Mary Did Know, Yes, She Totally Knew

It’s almost that time of year again, when Protestants roll out the statues of saints (nativity scenes) and sing about Mary. Well, actually just one song about Mary. The ever-popular Mary, Did You Know.   So let’s just clear things up right now so no one can claim ignorance; Mary, Did You Know is heretical nonsense. Seriously, stop singing it and pray for the poor soul who wrote it.

Apparently, some explanation is warranted as I can already hear the music being cued up in every Baptist church in town. Yes, dear friends, it is heretical for both Bible-Only Christians (most Protestants) as well as, and especially, faithful Catholics.

Sola Scriptura Christians are fairly quick to demand chapter and verse support for every Catholic teaching (yes, they do exist, all of them in fact). The Bible they claim is the only authority and source of truth, overlooking of course that nowhere in the Bible does the Bible state, suggest, or imply Sola Scriptura as doctrine. The Bible does not teach Sola Scriptura. Also, documents can’t self-authenticate (totally illogical). I digress.

Ok, so here we are during the Christmas season and a song with a super catchy melody asks if Mary knew. Here are the lyrics:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you

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 a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God

Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know

The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am

Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know

Let us now consider Luke Chapter 1. An angel of God named Gabriel visits Mary. The angel announces to Mary that she has “found favor with God” and she will “conceive” in her womb and bear a son, “and you shall call his name Jesus,” which is literally the Hebrew name for “the Lord (Yhwh) saves.” So here we have Christ’s identity and His mission! The angel continues, “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 forever; and his kingdom there will be no end.” The angel was pretty clear who this baby Jesus was. Mary knew because the angel told her. Scripture is so very clear about that.

If anyone knew, it was Mary! She confirms this knowledge in the canticle she offers to Elizabeth when they first meet and St. John the Baptist recognizes his Messiah in Mary’s womb. If fact, Elizabeth knew too! Upon meeting Mary, she declares, “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? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the child in my womb leaped for you. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Here Elizabeth is even declaring the truth of Jesus and acknowledged that Mary is blessed for believing this truth. Mary knew, and so did Elizabeth and the yet to be born John the Baptist!

Let us also consider Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-56, and Mary said, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.  From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” How much clearer can Mary articulate that she understood who this baby was and what His mission was to be in light of the fulfillment of the prophesized Messiah?

Catholics should be especially cautious about this song for the line, This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.” Nooooo! Really? What does she need to be delivered from? Sin? Nope! Catholics understand the angel’s greeting, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28) Mary was without sin and we call this special grace her Immaculate Conception. She was preserved from original sin. God is her savior because she was protected from sin by being preserved from it in the first place by a special gift of God. She will not “soon” be delivered, as she was delivered before St. Anne conceived her.

This is a dogma the faithful are bound to accept. It has always been true that Mary was immaculately conceived as even Scripture tells us she is “full of grace.” If something is full, nothing can be added to it. There is no room for sin. This doctrine makes sense because the spotless purity of Jesus could not be contained in an unclean vessel. Mary had to be pure and preserved from all sin, even the stain of original sin.

In 1854 Pope Pius IX offered the dogmatic definition of the doctrine by stating, “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.”

Scripture contradicts this lyric that Mary will “one day” be saved/delivered and the Church has through its magisterial role defined this doctrine so the faithful can understand not just who Mary is, but who Jesus is. This doctrine speaks to the perfection of Christ that he would create, with intention, His own mother with a perfect soul, “full of grace.”

We should also not forget Luke 2: 22-38 when Mary and Joseph present baby Jesus in the temple and Simeon and Anna offer prophesy about Jesus. Simeon even tells Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Yes, Mary knew the suffering and trial that was to come.

I’ll finish with some words of Mary from the revelations of St. Bridget, a mystic from Sweden born in 1303. Upon presenting Jesus to the Temple, Mary recalls to St. Bridget:

“For though, by divine inspiration, I knew that my Son was to suffer, yet this grief pierced my heart more keenly at Simeon’s words, when he said that a sword should pierce my soul, and that my Son should be set for a sign to be contradicted. And until I was assumed in body and soul to Heaven, this grief never left my heart, . . . for every time that I looked upon my Son, wrapped Him in His swaddling clothes, or gazed upon His hands and feet, so often was my soul swallowed up, as it were, by fresh grief, for I thought how He was to be crucified.”

Yes, Mary knew, and we should love her even more because she did.



Do You Have to Suffer to Become a Saint?

I almost could not look away from the decimated left arm of St. Teresa of Avila. Hovering above her elaborate coffin in a bent glass tube rests this saint’s arm. The heart that experienced the transverberation still bears the scar of that mystical event and is perched in its own crystal case opposite of the dismembered arm. Between these relics two white marble cherubim dance atop her ornate coffin.

I have prayed many times at the burial tombs of saints. Three times even at the incorrupt bodies of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Catherine Laboure, and even St. John the XXIII (before he was canonized). Relics and elaborate coffins and marble slabs marking the holy souls’ resting places are wonderful experiences for most Catholics.

I was ill prepared; however, for the sight of the shriveled brown heart and dismembered left arm of St. Teresa of Avila.

Yes, I know Catholics do strange things with first class relics (like put body parts on display in glass cases), but that wasn’t it. I felt a strange draw to St. Teresa having never really had a strong devotion to this saint. However, sometimes saints find you, not the other way around.

