As Christmastime wraps up, many of us going through the simultaneous sad pangs of letting go of our favourite Christmas songs for another ten or eleven months–I have a #sorrynotsorry soft spot for Trans-siberan Orchestra “Christmas Canon Rock”–and thrill of freedom from our least favourite Christmas songs–no more getting judged by hipster friends for disliking Sufjan Stevens’ album, no more heretically bad incarnational theology of “Away in a Manger” claiming baby Jesus didn’t cry, and thank God no more “Little Drummer Boy.” But before the Twelve Days of Christmas end, let’s discuss the viral carol sensation of these past few years.
My double identity as a theology nerd and internet aficionado has lead me to see both 1. that millions of people have fallen in love with this song and to see that 2. when you break the internet’s simplest and most self-preserving rule (“NEVER READ THE COMMENTS”), you will find other theology nerds claiming angrily that this song blasphemously underestimates Mary’s intelligence.
At the heart of that criticism is not a critic having a theological epiphany so much as a massive poetic comprehension breakdown. The song is an extended rhetorical question, and I believe that collectively all the song’s questions are aspects a larger theological question, how much do we ever really know?
Perhaps cheesily–I am not ashamed if it is–but definitely poignantly, the lyrics by Mark Lowry pose a series of questions about what Mary knew. …
So what does the Bible say about what Mary knew?
26 God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.
Luke 1 (CEB)
Her husband also knew some things. Let’s assume they had a healthy and communicative relationship in which she knew everything he had been told.
20b An angel from the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
Matthew 1 (CEB)
With these passages in mind, let’s look at the song’s questions:
Mary did you know…
- That your Baby Boy would one day walk on water? No.
- That your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters? Yes.
- That your Baby Boy has come to make you new? Maybe.
- This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you. Yes.
- That your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man? No.
- That your Baby Boy will calm the storm with His hand? No.
- That your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod? Maybe?
- When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God? Actually Gabriel’s Christology seems a little lower than that at this point…
- That your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation? See above.
- That your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations? At least “Jacob’s house.”
- That your Baby Boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb? Not necessarily.
- The sleeping Child you’re holding is the Great, I Am. Probably not. Trinitarian theology comes later…
Mary knew her son was special, special beyond compare, but she did not know every detail–either narratively or theologically–of what that was going to mean. Even in the highest Marian theological views out there, such as asserting Mary too was immaculately conceived, her full humanity, just like Jesus’, meant that she was not omniscient in her mortal life. Mothering Jesus was a series of surprises for her that began, rather than get resolved, with the Gabriel’s visit.
What I find more interesting than the specifics of what did Mary know when is the larger question, when do know anything religious?
Two non-religious examples come to mind. My daughters and I live very bilingual Canadian lives. We were all born in the United States and we speak mostly English to one another at home. We live in Québec where we all go to attend school and hang out with many of our friends and order food and interact with bus drivers and government bureaucrats all in French. When we first moved here, just before my daughters were kindergarteners, they asked me, “How long until we know French?” Of course, there is no simple answer because when it comes to language, at what point do you know it? Did my five-year-olds really know English, either, for that matter? They couldn’t read Shakespeare, after all. What is the threshold of knowing a language?
Similarly, I spent many afternoons this past summer teaching my daughters to swim. At what point do they know how to swim? They know to kick, they know to move their arms, and they stay afloat, for a while, but they are not ready for a deep end. We do not live our lives only at the extremes of not knowing and knowing things.
When it comes to languages, swimming, or religion, in most things we live in between, we know something and yet can learn better. The knowledge can become more profound, more automatic, more nuanced. And that is why church is so blessedly repetitive.
I often give simple children’s messages on Christmas and Easter, among other Sundays, at my parish. For the past three years, a little boy who only comes on Christmas Eve and Easter always comes forward, rolls his eyes at me and says, “I already know this story! You only tell two stories!” While I of course tell more than just the two he comes for, yes, Christian liturgy is a cycle of repeating the same stories over and over and over again.
Being a preacher, opening my Bible to the same stories over and over again, I have long suspected that an army of scribal gnomes live in my Bible, adding details that I had never seen before in stories I “already knew.” A fig tree here, a pillow there. Some times these details change everything for me.
If we accept that an angel miraculously visited Mary and declared wonderous things to her–and I’m just old-fashioned enough that I do–she may have known many things, but the surprises and wonder did not cease.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:19 (NIV)
When [Jesus’] parents saw him, they were shocked.
Luke 2:48a (CEB)
In some Christian circles, we talk about a “relationship with Jesus Christ.” One of many ways I believe Mary is a holy example to us is that she had the first, longest, and most intimate relationship of anyone with Jesus Christ. It was defined by love and loyalty and knowledge, of course, but by experiencing the relationship not as a series of intellectual facts to be known but as a lived experience, to ponder continuously and to even allow to shock us, anew, over and over again.