One of the most popular Christmas songs this past year was Mary Did You Know. While the lyrics of the song may not be theologically sound, the song asks a most important question for us to meditate upon on this Feast of the Annunciation: What did Mary know when she consented to the angel?
In asking whether Mary knows that the Son she was soon to deliver, would one day be her Deliverer, the lyrics gloss over the Immaculate Conception. Through a singular grace, Our Lady was redeemed pre-emptively her Son from the Fall. But the Immaculate Conception is also important in answering the question because of its effects. Our Lady was untouched by Original Sin and any of its effects. Ignorance, properly speaking, is a lack of knowledge of something that one should know and is an effect of the Fall. Our Lady, immune to this effect, would have lived her life in what, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange describes as, a “dark brightness, the darkness arising not from human error and ignorance, but from the very transcendence of the light itself.” In other words, she would have known all things that were humanly knowable at the time about the mystery of the Messiah and the Incarnation. Many of the Church Fathers thought she also was given a plentitude of infused knowledge that was directly related to the Incarnation. Either way, she would have known more about the Mystery of the Messiah than the most learned of the Jewish scholars. The rest would have remained in the darkness of faith.
How Mary Knew
For certain, Mary would have known all the prophecies of the Old Testament. She would have known that the 70 weeks of years prophesied by Daniel were expiring in her day. She would have understood that the Suffering Servant prophecies in Isaiah referred to the Messiah. She would have known that the child she was to carry was both her Savior and her God. There was no doubt in her mind as to the identity of the Child she was to conceive. As Fulton Sheen says, “Mary’s mind was filled with the thought of Divinity in the stable.”
Rather than being surprised by the content of the message of the Angel at the Annunciation, instead she is surprised that St. Gabriel was speaking to her. She did not know her mission prior to it being revealed, but once it is revealed to her she is fearful. She is fearful because she knows what it means for her. Like her husband Joseph, she believed in God’s Redemption through the Messiah, but because of her profound humility thought herself unfit to fulfill any role in it. She knows her own nothingness and yet has no doubts that “nothing is impossible for God.”
Two Examples Among Many
We can point to two instances among many that show her specific knowledge of the mission of her Son. The first is so subtle, that we can easily miss it.
When Our Lord is born, Mary wraps Him in swaddling clothing and lays Him in a manger. At first glance this seems so common place that we even wonder why it was included in the account. But then we realize that most mothers would not have placed their children in a hard manger with straw. Instead, they would most certainly have kept the child comfortable by holding him. But Our Lady knows her Son’s mission and that each and every act of suffering is redemptive. There is never a time when He is not the Messiah, but there is a time when because of normal human limitations, He relies upon His Mother to complete His mission. For her part Mary must always put the mission first, even though she could easily remedy His pain. Her suffering at seeing Him suffer, not just on the Cross, but even in the manger, merited her the title of Our Lady of Sorrows.
The second “moment” is at Cana. Here the connection with the Fall, Adam and Eve and redemption with the New Adam and the New Eve is made most explicit. But notice that it is Mary who initiates Our Lord’s public ministry. It is as if He once again asks her if she is willing to go with Him to His hour. The Annunciation and the Miracle at Cana are inexorably linked.
Mary’s Freedom and Knowledge
There is also a more fitting reason Mary must have known what was to transpire. The Angel Gabriel comes to Our Lady not with a demand, but with a request. God has sent him because He seeks Mary’s cooperation. He will not initiate salvation without her say-so. It is God’s “dependence” on Mary and her unique role in His saving mission that has earned her the title of co-redemptrix.
Eve may have had no choice in becoming the mother of all the living, but the New Eve would have a choice. God wanted a free cooperator. The will as a blind faculty can only choose based on knowledge. As knowledge grows, the freedom with which we act increases. If Mary’s fiat was total, then her knowledge must have been as well.
God could have defeated sin in the beginning by limiting human freedom. Given He chose the greater good of human freedom, why would He circumvent it when finally defeating sin? Instead He secured salvation through a supreme act of human freedom. If Eve freely and with full knowledge cooperated in mankind’s downfall, then the New Eve would untie the knot freely and with full knowledge.
This is not to say that Mary did not need faith. She did not know everything and she had to make an act of faith in order to jump from seeing that what God “does to me” (Lk 1:38) is really the thing that the “Almighty does for me” (Lk 1:49). Nor was it all Mary—although it was a free act, she who was “full grace” cooperated fully with it. Mary needed both faith and grace, but God did not want to pull the wool over her eyes.
“Mary, did you know?” Yes, she most certainly did.