By the Rev. Jude Harmon
Chartbusting this holiday season is Pentatonix’s cover of “Mary Did You Know?” Rich vocal harmonies fused with the group’s fresh, dynamic flavor make this version really pop. It has rightly been hailed as “haunting,” “breathtaking” and goosebump-inducing. Written by Mark Lowry, the song has been covered by the likes of Cee Lo, Clay Aiken, and Wynonna Judd. Exceeding the ephemeral ranks of ‘holiday hits’ the song is rapidly becoming a ‘holiday classic.’ Many of my colleagues are thrilled; its popularity suggests Evangelicals are finally noticing Mary. I am less enthusiastic. In Lowry’s hands, Mary becomes little more than a foil for his reflexive, unexamined evangelical devotion to Jesus.
The biblical Mary – her own revolutionary voice, and complicated story – is replaced with a caricature of the doting mother, enraptured by her “baby boy.” The only thing missing from this infantilizing, schmaltzy image of Mary is a plate of steaming hot pancakes. Like countless Evangelicals before him, Lowry downgrades Mary’s traditional status as ‘Mother of God.’ Instead, she becomes the ultimate example of a fallen humanity that needs to accept Jesus as its personal Savior: “the child you’ve delivered will soon deliver you.”
The constant refrain “Mary did you know?” would seem less patronizing if the biblical account weren’t absolutely clear on this point. Not only did Mary know that her Son would be “Lord of all creation” to “one day rule the nations” and “save our sons and daughters”– she was the first to know this, and that is no small thing. Proclaiming God’s “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” as Christians will do this Christmas, has real consequences for the church and the world.
Long before the Protestant Reformers insisted that men alone had the God-given authority to preach from pulpits, God’s Word was articulated in life and limb from Mary’s womb. Long before the Catholic Church argued that women were not fit for priesthood because they couldn’t adequately represent Christ at the altar – where Christ’s body is made real and offered – Jesus’ body came to life and entered the world through Mary. John’s Gospel goes out of its way to place her at the Cross, when Jesus’ male disciples have fled. Long before my own church, The Anglican Communion, debated women’s potential to serve as bishops (lit. “overseers” in Greek), God subjected himself in body and soul to the care, protection and oversight of a woman.
God did not take up flesh and enter our world in order to maintain the status quo. He was turning human society – run by men drunk on their own entitlement and power – upside down. Before this good news leaps from any man’s lips, Jesus leaps in Mary’s womb when she visits her cousin Elizabeth. If preaching is one human proclaiming that good news to another, then Mary becomes Christianity’s first preacher in that encounter. And what a sermon! Mary delivers the Word with stinging force. But the Savior her soul magnifies isn’t likely to ask us to bow our heads and accept him into our hearts.
Mary doesn’t express wonder at God’s strength through flashy miracles like walking on water, or even forgiving sins. She’s not looking for a spiritual wonder-worker. Mary heralds a messiah who will restore her people’s fortunes. Her vision is decidedly more sweeping, social and pragmatic than Lowry’s. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53, NRSV). Those are not the words of the “Maiden mother, meek and mild” Christians will sing about this Christmas. That is the voice of a prophetic mother, fierce and wild, struggling to survive in a world bent on the brutal oppression of her people.Mary’s song of insurgent hope wells up from a knowledge every bit as profound, if far less glamorous, than the knowledge at the heart of Lowry’s song. She knows too well the everyday suffering of her people. That she bears eternal, infinite God in her small, mortal frame is not her greatest cause for praise. For her, God’s promised salvation is cast as much in dollars and cents as in flesh and blood. That’s no coincidence: Mary did not enjoy Lowry’s privilege as a late twentieth-century white man in the United States.
A subject of Rome’s empire and its notoriously brutal client kings in Palestine, Mary lived under a yoke of economic oppression difficult for us to imagine. Think…Hunger Games. Outrageous taxes bankrupted the peasant class, enslaving them to the superrich 1% governing aristocracy. The Jews were regarded by Rome as an exotic race to the east; an unruly darker-skinned people whose “barbarous,” “uncivilized” customs (e.g. circumcision) drew more contempt than curiosity.
The Romans regarded Mary as just another disposable woman of color. Roman soldiers mercilessly raped her kinswomen when they crushed the Galilean revolt of 4 B.C.E., around the same time Jesus was born. Given the scandalous circumstances surrounding her Son’s conception, Mary became the target of early anti-Christian interests seeking to delegitimize the new faith. She was no shining icon of “traditional family values.” In fleeing the political terror of her homeland to give birth, she and Joseph became refugees, migrant day laborers in Egypt navigating a strange world of unfamiliar language and custom.
Season’s greetings feel overshadowed this year by Peshawar, Ferguson, college rape, Citigroup, anti-gay billboards, immigration reform, and global climate change. We can’t afford to remember Mary narrowly through the lens of Lowry’s Christianity. Mary’s voice is too authentic to our own context, her life story too urgently relevant to our time to be muzzled by our pious projections. She knew that being overshadowed by the Most High had profound implications for the corruption, greed, hyper stratification, and violent power that characterized her world – and ours. The question this Christmas for Christians isn’t “Mary did you know?” The question is: “Do we?”
The Rev. Jude Harmon is an Episcopal priest, currently serving as Minor Canon for Young Adult and Emerging Ministry at San Francisco’s iconic Grace Cathedral. He has served as Professor of Theology at the Episcopal Seminary in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and as a Seminary Intern at St. Mark’s Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Jude helps lead the cathedral’s hugely popular Yoga on the Labyrinth, which regularly draws up to 800 people each Tuesday. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Haverford College, an M.Div. in New Testament and Early Christianity from Harvard University, and an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Virginia Theological Seminary. Jude’s work has been featured in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, dot429, and San Francisco Bay Times. Jude is presently working on a book, Revolution at the Table: Breaking Open God’s Scandalous Grace for Our Age.