And, prompted by the folks at First Things, I’ve been thinking about Mary. As part of the continuing dialogue Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., T.M. Moore, J.I. Packer, Matthew Levering, and Edward T. Oakes have written about the Lord’s mother from their various theological perspectives. It’s a remarkably illuminative set of essays and Packer’s and Oakes’ essays particularly mark the divide between traditional evangelical and Roman Catholic thought as well as anything I’ve recently read. Not to put too fine a point on it, Packer’s essay is all Bible, while Oakes is all Churchwhich pretty much sums up the differences. Everybody agrees that without Mary we wouldn’t have Jesus, but “Who do you say that she is?” Model for us all (Packer’s view), or the Immaculate Mother of God, first vessel of God’s Grace (Oakes’ view)?
And who do we sing that she is? Who is Mary in our carols? Most folks don’t read a lot of theology in December, but we do a lot of singing. Who is Mary here?
A better question is “Where is Mary?” since, surprisingly, she’s mostly absent. In looking at the texts of 381 English-language Christmas carols (here carol means a strophic religious hymn with a tradition of being sung by Christians in the Christmas seasonso “Jingle Bell Rock” isn’t in this group), Mary (or the “virgin,” or “mother,” or even “woman”) appears in 27 percent of them. She’s slightly behind the angels and shepherds (who both are in 28 percent of the songs) but significantly ahead of the wise men (who come in at 13 percent). But Mary’s presence is even less than this low percentage at first suggests. Shepherds, angels, and the wise men are frequently mentioned in multiple verses of a carol. Mary typically is mentioned only once, and sometimes that reference is itself oblique.
Of the “Big Ten” carols, those carols that are omitted from the Christmas service only at the choir master’s peril“Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”, “The First Noel,” “Away in a Manger,” “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High”only three can be counted as including a reference to Mary. She appears in the second verse of both “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (“Christ is born of Mary”), and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (“offspring of the virgin’s womb”). She also appears in “Silent Night,” which I’ll return to in a moment. “Angels We Have Heard on High” has a verse that mentions Mary (“Mary, Joseph, lend your aid”) that the Presbyterians cut but that the Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians keep. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” includes a verse that refers to the one who “shuns not the virgin’s womb.” That bit of anatomy is a bit much for the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists, and the verse is omitted. The Episcopalians include it; the doctrine might be problematic, but the denomination does place a high value on maintaining poetic integrity. “Away in a Manger” mentions the livestock and “Joy to the World” problematic shrubbery (“thorns infest the ground”), and there are lots of angelic choirsbut no Mary.
Both the “First Noel” and “Angels from the Realms of Glory” are remarkable for Mary’s invisibility. In the nine verses of “Noel,” we have the economic condition of the shepherds (poor), the weather report (cold), the star (bright), the homeland of the wise men (far away), their mental condition (assured), the gifts (you know the list), the local livestock (ox and ass), the nature of divine creation (of naught), and, in a verse mercifully found in no hymnal, the doctrine of salvation through good works (“If we in our time shall do well / we shall be free from death and hell / For God hath prepared for us all / A resting place in general”). Considerably superior to that doggerel is James Montgomery’s “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” A British Moravian abolitionist with a jail record to make any 1960s civil-rights worker proud, in his seven verses Montgomery describes the angels singing at creation, moves on to the shepherds, the wise men, the congregation of saints in heaven, a call for sinners to “break your chains” (an oblique reference to his abolitionist interests), the eschaton, and a concluding doxology. Between these two hymn’s sixteen verses about Christmas, there’s not even a hint of Mary. She’s simply not there.
Unless we think this is a uniquely Protestant phenomenon, we have the example of “Silent Night.” In the six verses of Fr. Josef Mohr’s text, Mary is only alluded to as part of the “most beloved high holy couple” in the opening verse’s “Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.” John Freeman Young, Episcopal bishop of Florida, made the reference more specific in his translation “round yon virgin, mother and child” (which works fine with the tune’s meter but has made generations of Sunday school children wonder why it was important to say that Mary was chubby). With typical Scandinavian understatement, the Swedish translation leaves the mother and child’s divine nature to be inferred, but in the Spanish version Mary is excised entirely from the first verse and thrown in with the shepherds in a forth verse almost as an afterthought (“Los pastores, la madre también”).
