Ginny Miller still remembers the first time she heard the song, “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song).”
It was sung during a prayer service at Nazareth College in Pittsford, and a local dancer had choreographed and performed a routine that complimented the song, said Miller, music minister at Rochester’s Cathedral Community and associate director of the diocesan Office of Liturgy.
“Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” was cowritten by Chris Eaton and contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant and released on Grant’s 1992 holiday album, “Home for Christmas.” Since then more than 20 artists, including Grant’s husband, Vince Gill, and pop singer Jessica Simpson, have covered the song.
Miller was so impressed that she used “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” last year during the Cathedral Community’s Advent Lessons and Carols, and she plans to use it again this year at the annual Advent prayer service at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Gates.
“It’s a perfect fit. I love the piece. The melody is really haunting,” she said.
But it wasn’t just the song’s haunting melody that impressed Miller. She also liked the depth of the song’s lyrics, which chronicle the thoughts Mary might have had while she was pregnant with Jesus and traveling to Bethlehem. Through these lyrics, Grant and Eaton explored some of the fears and doubts Mary might have felt, as well as the faith she had in God.
In the second verse’s lyrics, Mary says, “I am waiting in a silent prayer. I am frightened by the load I bear. In a world as cold as stone, must I walk this path alone? Be with me now.”
“I love the text because it’s really about Mary’s plea to God to be with her, and (she’s) questioning and saying, ‘This is really hard, be with me,'” Miller said. “What she’s asking is the spirit to be with her, asking the spirit of God to be with her on this difficult journey.”
In the third verse, Mary doubts herself. She wonders if there has been some mistake, and if another woman should instead have been chosen to give birth to God’s son. This is significant because Mary is the model Christian, and it shows the rest of us that even she occasionally had doubts, Miller said.
“She’s wondering if a wiser one should have had her place. Is she the one that should have been chosen? It’s very much the humanity of Mary,” she remarked.
Mary is without sin, yet still she’s questioning her worthiness and wondering if she’s strong enough to face the task at hand, she added.
“Isn’t that what we ask all the time? Can I do this?” Miller said.
As Catholics, we know what we’re supposed to do, but sometimes we doubt we’re strong enough to do it, she said. Mary knew what God had asked her to do, and she was guided by her faith in him. Although the lyrics suggest that she probably questioned her worthiness, she also put aside her fears and prayed, “But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan. Help me be strong.”
Following Mary’s example, we often ask God to give us the strength to do the things he asks of us, like loving others unconditionally and living without judging others, Miller said. Catholics today face many challenges, from the widespread problems of war and violence to more local challenges such as adapting to changes brought about through the pastoral-planning process, she said. Catholics continually echo Mary’s doubts and pray for God to be with them.
“Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” is appropriate for all Marian feasts, and especially for the Advent season. During this time Catholics are on a journey, just as the lyrics portray Mary traveling toward Bethlehem for the birth of Christ, Miller said.
“And here we are too, also journeying through Advent, moving toward the coming of the Christ child,” she noted.
Just as Mary was the vessel that carried the Christ child, each of us also is a vessel, carrying Christ into the world, Miller added.
“I think there’s a lot to the song. Sometimes we like pieces of music that are very beautiful, but they can’t be repeated because there’s just not enough depth,” Miller said.
This song, however, has plenty of depth and can be used in a variety of ways, she said. It’s somewhat off the beaten path because it’s a contemporary piece rather than a traditional hymn, but she said it is perfect for use in prayer services, such as the one she is planning at the Pastoral Center. It also can be used in a few places within the Catholic liturgy, she said.
“It’s a reflective piece that could work for the preparation of the gifts,” Miller said.
Although there are certain places in the liturgy — such as the responsorial psalm — where this song would not work, creative music ministers can find ways to incorporate “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” and other contemporary Christian pieces into liturgies, agreed Miller and Anne Hull, leader of the folk-music group at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Spencerport.
“The contemporary Christian music does have a home in places in our liturgy. You will find it occasionally in our Catholic worship,” Hull said.
Last year one of the parish’s young adults sang “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” at a Christmas Eve liturgy, she said. The song was well-received by the congregation, she added. “It was quite lovely.”
Betsy MacKinnon said the song also has been well-received outside of the Advent and Christmas seasons, noting that it often is used during the Rachel’s Vineyard retreats she coordinates for men and women in the area who have experienced abortion.
“It is part of our Sunday-morning prayer time, and then participants talk about the song and their experiences of healing,” she said.