By now you have likely seen this meme:
And perhaps you have read articles from all sorts of Christian denominations that chide Mark Lowry’s now 25-year-old contribution to the pantheon of Christmas songs with deep, contemplative biblical lyrics, Mary Did You Know? (you can find examples here and here)
We can’t let anything be popular in the U.S. without being overly critical…
All of a sudden in the last few years, it seems, it has become hip to take shots (and in Batman’s case, a slap) at this song that was celebrated for two decades as a modern classic Christmas hymn. And it’s the same every time: “Of course Mary knew! What were you thinking, Mark? Haven’t you read Luke and all the prophecies and the Magnificat?”
Well, for all sorts of reasons, I disagree. I think it is very unlikely Mary knew most of what Lowry pens in question form in this song.
I’m not going to break down the song line by line but the gist is that the song asks if Mary knew that Jesus was God incarnate, if he was going to be a Savior and if he was going to perform several amazing miracles. I’ll start with the God angle: I do not think it was likely that a 14-year old Jewish girl in the first century, even after having been told that her child was the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14, had a clear knowledge that this meant he was Deity. Could she have gathered from the angel’s words to Joseph and from Simeon’s prophecy that he was the Messiah? Yes. But that is not the same thing as being divine. Jews in the first century didn’t believe the coming Messiah was going to be God, I don’t think.
What did Mary treasure in her heart?
Yet Mary was very pensive. I can believe she did know that the child she was about to deliver would one day deliver her, but even then, that lyric is so poetically stated I still think it makes for wonderful Christmas music.
I am much less sure if she knew she was kissing the face of God. There is simply nothing in Luke or any Gospel that makes that clear. The Magnificat is marvelous and profound, but in reading it I don’t come away thinking, “Yes! Mary knew everything Mark Lowry wrote about!”
I Will Always Say, “I May Be Wrong”
But let’s say I’m wrong about all of this. I really don’t know if she knew he was God or not. But let’s say she did know she was giving birth to the unique, sole God-man in human history. I still think the song works for two reasons. One, the song asks some very specific things about his future life that would be brilliant to ask her in hindsight. Even if she knew he was God, did she know he was going to walk on water? That’s a good question.
Also, as REO Contributor David Lytle shared with me, even if she did know it works on the level of a news reporter asking her for a firsthand account of what was going on in her heart and mind as the most incredible thing ever was happening to her. It was also similar to a time when my father, my brothers and I went to the 2013 Outback Bowl and Jadaveon Clowney hit a guy so hard his helmet flew off, caused a fumble and produced one of the most replayed moments in College Football history. I yelled as loudly as I could after the play “DID YOU SEE THAT? WHO WAS THAT GUY?” All 70,000 people there saw ‘that’ and knew who it was that did it. But the questions reflect the awe of the moment and of the event.
Even if I am absolutely wrong about what Mary knew, I still think the song works as a genuine longing to know what was going on mentally and emotionally with a young unmarried virgin likely experiencing some sort of overwhelming cognitive dissonance from an avalanche of incredible things being told to her at the same time. I think it would be entirely appropriate to write a song to the disciples asking “Did you see him that first Easter morning?” Questions do not mean doubt or assume a negative. They start conversations and cause us to think deeply.
But I remain convinced that we do not know what Mary knew and the song works in the most majestic and beautiful way possible. It captures a profound wondering that we need more of in our faith.
So this Christmas, I plead with you to leave Mark Lowry alone. Enough with the Batman meme. By doing this we can all focus all of our energies on vanquishing the true Christmas song villain of our era, Christmas Shoes.
Merry Christmas from REO!