For a while it was the darling of Christmas songs. Now, over the last couple years, I’ve noticed a lot of backlash over the popular song, “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s become a Santa’s sleigh-sized target for rebuttals, jokes and internet memes insisting that yes, Mary did know all those things about Jesus, and the song is silly (if not heretical) for suggesting otherwise.
So what’s the deal? Is the song a beautiful Christmas masterpiece, or a hoaky piece of theological nonsense? A couple things have come to mind as I’ve contemplated that this week.
On one hand, the Gospel of Luke reveals that she did know quite a lot about Jesus beforehand:
- That He would save His people from their sins (1:31; compare with Mt. 1:21).
- That He would be the Son of God (1:32, 35).
- That He would reign on the Messianic throne of David (1:32).
- That His kingdom would be eternal (1:33).
- That He would be conceived of the Holy Spirit (1:35).
- That He would be holy (1:35).
- That He would be the Lord (1:43).
- That He would be the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel (1:54-55).
- That He was worthy of worship from both men and angels (2:10-20).
- That He would be a light to the Gentiles (2:32).
In addition, after Jesus was a grown man but before He had done any miracles, Mary told the servants at Cana to “do whatever [Jesus] tells you” (Jn. 2:5). These all show an explicit awareness of Christ’s identity and a trust in His person.
On the other hand, Scripture seems to imply that there were aspects of Christ’s mission and ministry that Mary didn’t grasp. In Luke 2, Mary questioned young Jesus for staying in the temple and “did not understand” what He was saying (2:50). In Mark 3, “His family…went out to seize Him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’ ” (3:21), and so “His mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to Him and called Him” (3:31).
Despite everything that Mary knew about her son, and despite having received divine revelation from angels and prophets, Mary’s humanity still got in the way. She didn’t always have a detailed, theological understanding of Christ’s mission, and at times she didn’t seem to agree with the way He was going about His quest. Mark 3 even seems to suggest that she struggled with a bit of doubt.
That’s where lovers and skeptics of the song need to be careful. We shouldn’t think that Mary was oblivious to the identity of her child, but neither should we think she had all the answers, either. And besides, I don’t believe the main point of the song is so much Mary’s insight as it is comparing Christ’s divinity and humanity. I think it’s meant to contrast that He was both delivered and Deliverer, helpless and Helper, infant and Infinite. That’s a truth we should all know a little better.
So what did Mary know? Quite a lot, actually. But not everything. She certainly didn’t grasp all the specifics, at least not right away. Like us, Mary had to take certain things on faith. But she knew that the Son of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises, had come to save her from her sins. And even when human doubt got in the way, that was more than enough.