Today’s Word from Karl Olsen…
“Let us learn from the Virgin Mary how to be bolder in obeying the word of God.”
“In trial or difficulty, I have recourse to Mary, whose glance alone is enough to dissipate every fear.”
Saint Therese of Lisieux
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”
“I just met you, and this is crazy, but I’m an angel, and you’re having God’s baby!”
Merry Christmas… almost!
I’m one of those who likes Advent, so I pretty much stay there for the whole season! Well, except for caroling, and Christmas parties, and singing for Christmas gatherings and shopping… well, I said “pretty much!”
The fourth Sunday in Advent is focused on Mary—last Sunday, when pastor Chris Breuninger preached, we sang The Canticle of the Turning, a version of Mary’s Magnificat. So I thought this week we’d take a look at a contemporary Mary song—Mary, Did You Know.
The song, released in 1991, is by Mark Lowry (lyrics) and Buddy Greene (music). It has become a Christmas classic. It has been covered (recorded) by such famous people as Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Wynonna Judd and Mary J. Blige. And we have a recording today from one of our famous TLC musicians, Jana Szabo, with a video assembled by Deacon Amy. So, it’s a big deal! But, first, a couple other Mary thoughts.
Mary is not known and respected just in Christian tradition. It turns out that Mary is the only woman named in the Quran. More than 15 times! Quranic editors differ on Mary’s status, some listing her among the prophets, some saying she was “an exceptionally pious woman with the highest spiritual rank among women.” The Quran notes Mary experiencing a version of the angelic annunciation, and the virgin birth of Jesus, with Mary responding “My Lord, how shall I have a child while no human has touched me?” Clearly, the Quranic mentions of Mary differ in many ways from Christian tradition, but always refer to Mary in a respectful tone.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is prayed to, not as we pray to God, and not to worship her, but as the mother of Jesus. As Jesus honored his mother, so Mary is honored, as the mother of God, and one who points us to Jesus. And, in the tradition, when you pray to Mary, you are asking her to intercede for you, to pray for you, while she’s spending eternity with God. The website “Dynamic Catholic” says “Nobody sees the life of a child the way a mother does, not even the father. This is Mary’s perspective on Jesus.”
So, Mark Lowry, while he was singing and working with the Gaither family, worked up lyrics for the song that evolved from a series of questions that Lowry scripted for a Christmas program at his church: “I just tried to put into words the unfathomable. I started thinking of the questions I would have for her if I were to sit down & have coffee with Mary. You know, ‘What was it like raising God?’ ‘What did you know?’ ‘What didn’t you know?’”
While writing lyrics, Lowry said he imagined himself as an overly enthusiastic angel who showed up at the manger during the Christmas story and was filled with questions. He used the phrase, “Did you know” to express that enthusiasm—as if the angel was bubbling over with joy for what the birth of Jesus meant. He wondered “did she ever walk into his room and say, ‘clean this mess up?’” Only the questions that rhymed made it into the song!
Lowry gave the lyrics to instrumentalist and composer Buddy Greene while on tour with the Gaithers. After listening to some Christmas tunes in minor keys, like What Child is This, he came back with the now-famous tune and harmony. The haunting melody was a hit.
The text of the song has received a fair share of theological and other criticism, saying that Mary obviously knew what was up, since she talked about it in the Magnificat in the gospel of Luke. Baptist theologian Michael Frost said “it treats her like a clueless child….” asking if the author would have asked Abraham if he knew he’d be the father of a great nation.
Some have made memes of the song title and posted variations on the question, such as “Mary did you know … that there’s a boy on his way to gift your newborn with a drum solo,” tweeted author and pastor Courtney Ellis. “Mary did you know we’ve been trying to reach you about your extended warranty,” tweeted Texas attorney Robert Callahan II.
Attempts at humor aside, in 2017, Toronto-based theologian Jennifer Henry wrote new lyrics that address the criticisms and echo Mary’s words from the biblical Magnificat. They are easily found online.
None of the questions are answered in the song. Instead, the lyrics poetically invite the listener to contemplate the relationship between Mary and her new son. Most of all, Lowry hopes the song will point people to the story of the baby Jesus and what his arrival would mean. “I hope the song makes people think about the baby Jesus,” he said. “I hope it sends them running to Luke 1 to find out what Mary knew.”
So, today, as Christmas approaches, listen to Jana’s wonderful rendition of this “new” Christmas classic. And maybe read a bit in Luke 1:26-55. And, Merry Christmas, pretty soon!