believe that the Almighty rendered Mary psychic, no, she didn’t know. Other questions, however, rub Catholic theology the wrong way: Mary, did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new? This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you!
Let’s parse that. Catholics and Protestants alike agree that Mary was saved by Jesus. After all, she declares plainly in her Magnificat that her spirit rejoices in God, her Savior. But while Evangelicals believe that Mary was simply a random woman (a “dirty, rotten sinner” as one rather rabid Protestant website puts it) chosen by God to bring His Son into the world, Catholic theology teaches that Mary was preserved from sin in anticipation of her Son’s redemptive work.
Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life. CCC 411
The lyrics to “Mary, Did You Know?” claim that Her Son Whom she delivered would one day deliver her – Catholics would certainly not dispute the fact that Mary was “delivered” by her Son, but we would have to argue with the timeline!
Another Catholic quibble with the song is that because Mary, at the moment of her Immaculate Conception, was endowed with the same gifts that Adam and Eve possessed before the Fall, she would have had “infused knowledge,” meaning that she would indeed have understood the ramifications of the Incarnation. If this is correct, then the answer to many of the questions posed by “Mary, Did You Know?” would be an unqualified “Yes!” She did indeed know that her Baby Boy was the Lord of all creation, that the Child Whom she was agreeing to bear would one day suffer and die for the sins of the world, whereas the Protestant answer to those questions posed in the song would be “Of course she didn’t know! The angel told her that she was bringing the ‘son of the Most High’ into the world, but like every other Jew of that day, Mary thought the Messiah would be an earthly ruler who would set up the continuation of King David’s rule.” The Protestant take on Mary’s fiat is that God roped some woman (a godly woman, most likely, but nobody special) in off the street who then cluelessly agreed to bear God Incarnate, with no concept of the world of suffering she was getting herself into. She certainly didn’t “know,” Protestants will tell you, but as a sinner she often stubbornly said “NO!” to God – just (fortunately) not at the pivotal moment of the Annunciation.
Catholics, on the other hand, believe that Mary in her fiat said yes to everything – to the Incarnation, to the Virgin Birth, to the flight into Egypt, to the loss and finding of Jesus in the Temple, to the betrayal in the Garden, to the scourging, to the Crucifixion. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Mary knew all the details beforehand – while she may have possessed infused knowledge, she wasn’t clairvoyant. She wouldn’t have known when she gave her fiat, for example, which specific miracles her Son would perform. Yet Mary said yes to everything, we Catholics believe, because Mary always said yes to everything God proposed. His Will was her will. The Blessed Virgin, preserved from all stain of sin, lived in perfect conformity to the will of God. All the promises of God are “Yes!” in Jesus Christ, and so through Him, her Deliverer, the “be it done unto me according to thy word” was spoken by His Blessed Mother at every moment of her life, as well as at this incredible juncture in history in particular.
And this isn’t just arcane theological knowledge to be filed away in anticipation of your upcoming appearance on the American Bible Challenge. The import of St. Paul’s “amen” passage in 2 Corinthians 1:19-20 should make it clear to you that at each and every moment of your life the “annunciation” is taking place all over again. At every moment God is announcing His Holy Will to you – nothing so grand as the angelic messenger and the fulfillment of prophecy, yet an annunciation all the same. In your life, the messengers generally look more like a pink slip, a child vomiting in the night, an acceptance into grad school, a neighbor who’s learned that she is developing dementia, an opportunity to move overseas, a friend asking if you’ve ever considered religious life. Your annunciation may come through answered prayer, or even more often through unanswered prayer. When we experience these annunciations of God’s will, what we “know” isn’t the question; the important thing is that we do not “NO!” We are not clairvoyant; we have no way of knowing which of our fiats may be the one which changes the world. Honestly, it doesn’t matter, because each and every time a follower of God Incarnate participates in His “Yes,” the world is changed….
Which is why, going back to that song, we need to modify those lyrics slightly – the question asked of us is “Sherry, did you no?” “Gary, did you no?” “Larry, did you no?” “Carrie, did you no?” because each moment of our lives is our own personal annunciation. Did we know? Heck, no – but by the grace of God may our response to Him always be “Yes!”
“Renée, did you know?” No, of course I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for when I said “Yes” to Him. It was a blind trust, yet not a foolish one. It was in imitation of my Blessed Mother; it was a participation in the life of Him Who is the Great Amen to the design of God the Father. It cost me, which made it all the more precious. And because I said “Yes,” I have in my own obscure life done what my Blessed Mother did illuminated by the floodlights of history – I have brought Jesus into the world.
And you have, too. And on that note, a joyous Christmas to all you who have joined the Blessed Virgin in her fiat, her “Yes” to God.
On the memorial of St. Peter Canisius
Deo omnis gloria!