Defending Unpopular Christmas Songs: “Mary, Did You Know?”

Defending Unpopular Christmas Songs: “Mary, Did You Know?” December 25, 2023

Pregnant Teenage Girl, Mary the mother of Jesus, and her husband, Joseph the Carpenter, in Bethlehem around 3 BC. Mouth to a cave. Animals including sheep. Onlookers. Featured image for Patheos article Defending Unpopular Christmas Songs - Mary Did You KnowThe sarcastic memes rain down about “Mary, Did You Know?”

  • “Of course I knew!”
  • “Didn’t you hear the angel?”
  • “Yes, she knew! Now stop asking.”
  • “Yes, she knew all those things, so stop trying to degrade the mother of God.”

Patheos contains no fewer than 15 articles about the song (See the list at the bottom of this article). Most are negative and a few even call it the “mansplaining Christmas song.”

Here I am to defend it, share the story behind it, and offer some perspective so the next time the song comes on the radio, you’ll listen with fresh ears.

Article 4 of 4 in the series.
Little Drummer Boy” | “The Christmas Shoes” | “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” | “Mary Did You Know?”

The Birth of a Song

Hang around songwriters enough, and you’ll hear stories of lightning strikes and marathons. If you hear a songwriter say, “I wrote it in about fifteen minutes”, watch his or her face. It will tell you whether the writer is embarrassed about how quick it came together or if the song landed on the page in a few minutes after a lifetime of struggle. If you hear a songwriter say, “This song took years to write,” don’t consider him or her lazy. Sometimes getting it “just right” is difficult.

Mark Lowry is a lifelong performer communicating about Jesus Christ. He started in college and continues to this day with solo concerts and comedy gigs, his podcast, and his work with the Gaithers. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a harder-working entertainer in Christendom. As a comedian, he always looks at the world through sarcastic eyes at a different angle than most. He can bring that perspective to songwriting.

That’s what happened here.

Lowry started thinking about Mary and these questions popped out. What if he had a conversation with Mary? Quickly, the imaginary conversation in his mind turned from quips to quiet. He was stunned with the profunduty. The lyrics stayed in his pocket for seven years. He finally shared them with fellow Gather alumnus, Buddy Greene. Buddy is one of the most accomplished country and bluegrass musicians in history and has played harmonica on thousands of records. Buddy possesses a gentle spirit and a servant’s heart.

When Buddy read the lyrics, he heard them in a minor key and sculpted a melody in a few minutes. He called Mark and played him the song over the phone. They knew they had the right combination.

Where We Go Wrong

I’m convinced that everyone who doesn’t like the song hears the questions asked in a 10-year-old know-it-all tone of voice, like the whiny kid on “The Polar Express.”

Articles and memes mock the song as an armchair theologian mansplaining the immaculate conception.

What if there was something else going on here?

A Heart of Curiosity, Mystery, and Wonder

Think back on the days when faith was new for you. I grew up in church and knew David, Samson, Ruth, Peter, Thomas, and a bunch of other stories about colorful characters. But when I felt drawn by the Holy Spirit into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and repented of my sins, the Bible came alive to me. And so did the Christmas narrative.

Those early days of biblical exploration and prayer were filled with wonder and delight. I remember wrestling with James 1:5–8. The image of a man tossed by the wind on the sea disturbed me. I could just close my eyes and imagine a night on the ocean alone clinging to a life preserver as the wind and waves bashed me. Years later, when I saw “Cast Away” in theatres, those nights came rushing back.

As I took notes in countless sermons, FCA talks, summer camps, and more, I began to hear more about the life, times, manners, and customs of the Bible. The Magi didn’t arrive until Jesus was around two, the inn wasn’t a hotel, but a private home where strangers could stay, the barn wasn’t a building to itself, but most likely a cave connected to the home like a garage, and that perhaps Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, but in a different season when shepherds would be watching their sheep on a hillside.

At the time, all of those revelations were epiphanies. I was blown away. I saw the depth of the scriptures. The Bible was going 3D on me. Today, I hear some Christians talk like those facts eroded their faith.

The power of the song is in the comma. “Mary?” Pause. “Did you know as a teenager that your soon-to-be-born baby would…?” We aren’t explaining anything to her. We are asking for the mystery of moment.

Trivia about the song "Mary, Did You Know?"
Lyrics by Mark Lowry. Music by Buddy Greene.
First recorded by Michael English in 1991 on his debut solo record.
Recorded more than 500 times.
Inspired a stage musical in 1999 which won the Dove Award that year.
Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd were the first the chart in 1996. 
Other artists who have charted include Clay Aiken (2004), CeeLo Green (2012), Pentatonix (2014), Jordan Smith (2015), Zara Larsson (2017), Carrie Underwood (2020), Dolly Parton (2020), and Maverick City Music (2022).
Mark Lowry didn’t perform the song himself until 2010.
Image is a part of Patheos article by Mark Whitlock Defending Unpopular Christmas songs - Mary, Did You Know?

Where is Mystery Now?

Mary must have struggled for those pregnancy months wondering what God was up to. Even after he was born, I think Mary wrestled with how Jesus was growing and maturing. The scene where Joseph and Mary lost him among their family and friends’ pilgrimage for Passover is key.

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

Luke 2:41–51

The teachers were astonished. Jesus asked questions and explored. His earthly parents were worried. But after everything, Mary, once again we are told, treasured up all these things in her heart.

If she knew in the rock bottom of her heart all that Jesus would do and become, this event wouldn’t have freaked them out. They wouldn’t have searched “in great distress.” They would’ve taken it in stride and moved on. Jesus’s ministry was 15+ years away. What was the father waiting for? Did she hear the angel wrong? Was Jesus just another boy? She got back to the mystery quickly. I hope we can, too.

Where is the wondrous mystery for you? What do you treasure in your heart about your spiritual experience? What events can you not explain? When was the last time the Holy Spirit moved inside you and you felt led to make a decision or commit to a new path?

We forget.

We stop wonder-ing and longing for the mystery.

The song reminds us to wait. There is a whole bushel of songs in our churches and on Christian radio about “God did all these things in the past and He’ll do them again for you.” Somehow, I think these songs squeeze all of the mystery out of our lives.

Four-hundred years past between Malachi’s prophecies and the opening pages of the New Testament. Four. Hundred. Years. Can we even wait four days?

Jesus didn’t start performing miracles and teaching until he was about 30. Thirty. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with how long God takes to bring something to fruition. I’m between steps in my career right now. What is He waiting for? What is required of me? What must I learn? Am I seeing everything He is showing to me?

Allow the mystery of this song to lead. Lean into the mystery, don’t be the whiny kid explaining the horsepower of the engine.

Mary knew the big picture. She believed. And she trusted the Father to reveal the rest of the mystery in His time. Allow the song to remind us of what Christ has done and rest in His provision for our futures.

The original recording was tucked inside the debut solo release of a fellow Gaither veteran, Michael English. His towering vocal style only emerges during the bridge of the song. There are no Christmas trappings to the instrumentation or the arrangement. Michael fully enters the mystery of the questions. It remains the best recording of “Mary, Did You Know?” 


Links to articles on Patheos about “Mary, Did You Know?”:


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