What Did Mary Know and When Did She Know It?

Your ultimate resource on the “Mary, Did You Know?” controversy!

(photo: Register Files)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

’Tis the season of social media memes of Saint Nicholas punching Arius in the face, outrage over the latest corporate disses to the season, and another round of controversy over the lyrics of “Mary, Did You Know?”

I kid, I kid. I shared a Saint Nicholas punching Arius meme myself this year (although the zeal some seem to have for theological punching does give me pause). As for “Mary, Did You Know?”, I have no brief one way or the other. I’m not a fan or a non-fan; I can’t even say I’ve so much as heard the song one time.

Out of curiosity, I did Google the lyrics. I understand the controversy. The song is typically Protestant in sensibility, without the Marian piety of Catholic hymnody and spirituality, emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness rather than her extraordinariness.

That’s not necessarily a problem — Mary was both ordinary and extraordinary, as was her Son — but the song rubs many Catholics the wrong way less because of any particular line than the general feeling that it seems to be essentially asking, “Hey, Mary, did you know your Son wasn’t just some random kid?” On the most hostile reading, some have even accused the song of heresy, though that’s clearly a bridge too far.

Obviously, the idea that Mary was simply in the dark about her Son’s identity and mission is obviously a nonstarter. Among other things, Mary knew not only

  1. what she heard from Gabriel at the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38), but also
  2. what the angel told Joseph in his dream, presumably (Matthew 1:18–25);
  3. what Elizabeth told Mary by the Holy Spirit at the Visitation (Luke 1:39–56);
  4. what Gabriel told Zechariah about his own son John, presumably (Luke 1:5–23);
  5. what the shepherds told Mary at the Nativity they heard from the heavenly host (Luke 2:8–20); and
  6. what Simeon and Anna told Mary at the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22–38).

That’s before Jesus was two months old, before we even get to the Magi and Joseph’s dreams that save Jesus from Herod and bring the Holy Family to live in Nazareth.

We are also told that Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and are twice told that she “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). She thought about them long and deeply — and her Magnificat shows that she had deep insight into what God was doing in her.

On the other hand, nothing in divine revelation or Catholic tradition obliges us to believe that the Virgin Mary could have given a precise account of Trinitarian theology, the Hypostatic Union, and so forth, much less that she had complete and exact foreknowledge of his entire ministry, including his passion, death and resurrection. (She did know, via Simeon, that “a sword” would pierce through her own soul.)

We do know that Mary and Jesus weren’t always on exactly the same page; their exchange at the finding in the Temple shows that much.

Avoiding both extremes, then, I see no reason why we can’t wonder, within limits, what Mary knew and when she knew it. Since the lyrics of “Mary, Did You Know?” are mostly posed as questions rather than declarations, I’m generally inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. This doesn’t mean I’m a huge fan of the song — obviously I’m not — but I don’t see a reason to consider it offensive either. 

But let’s look a bit more closely at what the song actually asks. The first line asks:

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Later lines ask similar questions:

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will calm the storm with His hand?

Is there any reason to suppose that Mary had specific foreknowledge of miracles like Jesus’ walking on water and calming of the storm? I see no reason to make a point of contention over this.

We might possibly put giving sight to the blind in a different category, along with the miracles referenced in these lines:

The blind will see
The deaf will hear
The dead will live again.
The lame will leap
The dumb will speak
The praises of The Lamb.

This is a paraphrase of Isaiah 35:5–6 (though Isaiah doesn’t mention the dead living again). Isaiah also speaks about “opening the eyes that are blind” in chapter 42, which begins, “Behold my servant, whom “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations…”

When Jesus began his ministry, he read from Isaiah 61, which, as Luke renders it from the Septuagint, says,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18–19)

The Jewish people of Jesus’ day looked forward to the coming of the kingdom of God, when all would be set right. The oppressed would be liberated, the blind would see, the dead would live again, and the Lord would rule over all the nations, which would turn from their idols to serve the God of Israel.

Did Mary have reason to believe that her Son would usher in the kingdom of God? The song asks this too:

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations?

