I’ve seen a surprising amount of comments on this song each Christmas, but it seems like many of the comments have sever tensions built in from specific theological perspectives. One of the comments I saw recently, for example, complained about the backlash against the song and attributed it a bit conspiratorially to Catholicism allegedly making its way into evangelicalism.
Well, I’m a Lutheran, so I’ve found myself on the outside looking in when it comes to many allegedly evangelical discussions (see my posts on Bonhoeffer, for example), but I think that this kind of commentary is, frankly, silly. I decided to write a few quick comments about the song, without any allegations of conspiracy or heterodoxy included.
As you can see from the lyrics, the song is basically a list of rhetorical questions asked of Mary which basically imply that she could not have known just how great and marvelous and powerful Jesus was going to be. Strictly speaking, such an implication is not definitively false. After all, it doesn’t seem to be the case that Mary knew with certainty that Jesus was God, or that some specific miracles would be performed. On the other hand, the song also names some specific things that Mary may very well have known. How? Well, if she was familiar with the Old Testament, there are some passages that would inform her that, yes, she could know the answer to some of these questions. Let’s look at one example:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. – Isaiah 35:5
Contextually, this verse occurs within an eschatological promise of the blessings that will be brought to God’s chosen people. Now, if Mary was familiar with this, and we can’t definitively say one way or another, and if she interpreted the verses to refer to her own time with the coming Messiah, then it would seem she could say “Yeah, I did know that my baby boy would be curing the blind.” Of course, those are some big ifs. Can we get more specific?
More explicitly, there is the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the song which Mary sang in praise to God. Here are a few selections:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has performed mighty deeds with his arm… He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.
Here are some much clearer statements made by Mary herself about what she did know. Specifically, she calls God her savior and says mighty deeds have been performed by God and that God has fulfilled the promise to her ancestors. So it seems that Mary at least did know that God was fulfilling the promise of the Messiah and that that would mean, well, salvation, mighty deeds, and mercy.
So Mary, did you know? Well, it seems that in some sense we could pretty easily say yes. She herself says of her unborn child that he is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people of Israel. Such a fulfillment necessarily included mighty deeds (healing the blind, walking on water, etc.) and the salvation of the people. So you could argue she could answer yes to all of the questions. On the other hand, you could argue that the very specific nature of some of the lyrics (walking on water is one example) would undermine that; after all, she never says that her son will walk on water. So really, the answer to the question “Mary, did you know?” is “Through a mirror, dimly.”