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‘The World Glowed With Mary’s Sweet Smile’; The Songs About Mary, The Greatest Mother of Them All

As we celebrate Mother’s Day and honor all the many attributes of motherhood and those special women in our life, we also must remember the greatest mother of them all, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the songs that have been sung in praise of all she signifies as the mother of our Lord. 

The church traditionally has dedicated the month of May to the Virgin Mary. 

From “Ave Maria” to “Mary, Did You Know?” throughout the generations songs have been written to pay homage to her, and even today, popular songs are still being written and sung about the Virgin Mary. 

Marian hymns are among the earliest devotions to the Blessed Mother, and remain especially popular in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Among the earliest hymns are “Beneath Thy Protection,” “Salve Regina: Hail Holy Queen,” and the Magnificat, also called “Canticle of Mary” and “Ode to the Theotokos.” 

U2 frontman Bono was so inspired by the latter that he wrote the song “Magnificent” for the group’s 2009 “No Line on the Horizon” album. The singer professes his love for the Blessed Mother in the lines, “Magnificent, Magnificent, I was born, I was born to be with you in this space and time; I was born, I was born to sing for you.” 

The most popular Marian hymn is “Ave Maria,” which was composed nearly 200 years ago by Franz Schubert. It has been performed by hundreds of acclaimed singers throughout the generations. Renditions have been recorded by classical artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Maria Callas, and Luciano Pavaotti, and popular vocalists like Celine Dion. 

“Ave Maria” first charted as a Top 10 song in 1910 by Frances Alda. Possibly the most popular recording of the Catholic prayer was by Perry Como, who reached No. 22 with his single in 1949. Como, a Catholic, further popularized the “Hail Mary” hymn by performing it on his television variety show. Como also recorded multiple albums of religious music, which featured popular Catholic hymns. 

In fact, Como also embraced the Blessed Mother with his recording of “The Rosary” with lyrics that proclaim, “I kiss each bead and strive at last to learn to kiss the cross.” Other Catholic hymns that Como covered include “The Lord’s Prayer,” “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” “Act of Contrition,” and “Goodnight, Sweet Jesus.” 

Iconic recording artist and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte praised the Blessed Mother in his Calypso-influenced “Mary’s Boy Child,” a dramatic retelling of the story of Christ. The opening lines poetically set the tone for the religious ballad: “Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible say, Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day.” 

The song was written by actor and songwriter Jester Hairston, who also wrote the popular gospel standard, “Amen,” which ultimately became a seasonal standard. It reached No. 12 in 1956. While other artists have performed it, the Catholic born and raised Belafonte has always owned it. 

Folk singer Joan Baez released the album “Noel” in 1966, which featured songs evoking the Virgin Mary, including her own remarkable rendition of “Ave Maria,” sung in German. The album also included “Mary’s Wandering,” about Mary searching for “God’s Son whom I have lost,” and ultimately discovering that he was crucified, “O say, what wore He on his head, a Crown of thorns He wore; A cross He also bore.” 

It foreshadows Christ’s ultimate sacrifice and gift for all humankind. Baez also recorded the folk-influenced “Virgin Mary,” which proclaimed, “The Virgin Mary had a son, Oh, glory hallelujah; Oh, pretty little baby, Glory to the newborn king.” The song was also recorded by Pete Seeger and Mary Hopkin with the title, “Mary Had a Baby.” 

One of the most popular songs of all to evoke the Blessed Mother is The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” which was composed and sung by Paul McCartney. McCartney’s mother was Roman Catholic and his father Protestant, and he was baptized and raised Catholic. Interestingly, according to McCartney, the song came to him in a dream about his mother Mary McCartney, who died of cancer in 1956 when Paul was 14. 

He has said that he is fine with any religious interpretation of the song, and felt blessed to have had that dream, where she appeared to him and comforted him saying, “It will be all right, just let it be.” But the lyrics certainly lead one to hear the song in a religious context in the words, “And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,” as she whispers words of wisdom and shines a light to help him find his way out of the darkness. 

Christian artist Amy Grant’s poignant 2007 recording of “Breath of Heaven” is told in the first person as the Virgin Mary calls on God to lighten her darkness as she prepares to give birth to Jesus. “I have traveled many moonless nights, cold and weary with a babe inside,” she sings, “And I wonder what I’ve done, Holy father you have come, and chosen me now to carry your son.” 

Over the years, country artists including Johnny Cash, the Statler Brothers, and Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers have recorded songs that celebrate the Virgin Mary. Cash’s simply stated, “Merry Christmas, Mary,” from his 1972 album “Johnny Cash Family Christmas” offers heartfelt thanks to Mary for the gift she gave. Cash sings, “Merry Christmas, Mary, thank you for the child; thank you for Lord Jesus, thank you for the child.” 

The Statler Brothers included “Mary’s Sweet Smile” on their 1985 album “Christmas Present.” The song recounts the story of Christ’s birth and how that night cast a spell as “the world glowed with Mary’s sweet smile.” 

And in 2015, award-winning singer-songwriter Larry Gatlin wrote “Thank God Mary Loved Her Unborn Child,” for the Gatlin Brothers’ “The Gospel According to Gatlin” album. The song explains that Mary could have chosen not to trust the angel, “but she believed and fell down on her knees, and raised her voice in praise to a God who found her worthy to carry heaven’s child; Thank God Mary loved her unborn child.” 

Gatlin sings that she could have run away and hidden from her village or lied to Joseph about the baby, but instead, she told him about the angel and that she was carrying God’s child. Gatlin has said that the song was written as he stood with his wife and watched his daughter playing in the park with his two granddaughters. “My song is not about religion or politics,” said Gatlin. “My song is just one papa’s way of looking at a very holy situation.” 

But no recent song has had quite the impact of “Mary, Did You Know?,” a heartfelt ballad that was released as a duet by Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd on Rogers’ 1996 album “The Gift.” Rogers, not known for recording religious material, put together a nine-song cycle that begins with the birth of Jesus in the Buddy Greene- and Mark Lowry-penned “Mary, Did You Know?” 

While the album is filled with memorable material, “Mary, Did You Know?” proved to be the standout track and has since become a modern inspirational standard. The narrator explains Christ’s role as the savior of humankind by informing Mary of what her son would achieve and symbolize throughout the generations to follow. 

While theologians may argue that Mary already knew the significance of her son’s birth and what He would become, the song simply uses the question as a device to proclaim Christ’s miracles — walking on water, giving sight to the blind, and, ultimately, saving “our sons and daughters.” The song concludes by affirming that Christ would one day rule the nations and that “this sleeping child you’re holding is the great ‘I Am.’ ” 

“Mary, Did You Know?” reached No. 55 on the country chart in 1997 for Rogers and Judd, but has since been recorded by dozens of artists from every genre of music, including a cappella group Pentatonix, Christian recording artist Michael English, and Dolly Parton. In fact, country and pop star Carrie Underwood recently released a cover of the song on her “My Gift” album. 

So, Mother’s Day and the month of May are the perfect time to reflect upon the greatest gift a mother could offer the world. It’s truly comforting to know that even today, a miracle that occurred more than 20 centuries ago is still a viable subject for a popular song. 

And whether we choose to sing the lyrics to “Ave Maria” in Latin, German, or English, the message is clear: “Hail Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.” Amen.