One of the sidebars in the War on Christmas is the thrust and parry of commentary on semi-liturgical songs. “Mary Did You Know” is a popular battlefield for Catholics. In parishes, I get annual requests for it, and sometimes I’m able to fill such requests. I do so without regret. I can appreciate the appeal of a popular song crossing over into a liturgical prelude on Christmas.
One advantage the song has over other fare is that it is not afraid to connect the Nativity to the public ministry of Jesus and to the Paschal Mystery. I think a contemporary Catholic could probably write a more profound text doing this, but I haven’t seen it yet. And what a superior songwriter would do with such a gem, well …
I usually find Mark Shea incisive and funny. In whatever location he enjoys his Catholicism, I think pieces like this FAQ and answers have a bit of comic bling to push the message. From his conclusion, the best part of the essay:
I regard songs like “Mary Did You Know” as a step forward for Evangelical culture, but a step backward for Catholic culture.
It is a song written by and for a younger generation of Evangelicals who see Mary as a sort of “forbidden fruit”: someone … they are becoming curious about. That’s good. I encourage that curiosity because it will, with God’s help, lead to a recovery of the fully Marian piety that was handed down by the apostles to Holy Church.
While I wouldn’t dispute any of the theological facts he presents, sometimes questions aren’t questions. Sometimes songs aren’t studies, cantors don’t proclaim catechisms, and music has a message on a somewhat-different plane than the literal word.
The main “character” of the Mark Lowry/Buddy Greene song is not the Blessed Mother. It is the Christian coming to grips with an awe-inspired encounter with the Incarnation. The questions asked are rhetorical, not catechetical. The appropriate response is not apologetics, but contemplation. At the Birth, Mary held things in her heart. That may or may not have included some questions in her mind, but the Biblical tradition suggests the heart. We would do well to imitate this discipleship, not over-analyze the efforts of country/pop composers.
The way I see the song is that its singer asks, “Do I know?” By extension that question is extended to the listener.