In Defense of Mary, Did You Know
Nothing brings us together like the Christmas season. Unfortunately, these days, nothing seems to divide us like the Christmas season, either. Each year, we get to drag out the same discussions over whether Christmas trees should be real or artificial, whether tree lights should be white or colored, whether saying “Happy Holidays” is a mortal sin or merely venial, and of course, the appropriate color of Starbucks cups.
Christmas music is not exempt from these discussions. Naturally, there’s the discussion about when it’s appropriate to begin listening to Christmas music (unless you’re an all-year listener, in which case please go away), which songs are better than others, and which songs should be left in the dustbin of Christmas music. As has become popular, “Mary, Did You Know?” is in the crosshairs.
You might not be as familiar with “Mary, Did You Know?” as with other Christmas classics. It’s only been around since 1991. Mark Lowry (of Gaither Vocal Band fame) wrote many of the lyrics as part of a church playback in the 80s. He refined them into their present form, and Michael English (also of Gaither Vocal Band fame) recorded it for his debut solo album. It’s since been re-recorded and released by dozens of artists, including Clay Aiken, Cee Lo Green, and Pentatonix.
So if this song is popular, why do people dislike it so much? Perhaps many people take exception to the title of the song. The most common rebuff of “Mary, Did You Know?” is, "Of course she knew. Don’t you read the Bible?" While being fundamentally correct, this misses the point completely. “Mary, Did You Know?” is a respectable Christmas carol, and there are several reasons churches should include it in their Christmas catalog.
First, this song is written in a minor key. If you’re not a musician: a minor key gives a song a sad, soft, or incomplete feel (think “O Come O Come Emmanuel”) as opposed to a major key, which makes a song sound more upbeat or happy (think “Joy To The World”). Christmas carol or not, there are too few modern songs in the Church written in minor keys. Minor tonality gives “Mary, Did You Know?” a pensive, expectant mood instead of the completeness a major key would provide. This fits well with the lyrics and contrasts with most other Christmas songs we sing.
Second, there are some really interesting lines in this song containing contrasting images and wordplays that make the lyrics memorable. Take this one, for example: “This child that you've delivered will soon deliver you.” That’s a clever use of homonymsthe word “deliver” used to mean both “give birth to” and “set free from.” Another well-written line is, “This sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM.” The stark contrast between those two mental pictures is designed to inspire and awe.
Third, “Mary, Did You Know?” is not so much about Mary and what she knows (that’s the motif; more on that in a minute), but about who Jesus is and what He will do. It is a song that foreshadows Jesus's life at the celebration of His birth. The title clues us to the motif of the song, not the theme. That’s why criticism of the question in the song’s title doesn’t work.
Now, to the point everyone wants to talk about: Yes, Mary knew. An angel of the Lord plainly told her that she would have a son whom she was to name Jesus, that He would be called the Son of the Most High, and that He would reign on David’s throne forever. So even if Mary didn’t know all the specifics ahead of time, she had a good idea that this child would be something special. That's not the point. The conversational motif of the song gives it something unique, the feeling as though we as singers are speaking to Mary about Jesus as we all stand in awe of Him. I imagine heaven will be full of conversations around the theme of "Can you believe how incredible Jesus is? Can I tell you what He did for me?" I dare say we might get greater insight into the Christmas season if we had more of those conversations now.
So don’t be dissuaded. Sing "Mary, Did You Know?" and reflect on the greatness of Jesus this Christmas. Sing it every Christmas until you pass on from this mortal life. Just don’t sing it after the Christmas tree comes down.