It’s hard to write a Christmas song

“Mary, Did You Know?” and other loaded questions

We are gathered here today to dissect a Christmas song called “Mary, Did You Know?”

Maybe you’ve heard the song; maybe you hate Christmas music; maybe you’re looking it up on YouTube right now and if you are then I apologize in advance for all the vamping.

“Mary, Did You Know?” is like a prism revealing the good and the ugly parts of evangelical Christian culture in the U.S. It’s tenderhearted but also saccharine, deeply empathetic but also deeply misogynist, biblically semi-literate but also selective in its reading.

The song asks the mother of Jesus Christ whether she knew her son would be the spiritual savior of humankind. The opening lines go like this:

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, our pastor’s brother used to sing a stirring rendition with a quaver in his voice on a stage decked out in poinsettias. Listening to the song now as a parent, I even feel a little sentimental thinking about Mary as a fellow parent.

I have a deep-seated affection for the song’s writer, a Christian music parodist named Mark Lowry who was basically the Weird Al Yankovic of ‘90s Christian radio. The guy built his reputation singing songs like “I Can Eat It All” (spoofing Clay Crosse’s “I Surrender All,” climaxing with the unforgettable rock couplet “‘Cause I’m a butterball / I can eat it all”) and then he wrote one serious song and it landed in heavy rotation at Christmas Eve candlelight services for the next 30 years. Gotta respect that kind of staying power.

But the problem with “Mary, Did You Know?” is it’s asking the wrong question. Of course Mary knew. Any Catholic could tell you this.

According to the Bible — the alleged source text for this song — an angel literally told Mary that her baby was the son of God, and then Mary literally wrote an entire song of praise about the good news after she heard it:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones

    but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

    but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

    remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,

    just as he promised our ancestors.

Just listen to Mary, Mark. Is it that hard? Granted, Mary didn’t know some of the specifics — the walking on water, the healing of the blind — but she definitely knew the big picture before her child was born.

I am hardly the first person to notice these shortcomings. My friend Nicole Houston absolutely torched this song in her Advent sermon Sunday, and other commentators and theologians have covered the song’s misogyny and ignorance of scripture. The Baptist scholar Mike Frost summed up the complaints:

Could you imagine a song asking Abraham 17 times if he knew he’d be the father of a great nation? Would we sing “David, did you know you’d rule the kingdom of Israel?”  We know both men knew this because God revealed it to them. But to the woman, Mary, we sing a condescending Christmas song asking her if she had any idea what on earth she was doing.

I feel for Mark Lowry; I really do. At my pastor’s request, I’ve been trying to write my own Christmas song from the perspective of Jesus’ father Joseph. It’s not easy!

It’s a challenge to write something that isn’t derivative of another song from the massive Christmas canon (although there really aren’t many carols about Joseph specifically). And it’s hard to write creatively within the confines of a 2,000-year-old text, knowing that your audience has parts of the book memorized and will call you a heretic if they spot any inaccuracies.

Unlike Mary, Joseph was in the dark about the pregnancy, at least temporarily, and that’s a part of his story that I find so compelling. The song I’m trying to write is about the painful and awkward moment when Joseph discovered his fiancée was pregnant but the child wasn’t his. The gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph decided “to divorce her quietly,” to avoid bringing her shame and possible punishment within a strict patriarchal society.

Like Mark Lowry, I have to consider tone: Modern church music has to be reverent but also relatable. How can I write about the man who raised Jesus to maturity but was also, in that moment, a carpenter who just found out his girlfriend was pregnant? How do you write about a woman who was the queen of heaven but also, in the vernacular, just a small town girl?

Lowry wrote the lyrics to “Mary, Did You Know?” in 1984 when his pastor, Jerry Falwell, asked him to write a monologue for his church’s Christmas pageant, “The Living Christmas Tree.” In a 2011 interview with AbsolutelyGospel.com, he explained his process:

I wondered if she realized those little hands were the same hands that scooped out oceans & formed rivers. I just tried to put into words the unfathomable. I started thinking of the questions I would have for her if I were to sit down & have coffee with Mary.

The lyrics weren’t set to music until 1991, when Lowry shared the lyrics with Buddy Greene on the Gaither Vocal Band tour bus.

“Others had tried to put music to it, but whenever I handed anyone the lyric to try to write the music to it I would tell them that I would be the one to decide if there was a marriage … the lyric is my baby,” Lowry said.

In a weird parallel to the song’s lyrical theme, Lowry did not know how far his baby would go:

I actually went into Walmart one Christmas and was looking at CDs. I realized that the song had gotten away from me when I saw Natalie Cole and Donnie Osmond had recorded it and I didn't even know it. 

(Side note, Lowry said in the interview that he appreciated Kristine W’s disco version of the song, and I have to agree: It slaps.)

It’s worth trying to connect with the characters of the Bible as three-dimensional, tender, vulnerable human beings — especially during a season when we celebrate the incarnation, or the idea that God became fully human, walked where we walk, smelled what we smell, and felt what we feel.

But when you take creative liberties with someone else’s story, it’s worth considering what parts of yourself you’re smuggling in.

***

The image at the top is the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, an icon of Mary housed at the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa, Poland.

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