Theological issues notwithstanding, is there a reading of this song that enables us to go deeper in Advent?
It’s that time of year. The time for lights and cookies and unending internet debates about “Mary, Did You Know?”
This modern Christmas classic was released in 1991 to great acclaim on the Christian music scene and great debate among Catholics. It’s been covered by Kenny Rogers, Clay Aiken, and Pentatonix, among others, and while some adore its sweet melody, others take issue with the song’s repeated questions.
“Yes, she knew!” they cry in frustration, thought truly we can’t be certain about all of the questions posed. Certainly she knew that Jesus had come to save his people, that the face she kissed was the face of God. But did she know that he would walk on water? Job 9:8 says that only God treads upon the crests of the sea, but that doesn’t mean Jesus was required to, nor to calm a storm or give sight to the blind. Some of these, then, are perfectly reasonable questions.
Now, the song has its issues, most notably the line, “The child that you delivered will soon deliver you.” Mary, as Catholics know, had already been delivered by the blood of Christ, saved preemptively when she was conceived immaculately.
See a further explanation of that here:
The Problem With “Mary Did You Know”
And you may or may not enjoy the style. But there’s something to be said for a song that calls hundreds of thousands of Protestants to meditate on the life of Christ through the eyes of the Blessed Mother—a sort of proto-Rosary, if you will.
Personally, I don’t see these questions as an interrogation. The purpose of the song isn’t to determine what Mary knew and when, it’s a meditation with Mary. I imagine it being sung by Mary Magdalene and her friends the first Christmas after the Ascension. As Jesus’ birthday approached, Mary would have found herself telling the fledgling Christian community about her pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem, and the birth of Christ. No woman has ever told a birth story to a more attentive audience. And when she described his perfect fingers and the curly hair on his tiny, sweet head, they would have been held spellbound.
Imagine, then, what those who loved and missed him might have said when her story was over, what questions they might not have asked in order to keep her talking.
“Did you know? Oh, Mother, did you know that he would heal my hemorrhages? Did you know he would raise my son? Did you know that sweet, sleepy, milk-drunk baby had held galaxies in his hands?”
That’s how I hear this song: lovers of Christ who long for him asking his Mother to tell them the story again. It’s just what we ought to do this Advent, we who love Christ and his Mother. We ought to ask her to tell us the story again, to read the first chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and imagine Mary’s reaction to Gabriel, imagine her telling Joseph, imagine the journey to Bethlehem and the glory of that night when everything went wrong and still God came forth to the sound of angels singing Gloria.
“What did you think, Momma, as you nursed him for the first time? Did you have any idea that you were feeding the one by whose flesh you would be fed? When you laid him in the manger, did you know that he would become bread for the world? Did you know you would also lay him in his tomb?”
We who have spent our lives meditating on Christ through the eyes of the Blessed Mother know that these questions aren’t about her, that talking to her is always about him. And during December, as “Mary, Did You Know?” is sung in Protestant churches the world over, our separated brothers and sisters join us in asking Mary to lead them to Jesus. To my mind, that’s something to celebrate.