Here the answer is clearer. At the Annunciation Mary was told of her Son:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;
and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,
and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever;
and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32–33)

This seems clear enough — even before Mary learned from the shepherds that the angels had acclaimed her son “Christ the Lord,” and from Simeon that not only was Jesus “set for the fall and rising of many in Israel,” but also that in him God had prepared “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”

All of this is clearly messianic, kingdom-of-God language. To be the Son of the Most High, to reign forever in a kingdom without end, is to be the Messiah and to usher in the kingdom of God.

This, in turn, might be reason enough for Mary to link passages like Isaiah 35 and 61 to her Son, and to suspect that the promise of the blind seeing and the lame walking would indeed be fulfilled in him.

But that’s not all Mary knew.

Things are clearer still when we come to the second line of the song:

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Here the answer is definitely yes. Mary knew her Son would bring salvation.

To begin with, Joseph knew. The angel told him in his dream that he would “save his people from their sins.” Presumably Joseph told Mary about his dream (at least, I can’t think why he wouldn’t, or how else the story would be likely to have survived for Matthew to hear it).

Mary also heard from the shepherds that her Son had been acclaimed “Savior” as well as “Christ the Lord” by a multitude of the heavenly host. From Simeon she heard “mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

Did Mary know that Jesus would be her own Savior?

Did you know that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?
This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Catholics believe that Mary was preserved from all sin from the first moment of her conception. This — and not the virginal conception of Jesus — is the Immaculate Conception. But we also believe that Jesus is Mary’s Savior, and that the Immaculate Conception is not an exception to Christ’s work of redemption, but its greatest fruit. (N.b. The line “This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you” does not contradict the Immaculate Conception; see the combox for more.)

Did Mary understand that her Son would be her own Savior? Certainly she connected what God was doing in her with her own salvation. At the Visitation, responding to Elizabeth’s joyful greeting and hailing her as “the mother of my Lord,” Mary sings in the Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

Perhaps the most important and mysterious question is what Mary understood regarding Jesus’ divinity.

Did you know that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation?

Did you know that your Baby Boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
The sleeping Child you're holding is the Great I Am.

At the Annunciation Mary was told — twice — that he would be “the Son of the Most High,” “the Son of God.” By itself, though, this doesn’t settle the question. “Son of God” in the Old Testament had many meanings, one of them including “messiah” or “Davidic king.”

Gabriel does develop the idea of Jesus’ divine Sonship in another direction: Mary’s Son will be called “Son of God” precisely because he will be conceived by the Holy Spirit, without the involvement of a human father. That’s still not an affirmation of Jesus’ eternal, divine Sonship, but it gets us closer. Likewise, the eternity of Jesus’ reign is not ordinary messiah-language, but doesn’t automatically make Jesus God.

After Gabriel’s words to Mary, the next most important are those spoken by Elizabeth under the Holy Spirit:

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

“Mother of my Lord” is widely understood to anticipate Mary’s title Theotokos or Mother of God. While it may not be impossible to interpret “my Lord” here as a reference to Jesus’ messianic status and human kingship, I see no reason to limit Elizabeth’s insight in this way if we wish to take seriously not only the inspiration of sacred scripture, but also the Holy Spirit on Elizabeth herself.

And if Elizabeth had an intimation of Mary as Theotokos, surely Mary did also.

The divinity of Christ is a mystery, and exactly how Mary understood or would have articulated that mystery is a question the New Testament doesn’t fully answer. On some level, though, I think we have to say Mary knew who Jesus was.

She carried him for nine months, and she alone knew beyond any possibility of doubt that there was no human father.

Her Fiat, her “Yes” to God, was a moment of singular grace. Without Mary’s “Yes,” the Incarnation would not have taken place. Mary would not unwillingly become the mother of God, nor would Mary’s Fiat have been meaningful if she hadn’t understood what she was consenting to.

When Mary said “Yes,” she knew what it meant. She knew that she had been chosen for an ineffable privilege; she also knew, I suspect, that she was consenting to unsupportable sorrow. God did not foist that on her either; when Simeon told her of the sword that would pierce her soul, I doubt he was telling her anything she didn’t already know.

She knew.