Mark Johanson - December 19, 2021
The well-known song “Mary, Did You Know?” has been a staple of contemporary Christian Christmas music for over thirty years. The song propounds a number of questions to Mary about Christ’s birth that, while pensive, can seem rhetorical. This has led to its criticism: social media is often ripe this time of year with nay-sayers who post memes and contribute vacuous comment-section banter: “Mary knew she would birth the Messiah,” the more tactful comments retort, “the angel Gabriel told her.”
While these annual debates are likely clouded by a mere divide of musical taste, scholarly critics present a more serious concern. There have been suggestions that the repetitive ostinato text (an ostinato is a musical phrase that repeats over and over again) might guide listeners to doubt the Annunciation—yes, technically Mary knew that she would give birth to the Messiah because we read it in Luke 1—and to repeatedly ask this question in the context of a worship song could be construed as sing-song rhetoric, at best, and trivialization of the mystery of the Nativity, at worst.
Several years ago, when my wife, Elizabeth, and I announced that she was pregnant, a friend imparted wisdom from his personal experience: “nothing can prepare you for what’s about to happen.” Notwithstanding his advice, my self-confidence prevailed. My mom was a labor and delivery nurse, and I’d heard some of the more interesting stories; I know what’s about to happen. Elizabeth and I took the class for expectant parents at the hospital and sat through those dreadful movies of babies being born; I know what’s about to happen. The day came for Elizabeth to go into labor; I know what’s about to happen. But in that hospital room, while watching the miracle of childbirth unfold, my brain turned to mush. I had no idea what was happening. I knew what was supposed to happen, but I didn’t understand what was happening until after I saw what my wife went through and I was physically holding my infant daughter, marveling at the miracle of childbirth.
In Luke 1, Gabriel’s declarations to Mary sound preposterous; that as a virgin, she will give birth to the Son of God. You and I hear Gabriel’s message every Advent, and because we already know the remainder of Jesus’ earthly life, there aren’t any surprises: it’s easier for us to believe Gabriel’s news than it would have been for Mary (or anyone else, for that matter). Consider then, that, when Mary asks the question, “how can this be?”, one could infer that while Mary knows what will happen, just as I did when my wife was pregnant, perhaps she—again, like me—doesn’t understand.
Disliking “Mary, Did You Know?” for no other reason than its musical style is small potatoes. If, however, nay-sayers criticize the song for its conceptual or theological structure, they could be failing to grasp two important concepts: 1) whenever one uses worldly explanations to elucidate the will of God, one will never arrive at a satisfactory response: even if Mary had known every last detail about Jesus’ earthly life, neither her nor any other mortal’s reasoning would have been able to explain it; and 2) Mary’s proclamation, “may it be according to God’s will,” is both a submission to God’s plan and an admission of her own incomprehension: the difference between Mary and me is that Mary’s trust in God led her to speak words of submission before her child was born, compared with my words of naive self-confidence.
In conclusion, don’t rain on someone else’s parade just because they like a song. But more importantly, when you receive unexpected news that doesn’t make sense, remember the position in which Mary found herself: asking questions, knowing everything she needed to know, and likely not understanding fully. As God calls us to do things that we don’t understand, I pray that our response is one of submission amidst incomprehension: “may it be according to God’s will.”