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What Did Mary Know?

The less someone speaks in Scripture, it seems the more people want to know about that person. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to answer apologetics questions with “Scripture doesn’t say.” Two New Testament figures that garner this kind of interest are St. Joseph and St. John the Baptist. But the number one Person of Interest is the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially at Christmastime. So, let’s look at a few of the questions the apologetics department ordinarily receives.

Is the Christmas song titled Mary, Did You Know? appropriate for Catholics? Some of the lyrics suggest that Mary needed to be delivered from sin.

The song “Mary, Did You Know?” can be understood in an orthodox manner. Catholics believe that Mary did indeed need to be delivered from sin. She was delivered from ever having any stain of sin on her soul from the very moment of her conception. That is the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. That deliverance was done in anticipation of her Son’s sacrificial death on Calvary.

If we think of Mary at the moment in history when she was cradling the Child Jesus, which is the moment at which the song describes her, then she had already been immaculately conceived but the sacrificial death that her deliverance anticipated was still in the future at that point in time. It was the sacrificial death that would fully accomplish her deliverance and the deliverance of all mankind. So it is technically correct from a historical perspective for the lyrics to say “soon deliver you.”

That said, the lyrics are ambiguous and their authors probably did not have this theological explanation in mind. For that reason, although it is certainly fine for Catholics to listen to the song on the radio or on a CD at home, the ambiguity of the song’s lyrics makes it imprudent for the song to be presented during a Mass or any other public liturgy. Catholics who do not understand the theological implications may be left confused on the matter of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

Zechariah was punished for not believing the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement that Elizabeth would bear a child. Why wasn’t Mary also punished for doubting?

Zechariah was chastised because he had no reason not to understand the angel’s promise. Note his reasoning to the angel that “I [Zechariah] am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Zechariah, a religiously-educated Jew and indeed a priest of the Temple, should have known that this exact same miracle of late-in-life fertility had been granted to Abraham and Sarah, the founding patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people. Abraham and Sarah’s miraculous baby Isaac should have been the sign for him that God could and would provide him and Elizabeth with their own son. Instead he asks for another sign. That demonstrated a lack of faith.

The miracle promised Mary, on the other hand, was entirely different. By her question, “How shall this be?” she implies that she was not expecting to have marital relations with Joseph. (Had she expected to do so, she would have assumed that the pregnancy would take place within her upcoming marriage.) So she needs information about how it is possible for a woman to have a baby without the participation of her husband. After Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit would accomplish the task, she accepts without further question. Once her real need for information is satisfied, Mary does not ask for any further assurances.

Did Mary suffer pain in childbirth? I have always heard that because Mary was sinless she was free from labor pain.

The Church is officially silent on the issue of whether or not Mary suffered pain in childbirth, although some Fathers, Doctors, and theologians assume that her immaculate state rendered her free from it. Strictly speaking, we need not assume that Mary was free from labor pains. Christ too was sinless and went through hideous suffering on the cross. If Mary’s labor to bring Christ into the world was painful, just as is ordinary childbirth, it may have been so in order to allow her to be in greater conformity to the life of her Son, who also would suffer. Even so, it is also true that she could have been free from childbirth pain. Absent a ruling from the Church, we just don’t know for certain.

How could Jesus be the Son of David if he was not the biological son of St. Joseph? And why is St. Joseph’s genealogy given by St. Matthew instead of the Virgin Mary’s?

St. Joseph’s geneaology is listed because, by Joseph’s marriage to Mary and by his acceptance of Jesus as his own child (cf. Matt. 1:18–25), Joseph became Jesus’ legal father. Thus, Joseph’s ancestors became Jesus’ ancestors.

For an example of the Old Testament precedent for this, see the story of Jacob’s adoption of Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim (cf. Gen. 48:3–6). Jacob claims these sons of Joseph as his own and states that they are equal in standing as his sons to his blood sons Reuben and Simeon (his firstborn and secondborn sons).

Christian scholars have long thought, however, that because the prophesied relationship between David and Jesus appeared to be much more than a legal relationship (cf. Rom. 1:3), that the Virgin Mary must also have been of the house of David. This is certainly possible, although we do not know for certain. However, it is interesting that Mary is specifically named in the Matthean geneaology alongside Joseph (cf. Matt. 1:16). Along with the other mentions of women in Jesus’ geneaology, this was unusual as Jewish mothers were generally not counted among ancestors at that time.

If both Mary and Joseph were descendants of David, then Jesus would have been the Son of David both by his legal relationship to Joseph and by the blood relationship he received through his Mother. However, by the laws of the time, the legal relationship would have sufficed to count Jesus as the Son of David.

Anti-Catholics have told me that Catholics are wrong when the Church says that the Magi found Jesus in the manger. They are using a passage in Matthew that says “house.” How should I answer this?

With a shrug. The Church has no position on whether the Magi found the Infant Jesus in a manger or in a house. The passage in question is as follows:

When they [the Magi] saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (Matt. 2:10-11).

It is very possible that by the time the Magi found the Holy Family, they had indeed been able to find accommodations in town. Mary and Joseph would hardly have wanted to stay in a stable with a newborn any longer than absolutely necessary. I suspect that your inquirers are hoping to score points because nativity scenes often include the Magi at the manger of Christ. Such crèches are not a strictly factual depiction of historical events but artistic representations of the major figures in the Christmas story gathered around the Infant Jesus.

Why wasn’t Jesus named “Emmanuel,” since that is what the angel said he should be named (Matt. 1:23)?

The word Emmanuel translates to “God is with us.” Matthew recalls the messianic prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 and states that its ultimate fulfillment is found in Mary’s Son:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.

“Name,” in this sense, does not refer to the actual name Joseph and Mary were to give to their Son (cf. Matt. 1:21, Luke 1:31); “name,” in this case, is used in the sense of “to call” (i.e., “they shall call him Emmanuel”). Analogously, one could say of baseball legend, Babe Ruth, “They called him the Sultan of Swat,” without intending to mean that “the Sultan of Swat” was George Herman Ruth Jr.’s given name. Emmanuel, “God is with us,” also calls to mind the last verse in Matthew, in which Christ says, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

From the very beginning of her Son’s life, the cross was always in view for Mary—from the scandal surrounding her pregnancy to the arduous journey to Bethlehem; from the birth in the stable to the flight into Egypt; from Simeon’s prophesy to the loss of her Son for three days in his youth. Each step from the Annunciation to the cross, and beyond, was one of sorrow. But the Virgin never, ever, even in the darkest of times, lost faith. That is, in itself, a Christmas miracle.

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Rom. 5:3–5). 

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