Recently, my husband and I took a long pilgrimage across the Iberian Peninsula. The trip was to honor the 100th anniversary of Fatima, our first stop on the journey.   Alba de Tormes was one of our first stops. This is the final resting place of St. Teresa of Avila (as well as her place of birth). She died there during a visit, and her body (most of it) remained in that location. Avila has a finger of St. Teresa, but she is not buried in Avila.

St. Teresa’s corporal remains moved me to tears, and it was hard to leave her. I couldn’t figure out this reaction at first. I admired her whit and intellect. Her spiritual writings are almost incomparable, and her life was not without drama and hardship (Spanish Inquisition and all that), but none of that ever made me feel a strong connection to her, or even a particular interest. Teresa just didn’t feel very real to me, as if all her spiritual heavy lifting and suffering placed her in a category so far removed from my life experience that I could never relate to this medieval mystic. However, she was about to make her message known to me and my heart was ready to receive it.

Around this point in our pilgrimage, the topic of suffering and holiness was raised for discussion. One rather inquisitive pilgrim asked, “Do you have to suffer in order to become a saint [holiness]?” St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross were offered as excellent examples of suffering leading to holiness. Following a rather long dissertation by one of the priests on the bus ride across Spain, the answer was given, “Yes.”

Hold on a minute I thought! Some important clarification was needed! I could feel my fellow pilgrims shrink back into their seats thinking they would rather pass on all that suffering business (I’ll settle for just being a good person). I could see the calluses toughen over their hearts toward a god who demands suffering (not trusting that guy). Some no doubt got busy tallying the moments of suffering they could offer up to the angry accountant in the sky (did I hit my quota yet?). Somewhere between the heretical theology of faith alone/prosperity gospel (don’t bring any of the suffering business into my spirituality) and Pelagianism (have I earned my salvation yet?) a bit of clarification is warranted. Actually, three clarifications:

  1. Suffering may be necessary (as it is unavoidable), but it is not sufficient for holiness. As long as suffering includes experiences like hunger and boredom, I think it is safe to say that suffering is universally experienced. It is a bit ridiculous to say it is necessary if it is a basic truth of existence. Claiming it is sufficient for holiness is contrary to observations of human behavior. I think we all have that one friend in our minds right now who experienced the suffering of a great loss for example and the result has been bitterness and loss of faith. So, suffering is unavoidable, but not sufficient in itself to create holiness.


  1. Not everyone is called to “great” suffering. Although all are called to be holy and in this way saints, only certain “victim souls” are called to cooperate with God’s Will to offer themselves in martyrdom and other such substantial suffering. Thinking of saints like Maximilian Kolbe and St. John of the Cross we must recognize the special mission given to these men to suffer for the Kingdom. St. John the Evangelist was the only apostle not martyred. Was his call to holiness less important or valued than the others? If God calls me to suffer and sacrifice in the context of the vocation of marriage should I consider this less than the holiness achieved through great suffering like St. Teresa of Avila? Is it a competition? Is not pride a bit on display if I desire a suffering not willed by God? My particular path to holiness in God’s plan may be small and hidden. Should I not accept with praise and thanksgiving the little way God might want to perfect me, if He chooses that, and not great dramatic suffering for my life?


  1. Holiness can develop in the context of suffering, but because of an encounter with Christ and a falling ever deeper in love with Him. Often suffering can help us grow in virtue as suffering sometimes teaches us to behave in ways contrary to our nature (learning patience or controlling anger) due to negative consequences of our choices. However, if we stay on the surface level of suffering’s importance we don’t make much progress in the spiritual life. Like the woman at the well who had been ostracized by the community for being a fallen woman with five husbands (still didn’t change her behavior), she encounters Christ at the well (something that happened only in the context of her social rejection and isolation). Having now encountered Christ (and not because of her suffering social rejection), she abandons herself to His truth and runs to tell others. Suffering had been the context that readied this woman to receive Christ and abandon herself, but not the cause of her conversion. Is this not what love is? When we meet the object and source of love (God), we abandon ourselves. This is the catalyst for spiritual transformation, abandoning ourselves in the meeting of Love, which often happens in the context of suffering. No one is transformed by God without Love. Free will being what it is, we can always reject Love and that my friends is true suffering. No one who suffers without Love is ever improved by suffering or willingly cooperates with God’s plan for redemptive suffering. They may survive their suffering, but not grow and develop in holiness.


Now I return to St. Teresa of Avila. No, I was not drawn to her because of the drama or suffering in her life. I could not stand to leave her because my own heart, I believe, responded to the great love she had for God in her heart. What has been beautifully immortalized in the sculpture of Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (her transverberation) is a small snapshot of the experience of Love St. Teresa had. According to her description, before Teresa appeared an angel carrying a fire-tipped arrow or spear. The angel pierced her heart repeatedly and she was sent into a spiritual ecstasy. She wrote, “The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.” – The Life of Saint Teresa, by herself.

Even in Bernini’s art, formed in rigid marble, she appears to fully abandon herself to this person of Love! She surrenders completely and falls back in ecstasy. In the end, I think a bit of the golden arrow touched my heart as well.

I’ll conclude with one of my favorite quotes on suffering from St. John Vianney, and I hope the heart and spirit of his words have been honored in my meandering thoughts:

“Once they’ve been transformed in the flames of love, crosses are like a bundle of hawthorn that you throw on the fire, and that the fire reduces to ashes. The hawthorn is thorny, but the ashes are soft. Hawthorn exudes balm and the cross exudes sweetness. But you’ve got to press the thorns in your hands and clasp the cross to your heart if you want them to distill the essence they contain.”