With elegant simplicity, the apostle John writes, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). It is clear, it is straightforward, and it is almost unbelievably strange.
The conviction that God became man, not as a mere theological concept but as a concrete event in the history of the world, is at the heart of the Christian faith. This is the mystery of the Incarnation. To say that God became man is one thing, but it is another to imagine a young mother lulling a fussy baby to sleep, hot tears streaming from his pink, sleepy eyes, and to say that this tiny being is God incarnate, the Savior of all, the king of the universe.
Each year, “Mary, Did You Know?” brings this wondrously odd aspect of our faith to Christmas radio stations and holiday playlists. In 2014, Grammy-winning group Pentatonix released its striking a cappella cover of the song, taking this decidedly Christian Christmas song to platinum status this year.
Originally written by Mark Lowry of the Gaither Vocal Band in 1991, the song has long been a staple of the evangelical Christmas repertoire and slowly made its way to the mainstream with covers by notable musicians such as CeeLo Green, Clay Aiken, and Jordan Smith.
Lyrically, the song rests upon the question “Mary, did you know?” and reflects on Christ’s earthly ministry and cosmic reign. Musically, it is simple, a lullaby. The sweet sadness of the melody has squeezed tears from the eyes of many an unsuspecting listener—including my own.
But not all Christians have been pleased with this Nativity tune. As the song resurfaces each Christmastide, so do the enthusiastic complaints regarding its sappiness and its condescension toward Mary.
To me, the vigorous outcry against the song’s sentimentality has always seemed a strange objection. Certainly, there is a sugary sweetness to the lyrics referring to Mary’s “baby boy,” but “Mary, Did You Know?” is a lullaby, not a theological treatise or a grand orchestral piece. Some songs are simple, gentle, and intended to be so. Should we insist that “Jesus Loves Me” incorporate a more complex account of original sin? Surely not.
This rejection of “Mary, Did You Know?” seems to reflect our suspicion of the soft, the sentimental, the childish. Yes, it is a song that is likely to make your mother cry, but in a world grown hard and cold with cynicism, soft-heartedness is not necessarily a bad thing. Surely as followers of a God who elevates the meek and childlike, we can celebrate art that breaks, even for a moment, the spell of our hopelessness, even if it is on the verge of “sappy.”
If listeners can get beyond artistic interpretation to focus on the words of the song, however, the lyrics—though simple and at moments affected—are profoundly scriptural. “Mary, Did You Know?” actually traces the character of Christ from the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible (“save our sons and daughters” from Isaiah 43:6), to Jesus’ earthly ministry (healing the blind, walking on water, etc.), and finally Christ’s cosmic reign (as heaven’s perfect Lamb, rule the nations, the Great I Am, etc.). In all, it’s a fitting summation of the role of Christ.
The content of the song is not shallow or sentimental, and while it can sound saccharine when Lowry croons it out in perpetual fermata, Pentatonix’s version undeniably expresses a certain gravity and solemnity.
The second criticism seems more compelling to me. Listeners have complained that, yes, Mary knew that she was going to bear the Messiah, the promised salvation of Israel, and that, therefore, the rhetorical question upon which the song rests is either redundant or condescending.
Lutheran writer Holly Scheer declared the song “the most biblically illiterate Christmas tune,” saying, “the biblical account of Christ’s conception and birth shouldn’t need to ask if Mary knew because the Bible plainly tells us she did.” Many others similarly argue that to predicate an entire song on this question diminishes the pivotal nature of Mary’s role in God’s salvation plan, reducing her to a sweet but ultimately clueless new mother.
This concern is a valid one. For many years, Protestant Christians have largely emphasized Mary’s youth and downplayed her divine appointment, often out of concern over Catholic veneration of the mother of God. Yet Scripture clearly presents to us a remarkable depiction of Mary in her special role as God-bearer and prophetic hymn writer.
The narrative of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), and the content of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), make it obvious that Mary knew her child would be the Messiah. So, in that sense, yes: Mary knew.
But here, again, we approach the unleapable hurdle of the Incarnation.
Mary knew her child would be the Messiah, as we now know that God became man. But that sort of knowledge does not leave us without questions. As Mary rocked her baby to sleep, night after night, did she not wonder what it would all mean, how her child’s Messiahship would play out in all its startling particularity?
Luke 2:19 says, “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” It is fair for us to assume she had plenty of questions among those ponderings. “Mary, Did You Know?” directs its curiosity to these quandaries—not because Mary was ignorant of the facts—but because the Incarnation is much more than a doctrine, or an event, that can simply be accepted and understood. It is a mystery to be encountered.
The Incarnation is a hard thing to get our heads and our hearts around. We may accept the doctrine, while still feeling as though we’ve missed the more essential “something” in the story. Sometimes, then, we must seek other tools to help awaken our awe and etch the beautiful reality of the gospel into our hearts. One of the fruitful aspects of art is that it can help us move past intellectual assent toward attentive wonder.
This is the attitude into which “Mary, Did You Know?” invites us.
The question “Mary, did you know?” is not a factual one but a rhetorical one. It opens space for contemplation, curiosity, and wonder. The song invites us to peer over Mary’s shoulder as she rocks the Christ child to sleep, to witness the vulnerability of God, to meditate on the vastness of heaven contained in tiny fingers grasping for the comfort of his mother’s hand.
As with many good pieces of art, rather than merely instructing us in doctrinal truths, the song invites us into mystery and worship.
Far from diminishing Mary, it invites to look to her as we attempt to understand the mystery of the Incarnation. For who would know this wonder, this strangeness, and this beauty better than the woman in whose womb the Son of God grew?
Joy Clarkson is a PhD candidate in theology, imagination, and the arts at Saint Andrews University on the east coast of Scotland. She tweets, hosts a popular podcast about theology and the arts, and is releasing her first book (Girls Club, 2019) in February.
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