Mary did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
In no other case is "smh" more appropriate.
(For those who don't know, smh means "shaking my head." Don't feel bad. I didn't know that one till a couple months ago.)
While I certainly have a tendency to rant and rail against any number of things, I am not one who lightly makes polemics about religious songs. I do my best to see the good in religious art, even when it might be from a different tradition or take a little poetic license. I am a staunch defender of Amazing Grace, a hymn which many super Catholics denounce as heretical. I thought it was beautiful when Sr. Cristina Scuccia (winner of Italy's The Voice) recorded Like a Virgin for her first album (whereas, many other Christians were scandalized). I'm not interested in black listing songs or suppressing artful expression.
All of that said, I have zero love for "Mary Did You Know." Art has great power, and, especially when it comes to religious art, we need to be aware of how that power is affecting us.
Before I really get going on this, I will say that I don't mean to disregard the talent of the many artists who have performed this song, nor even that of Buddy Greene and Mark Lowry, the song's co-writers. They created something they thought was beautiful (or rather, something just about everyone thinks is beautiful), and if its subject matter were any other human being who ever lived, it would be. However, in reality, it is a misleading portrait of the Mother of the Church.
If you are one of the many who think that "Mary Did You Know" is a worthwhile reflection on Mary's perspective on her Son, I invite you to re-examine your understanding of the Blessed Mother. You might say that it makes her feel more human, more like us, but I respond that in her place in God's plan she is the most human, an elevation of humanity, what humanity should have been in the first place...you know, without sin. I don't need to identify with yet another sinner. There are plenty of those to go around. There are any number of good, respectable, and even heroic people who were sinners. We call them saints, and there are loads of them. I pray to them all the time, and I identify with their stories.
Yet Mary is not merely a saint. In my search for intercessors and exemplars, I have need of something beyond just the saints, someone higher than them. You might say angels fit that bill, but they aren't human. No, this need is only fulfilled by tapping into the hope and beauty that is the perfection of our nature, without stain of sin. Of course we already have the New Adam in the person of Jesus Christ, but there is something truly beautiful about the New Eve in her perfect humanity. I need my Mama.
That's not to say that Mary never knew fear or doubt or difficulty--even Jesus in his humanity experienced those thing--but this song takes it way too far. Here's why I can't abide "Mary Did You Know:"
"Mary Did You Know" imagines a Mary who is clueless as to who her Son is, an ignorant Mary who doesn't know as much about Jesus as we Christians do. How absurdly condescending! We don't need to bring Mary down to our level, and we certainly don't need to put her beneath us. Who among us knows Jesus better than Mary? She carried the King of kings in her womb, yet we would lecture her on who he is.
The song speaks to Mary as though she is unworthy of our veneration. It ignores her place in our salvation. It relegates her motherhood as a mere plot device in the Gospels. That's such an impoverished take on Divine Providence. God had chosen Mary from the very beginning. That's why she's special. There is a difference between Mary and us.
Before you get all argumentative (and I some of you will), I do understand that the intended effect of the song is to teach us about Jesus, not Mary. It's not lost on me that one of the more creative and profound ways to teach about Jesus is to speak of his mother, but there's a right way to do that. The Council of Ephesus called Mary "Theotokos" (Mother of God). That sounds like it's just a positive thing to say about Mary, but it's actually done to teach us about the unity of Jesus' human and divine natures. If Mary is his mother, she's the mother of the one Person Jesus Christ, who is fully human and fully divine. She's not just the Mother of Christ (his humanity), but the Mother of God. The Council of Ephesus succeeded both stating the truth about Jesus, and saying something positive about Mary. "Mary Did You Know" states the truth about Jesus at the expense of his mother.
To me it is a real shame that in Catholic churches across the nation, this song will be sung during Advent and Christmas. I can think of probably 50 songs that get at the true nature of the Mother of God, all so much more beautiful than this song from 1994 (when Ace of Bass topped the charts). Check out the words of this hymn to Mary written by a Anglican convert to Catholicism that sums up most of what we believe about Our Lady:
Holy light on earth’s horizon,
star of hope to fallen man,
light amid a world of shadows,
dawn of God’s redemptive plan,
chosen from eternal ages,
you alone of all our race,
by your Son’s atoning merits
were conceived in perfect grace.
Mother of the world’s Redeemer,
promised from the dawn of time:
how could one so highly favoured
share the guilt of Adam’s crime?
Sun and moon and stars adorn you,
sinless Eve, triumphant sign;
you it is who crushed the serpent,
Mary, pledge of life divine.
Earth below and highest heaven,
praise the splendour of your state,
you who now are crowned in glory
were conceived immaculate.
Hail, beloved of the Father,
Mother of his only Son,
mystic bride of Love eternal, hail,
O fair and spotless one!
Or, just be reminded of the words of the Hail Holy Queen:
Hail, Holy Queen, mother of Mercy,
our life, our sweetness, and our hope!
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary!