Everyday Transcendence: Patty Griffin's "Mary"

I’ve always had a soft spot for folk music.  The sincerity, the lyricism, the simplicity of a musician and an instrument, the preference for elegant craftsmanship over big-budget production values, all appeal to me.  Plus, I’ve also stated that this Everyday Transcendence series might often be called Music for Melancholiacs, and folk music lends itself to the kind of pensive, melancholy songwriting that makes my life both heavier and lighter to bear.

Well, Patty Griffin is one of America’s finest folk musicians, and “Mary” is one of her finest songs.  I have a song-list I play every time that I bathe my 2.7-year old daughter, and “Mary” almost always makes me emotional.  I suppose it will take some ‘splaining to tell you why.

Evangelicals by and large have done a spectacular job of avoiding Mary.  As Scot McKnight once wrote in Christianity Today, Mary is the person evangelicals pull out in their Christmas displays and then pack up again for the rest of the year.  In between Christmases, we spend very little time talking about Mary — part of an allergic reaction to what most Protestants have perceived to be a massive over-emphasis on Mary in the Roman Catholic Church (and to an extent the Orthodox Church as well).  When we ignore Mary, however, we miss out on some extraordinary parts of the New Testament; we miss out on a deep and rich vein of theological and spiritual insight that Christians of many stripes have mined over the centuries; and we miss out on a powerful image of biblical womanhood.

When I was a doctoral student at Harvard, I asked one of the Catholic Th.D. candidates from the Divinity School what Mary meant to him.  What he said has always stuck with me.  “God gives me a spiritual Father figure, but sometimes I feel the need for a spiritual Mother figure.  Of course Mary’s not on the same plane as God.  Not even close.  But sometimes the prospect of a nurturing motherly figure who cares for me and even intercedes for me makes all the difference.”  And you know what?  I get that.  And besides, even if I’m not sure of the notion of Mary as a mediator, there is much that I can admire in her life and seek to emulate, and much that I can commend as a beautiful image of faithful womanhood.

That last point, most fundamentally, is why I choke up when I am washing the dirt from my daughter’s legs, or the yogurt from her hair, and Patty Griffin’s “Mary” drifts out from the speakers.  The young Mary — the one who was “highly favored” and, when charged with an extraordinary task from God, responded “I am the Lord’s servant” and “my spirit rejoices in God my savior” — that’s who I want my daughter to be as a young woman.  The older Mary — the one who followed Jesus to the cross and wept at his feet, the one he loved so much that he provided for her welfare even from the cross, and the one who cared for the body of her crucified son, and ultimately the one who lost her sons for the sake of the kingdom and yet persevered in her faith — is who I want my daughter to be when she has matured in body and soul.

Theologians like Timothy George and Robert Jenson have begun to explore a Protestant Mariology, and an excellent book from Tim Perry called “Mary for Evangelicals” does so at greater length.  This song from Patty Griffin has also helped me to appreciate Mary.  Here is the song — the lyrics are posted below — with a series of Mary images.  May we find the fingerprints of Mary in our daughters.  God favored Mary and chose her to be the Theotokos, the bearer of God the Son, the incarnate Word.  If Mary is not the bearer of God, then we are not saved.  If that’s not deserving of tremendous respect, I don’t know what is.

LYRICS to “Mary” by Patty Griffin:

Mary you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ashes, you’re covered in rain
You’re covered in babies, you’re covered in slashes
You’re covered in wilderness, you’re covered in stains.
You cast aside the sheet, you cast aside the shroud
Of another man, who served the world proud.
You greet another son, you lose another one
On some sunny day and always you stay Mary.

Jesus says Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer
Flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singin’ his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.

Mary, she moves behind me, she leaves her fingerprints everywhere
Everytime the snow drifts, everytime the sand shifts, even when the night lifts, she’s always there.

Jesus said Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer
Flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singin’ his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place

Mary you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ruin, you’re covered in secrets
Your’e covered in treetops, you’re covered in birds
who can sing a million songs without any words.
You cast aside the sheets, you cast aside the shroud
of another man, who served the world proud
You greet another son, you lose another one on some sunny day and always you’ll stay
Mary, Mary, Mary

PS.  To see the song performed live, with Natalie Maines accompanying, go here.

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  • Bryon Bailey

    Thank you so much, Tim, for your refreshing perspective on Mary. A lifetime in the protestant church has found me, like so many of my brothers and sisters, “avoiding Mary”. I do share your skepticism regarding her place as a mediator on our behalf. Biblically, I just don’t see it. What I do see, after reading your thoughtful post, is the need to revisit her Godly character as a mother, wife, and woman. I have a young daughter and am challenged and inspired to help her to see and to appreciate Mary for who she was and what she means to the Kingdom and to the ongoing story of God.

  • Patty

    lovely, thanks:)

  • Colleen

    This is such an interesting viewpoint on Mary. Being raised Catholic, I really was overwhelmed with all of the focus on Mary and never got a better explanation other than that she gave birth to Jesus. But looking at her faith and how it persevered through Jesus’ life is so interesting. I’ll definitely be reading and studying more with this different insight.

    Thank you so much for what you do!

  • Galen

    Outstanding! Thanks for sharing that!!!!!