Mary, Did You Know? An Investigation

Mary, Did You Know? An Investigation December 12, 2023

In recent years, it has become habit for snarky, theobro types to get all sarcastic and uppity about the classic Christmas song, “Mary, Did You Know?” Rather than just appreciating the rhetorical framing of the song—looking ahead to what the baby Jesus would do through a series of questions posed to his mother, Mary—they just like to say rude things like, “Yeah, dummy, Mary knew.”

Since I quite like the song (you can hear the original here or, even better, the Dolly Parton version here), I’d like to take question seriously. Did Mary Know? There are a lot of questions asked of her in this song. Is “yes” the answer to all of them? Let’s break it down:

The Biblical Evidence

First, here is what the angel Gabriel told her about her baby boy, found in Luke 1:

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”

Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”

The angel replied to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. And consider your relative Elizabeth—even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Next, let’s look at Mary’s self-understanding in the song she sings later in that same chapter:

And Mary said: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because he has looked with favor on the humble condition of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,  because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and his name is holy. His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him. He has done a mighty deed with his arm; he has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts; he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he spoke to our ancestors.

These two passages show us what Mary was told and what Mary understood. Now we can ask the questions: Did Mary know?

Did Mary Know? “Madonna with Child” by Luca della Robbia.

First Verse: Walking on Water, Saving Sons and Daughters

“Mary did you know
That your baby boy
Would one day walk on water?”

Based on what the angel Gabriel told her in Luke 1, the answer to this one would have to be a definite “no.” Mary did not know that this baby she held in her lap would one day walk on water. She probably wasn’t even thinking about his first steps yet. And she probably didn’t know all the specific and miraculous things her baby boy would grow up and do.

Verdict: No.

Mary did you know
That your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?

According to Gabriel, this is exactly what Jesus would do. Mary did know that Jesus would save humanity. The name given him by Gabriel was Jesus— “Yahweh Saves.” Mary did know that Jesus would be our Savior. “He has help his servant Israel.”

Verdict: Yes!

Did you know
That your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered
Will soon deliver you

This one is a bit trickier—what did Mary believe Jesus’ Messianic mission to be? Did she, like most of her fellow Jewish people at the time, believe that the Messiah would deliver his people from the Romans or did she believe that he had come to bring about the inner transformation promised in the New Covenant? “Make you new” is a tricky lyric here—I’m not sure Mary would have quite thought of salvation in this way yet.

As for the next two lines, I think it’s safe to say that Mary did know that Jesus would deliver her-again, though, there might be some disconnect between how Mary believed Jesus would deliver and how he actually would deliver. Either way, I think this one’s a safe yes.

Verdict: No and yes.

Second Verse, Similar to the First

Mary did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?

Again, I don’t think Mary knew the specifics of Jesus’ ministry, and I’m sure most of what he did surprised her just like everyone else. So no, I don’t think she knew that the little baby whose diaper she just changed was going to make a blind man see.

Verdict: No.

Mary did you know
Your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?

See the previous question. Same deal, I don’t think Mary could even have imagined the specific miracles her little boy would do.

Verdict: No.

Did you know
That your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When your kiss your little baby
You’ve kissed the face of God

This is a tough couple of questions. On the one hand, Mary definitely knew there was something supernatural about this baby—it was, after all, conceived by the Holy Spirit. But while she knew that this boy was a literal miracle, I’m not sure she would have fully understood that her baby boy was the incarnation of the second member of the Triune God. I mean, Nicene Christology was still several centuries away and St. Nicholas hadn’t slapped Arius in the face yet.

Yes, Gabriel did tell Mary that the baby would be called “The Son of the Most High” but this was a messianic title that was applied to all of Israel’s kings. We’re not quite certain what Mary’s understanding of the person of the Holy Spirit is, which would be helpful to know in determining Mary’s understanding of who Jesus is. And nowhere in the Magnificat does she express such an understanding. While Mary knew this baby was special, and maybe knew he was divine, I’m not sure she would have articulated that quite like the question asks.

Verdict: Probably no.

The blind will see
The deaf will hear
The dead will live again
The lame will leap
The dumb will speak
The praises of the lamb

Once again. She didn’t know the details. She probably had an inkling of a notion of what Jesus might do, but probably didn’t know all this.

Verdict: No.

Third Verse: Vocation and Nature

Mary did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?

We’re just not sure what Mary knew about the exact nature of her baby boy. To Mary, Yahweh was the Lord of all creation, and I think she would have had a difficult time understanding that the child she rocked to sleep was Yahweh himself.

Verdict: No.

Mary did you know
That your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?

Mary definitely knew that the Messiah would rule the nations from Jerusalem.

Verdict: Yes.

Did you know
That your baby boy
Is Heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding
Is the great I am

Ahh this lyric slaps but like I wrote earlier, I’m not sure if Mary could have wrapped her mind around this at this particular moment in time. I don’t think she has yet comprehended the cross on which her son would die quite yet. And like I wrote earlier, I’m not sure she would have understood Jesus was, you know, God himself.

Verdict: No.

So the answer to the question “Mary Did You Know?” is mixed. She understood Jesus’ essential vocation but would not have known the specific details of that mission and probably did not fully comprehend the exact nature of Jesus. Which is not to diminish her one bit. She probably understood better than anyone who Jesus was and exhibited tremendous faith in God through bravely bearing and raising his child.

The Final Verdict

Mary, did you know?  No, yes, no, yes, no, no, probably no, no, no, yes, no.

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