I remember the first time I heard ‘Mary, Did You Know?’ It was at a concert at my Christian school in Fremont. I was in the band. I played the trumpet, which really meant that I played the cornet, and I did it all with a bad embouchure. We’d give these all-out Christmas concerts where all the bands, handbell choirs, and real choirs (I guess?) would take turns working the audience, and it was at one of these that some high school girl belted out ‘Mary, Did You Know?’ backed by the choir and brought the house down. It was a Pentecostal school; the house got brought down a lot – and for good reason: we rehearsed a lot for technique – pitch, timbre, blending, timing, drama.
It was around the time that my parents discovered the Gaither Homecoming series. Bill and Gloria Gaither ran a very successful gospel trio that became a quartet that was at the forefront of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) movement called the Gaither Vocal Band. Eventually, they had managed, collaborated with, and pastored everybody in the gospel and CCM scene, so they started making videos with choirs composed of gospel stars. Chinese evangelicals love the Gaithers too, mostly for their songs which are in our hymnbooks (especially ‘Because He Lives,’ but also ‘He Touched Me’). There were some great acts in those series, and we learned a lot of the history behind the music that we loved. There were some real characters, like this guy Buddy Greene who wore a bow tie and played the harmonica. There were also a bunch of comedians who tagged along like Ken Davis, Mark Lowry, and Chonda Pierce. For some reason, Lowry was also in the Gaither Vocal Band even though he claimed not to be able to read music and had to have this guy who looked like Jesus called Guy Penrod record all of the music so that he could memorize it before tour.
Eventually, we learned from the videos that that funny guy Mark Lowry was the guy who wrote ‘Mary, Did You Know.’ We were shocked. He was a funny man, but he was so deep. Wondering how he did it without knowing how to read music, we then learned that he had sent it to Buddy Greene, the harmonica guy. We were a little blown away by this revelation.
I discovered today from my buddy Sam Rocha’s twitter that there is a mild controversy about this song among the faithful in the Latin Church. I don’t know what’s wrong with my sisters and brothers in my sister church, but I would have thought that it should be a point of celebration when evangelical Protestants write some deep theology about the Most Holy Theotokos that has lines as intimate as the Icon of Sweet-Kissing. I have my fair share of criticisms for evangelicals, but I thought the whole point of criticizing across ecclesial lines was because we know that a state of schism is fundamentally wrong at a primal level and our consciences as Christians cannot be clear while this scandalous state of affairs still exists. This is why I am Eastern Catholic: we just think it’s stupid that the Byzantine and Latin churches have to be divided by our differences.
Sam says that he has no problems with the song. Neither do I. In fact, while listening to Lowry doing his song with the a capella group Voctave in a recent recording, I felt as moved as when I first heard it at that Christmas concert all the way back then. This is because meditating so powerfully on the son born of the Theotokos should be moving. The refrain we sing in the Byzantine churches is the song of all across ecclesial lines who speak the praises of the Lamb: All creation is filled with rejoicing today, for Christ is born of the Virgin!