Like any good Evangelical, I was moved to tears the first time I heard the song Mary Did You Know?
Mark Lowry’s take on the Annunciation is a modern Christmas classic, covered by a who’s who of popular music. The lyrics present the wonder of the Incarnation through the eyes of Mary. The song asks whether she is able to understand the magnitude of what is happening through the miracle of her child, Jesus.
The version of the song I first heard was this one by country artist Kathy Mattea:
Since becoming an Orthodox Christian I’ve had to rethink many of my beliefs as my understanding conforms to the teachings of the Church. How the Church understands Mary is certainly one of those.
This beloved song seems to present Mary as being unaware of what is happening to her. Each verse asks whether Mary knows her Baby’s true identity and the great things He will do. It’s as if Clark Kent is revealing his red cape to his parents.
But the Gospel of the Holy Apostle Luke doesn’t reveal the Incarnation to Mary like a twist ending. It puts the Good News right there in chapter 1:
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.” – Luke 1:31-32
Spoiler alert: She knew.
More than a vessel
As a writer I’m in favor of poetic license in service of a story, and Mary Did You Know? is obviously a song, not a creed. But as an Orthodox Christian I believe the preservation of the truth is essential to our faith. If we can take license with our hymnography, why not with our doctrine and dogma? Anyone want a little prosperity preaching to go with their self-denial? How about some sola scriptura to go alongside John 21:25?
On his blog Live Orthodoxy, Thom Crowe says that the song isn’t meant to be rigid theology, but its Mariology is troublesome:
Those questions aside, I do take issue with some of the other questions that songwriter Mark Lowry asks. Questions like, “did you know that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?”, “did you know that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod? When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?” These questions are outside the bound of theological speculation and land straight into a bad understanding of who Mary is and her relationship to God and her son.
The Protestant dismissal of Mary is an over-correction away from Catholic dogma. It relegates her to being a mere vessel for Christ’s arrival. But the Orthodox understanding of Mary is that she is the Theotokos – the God Bearer. She was selected by God to deliver salvation into this world through her Son, Jesus. It is through Mary that Christ gained His human nature.
In this Advent season Orthodox Christians prepare to celebrate the miracle of Christ’s birth. This is possible because of Mary’s obedience to God’s will. She heard the Good News before anyone else, and chose to bear that great responsibility.
She understood what she was doing, and knew from the start who her Child was.
Mary did you know?
Of course she did.
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