Mary does appear in carols only slightly less popular than those Big Ten: “What Child Is This?” (in the refrain “the babe, the son of Mary”), “Christians, Awake, Salute the Happy Morn” (“of God incarnate and the virgin’s Son”), “In the Bleak Midwinter” (“but His mother only, in her maiden bliss”), “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (“with Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind”), and “Once in Royal David’s City” (“Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child”). Although eliminated in all hymnals I know, the full text of “Christians, Awake” includes a charming fifth verse that stretches Luke 2:19 to the eschaton:
Like Mary let us ponder in our mind
God’s wondrous love in saving lost mankind!
Trace we the Babe, who hath retrieved our loss,
From His poor manger to His bitter cross,
Tread in His steps, assisted by His grace,
Till man’s first heav’nly state again takes place.
Many lesser-known carols that mention Mary are translations of patristic and early medieval texts by the Anglo-Catholic cleric John Mason Neal (who also authored “Good King Wenceslas”). “From Lands That See the Sun Arise” (by Caelius Sedulius), “A Great and Mighty Wonder” (from St. Germanus), and “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (by Aurelius Prudentius) are some of Neal’s contributions; only the last of these three has found a place in modern hymnals.
Roman Catholics have a rich tradition of ancient Marian antiphons and hymns; Ave Maris Stella, Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina Caelorum, Regina Caeli, and Salve Regina (which Poulenc uses to such shattering effect in the final scene of his opera Dialogues of the Carmelites). But these aren’t carols (although the Alma Redemptoris Mater is associated with Advent), and in the decades since Vatican II they have become a distant memory even for most Roman Catholics. (Episcopalians have George Timms’ “Sing We of the Blessed Mother,” but that’s as much about Passion Week as it is Christmas, and I’ve never been in a parish where it’s been sung.)
So why is Mary largely AWOL in our Christmas singing? My guess is that the answer is pretty simple. Our carols are primarily nineteenth and early twentieth-century Protestant inventions (although the tune dates from the Renaissance, the medieval-sounding text “What Child Is This” was written in 1865), not a time that’s known for its deep Roman Catholic/Protestant cooperation and mutual affection. Mary can’t be excised from the Christmas story completely, but in the carols she’s mentioned as little as possible, for fear of turning her into an object of cultic devotionsomething most Protestants have accused Roman Catholics of doing for a fairly long time. So Mary merits only passing mention in a few carols oreven betterno mention at all in most.
There is an exception though.
Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924) is one of those Victorians to stretch the limits of credulity (even his name raises eyebrows: Sabine?). He was an early collector of British folk song and wrote a sixteen-volume compendium on the lives of the saints (as well as one volume on werewolves). His marriage to an illiterate mill girl whom he educated (a union that lasted forty-eight years and produced fifteen children) served as the inspiration for Shaw’s Pygmalion, and his youth became the model for the early life of Sherlock Holmes in fictional biography (written by one of his grandsons). He was also an Anglican rector and lord of the manor and sat up one night to dash off a march for the parish school (“Onward Christian Soldiers”). He translated “The Angel Gabriel” from the Basque (where do you go to pick up Basque?).
The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
"All hail," said he, "thou lowly maiden Mary,
most highly favored lady," Gloria!
"For know a blessed Mother thou shalt be,
all generations laud and honor thee,
thy Son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,
most highly favored lady," Gloria!
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
"To me be as it pleaseth God," she said,
"my soul shall laud and magnify his holy Name."
Most highly favored lady, Gloria!
Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born
in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say--
"Most highly favored lady," Gloria!
With a new tune, and a bit of tinkering with a lumpy line in the first verse, this text about the Annunciation could be a Marian carol that the most iconoclastic evangelical could sing shoulder to shoulder with the most devout wearer of the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It’s all Bible. And all Church. Most highly favored lady, Gloria!
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.