Mary, Did She Know?
Christmastime brings with it many traditions, both the fun and festive as well as the spiritual and deeply meaningful. One of the more amusing Christmas trends I’ve noticed over the past several years is a playful debate that unfolds each holiday season surrounding the 1991 song “Mary Did You Know?” originally written by Buddy Greene and Mark Lowry and performed by Michael English. Since its release in 1991, it’s been covered dozens of times by well-known recording artists, both Christian and secular alike, including such names as Kenny Rogers & Winona Judd, Clay Aiken, Mary J. Blige, Rascal Flatts, Pentatonix and Cee Lo Green. The song revolves around series of rhetorical questions, asking if Mary knew what the newborn Jesus would grow up to be and to do. It’s a poignant thought, to juxtapose the helpless newborn baby with the grown man who would perform the most amazing miracles ever witnessed by humanity. A baby who was just born was also present at the foundation of the world in eternity past as the second person of the Trinity! The song, in this way, is an exploration of the mystery of the incarnation and Christmas itself.
The song, for all its questions, doesn’t actually provide an answer, however; and so, many over the years have sought to provide the definitive answer to the title question. Did Mary "know?" You can actually go on quite a deep rabbit hole with this topic, if you have the stomach to see so many biblical and theological hairs split. My purpose in this article is to examine this seemingly trivial question, not for my own entry into this ongoing debate, but to more deeply explore the depths of the incarnation, that we might all be filled with just a bit more wonder this Christmas season.
Did Mary know what?
First, let’s look at the lyrics to Greene and Lowry’s song to make sure we understand the question. What exactly are we asking about? Mary surely knew some things about who and what Jesus was to be – but were there mysteries even to her? From my examination of the lyrics, there are basically three categories to Jesus’ identity the song gets at. First, the miraculous: “Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water,” “... would give sight to a blind man,” “... would calm a storm with his hand,” etc. Second, the messianic, referencing Jesus’ role as the Savior of mankind: “... would save our sons and daughters,” “... would come to make you new,” “... is heaven’s perfect lamb,” etc. Finally, the divine, alluding to Jesus’ identity as God in the flesh, the second person of the Trinity: “... is Lord of all creation,” “... has walked where angels trod,” and the two most powerful lines of the song, “When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God,” and “The sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.”
So Lowry and Greene are wondering whether Mary knew not only of the power of God that would be displayed in Jesus’ life, but also that he would be the long-awaited Messiah—come not to overthrow their earthly oppressors, but to make a full and final payment for sin—and, further still, that he was in the flesh the very presence of God, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9).
What was Mary told?
Those who argue that Mary did “know” typically point to the angelic pronouncements made to her in Luke 1. We can all agree that Mary was at least told several things about Jesus. When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, he tells her that she will conceive and bear a son, later being told this would happen through the Holy Spirit, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Further, Gabriel says, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33). The phrase “Son of the Most High” could be understood as an indicator of Jesus’ divinity, but the term “son of God” in general was not always an indicator of a supernatural being. The mention of the throne of David is less ambiguous. Jesus would be the one to fulfill the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7, that his descendant would reign forever. Shortly after this angelic visitation, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is filled with the Holy Spirit upon seeing her and speaks prophetically, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:45).
Matthew’s gospel also includes information from an angel about who Jesus was to be, but delivered to Joseph rather than Mary. Joseph was told two things about Jesus: 1) he was conceived by the Holy Spirit (thereby validating what Mary was told, and establishing the truth of her claim to Joseph); and 2) “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:20–21). It seems likely Joseph would have shared this information with Mary, so we can assume she was told this as well.
Just after Jesus’ birth, Mary receives a visit from the shepherds, who relate what the angels told them, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” A few days later, when Mary and Joseph go to present Jesus at the temple, they are told similar things by Simeon, who also speaks of the child’s identity as the Christ.
In summary then, Mary was told that Jesus would be called the “Son of the Most High,” that he would be the Messiah—the recipient of the Lord’s promise to David to reestablish his kingdom—and that he would be a Savior for his people. Conceivably, then, she was directly told that Jesus was the Christ, the heir to the throne of David, the one to save God’s people from their sins, and perhaps even given clues to Jesus’ divine nature.
So Mary was certainly told many things about Jesus, perhaps even enough to satisfy all three categories of the song—miraculous, messianic, and divine. But as a father of three young children, I can assure you that being told something is not the same as truly knowing something. Mary was told, but did she know? To answer that question, we have to look at later evidence.
How did Mary relate to Jesus?
Unfortunately, for the purposes of this question, we are not given many glimpses of Mary after Jesus’ birth. The first time we see Mary interacting with Jesus after the birth narrative is in Luke 2, where the 12-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem while his parents returned home without realizing he was not with them. When they return three days later and find him in the temple, Jesus asks them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” (Luke 2:49). However, Luke writes that they did not understand what he was talking about. Whatever they had been told and thought they knew about this boy, there were still some things, clearly, they did not yet understand.
Mary resurfaces in some of the Gospel accounts around the crucifixion, but there is really only one other interaction we see between Mary and Jesus until that time. In Mark 3, after performing some miracles in and around Galilee, a large crowd is following Jesus. After calling the twelve disciples (vv. 13–19), Mark tells us that Jesus returned home, and the crowd followed him, “so that they could not even eat” (v. 20). Then Mark adds, “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’” (v. 21). This large following had apparently caused at least some within Jesus’ own family to conclude that Jesus had gone crazy! Mark does not explicitly say here which members of Jesus’ family thought this, but a few verses later we are given a clue. In v. 31, Mark writes, “And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him.” When he is told they are asking for him, Jesus replies, “Who are my mother and my brothers? ... Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus’ words here have been puzzling to some—why would he seemingly distance himself from his own family? Likely, typical to Mark’s style, this account is meant to be considered alongside the earlier verse about the members of Jesus’ family who thought he was out of his mind. Jesus’ response, then, is not just to an innocent request for his presence, but to an attempt to “reign him in” and bring him back home. They may be acting in what they think is Jesus’ best interest, but they clearly do not understand all that Jesus is saying and doing.
To be clear, we shouldn’t read this as a knock on Mary or the rest of Jesus’ family! They are hardly alone in their misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity and mission. Think of Peter at Caesarea Philippi in Matthew 16. In response to Jesus’ all-important question, “Who do you say that I am,” Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (v. 16). Yet, just a few verses later when Jesus first predicts his death, Peter rebukes him! Clearly Peter did not understand the full weight of the words he just spoke. As another example, consider John the Baptist. John, upon first seeing Jesus, cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Yet, near the end of his life, languishing in prison, John sent messengers to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3).
In the Gospels, even those closest to Jesus, who would seem to understand who he truly was and what he had come to do, cannot seem to put all the pieces together in an accurate picture, despite all they had seen and heard from him. Only when Jesus is raised from the grave in power and glory, and when the Holy Spirit is sent to “bear witness” about him (John 15:26) do the apostles and the first Christians understand with full clarity his true glory.
So, did Mary "know?" In my opinion, probably not. She was told great and glorious things about who Jesus would be and what he would accomplish, but it would appear that, just like others close to him, she failed to understand the full scope of God’s great plan. Did she know that Jesus would be a great miracle worker? Perhaps. Did she know that he was the promised Messiah? Maybe. Did she know that he was simultaneously fully God and fully man, the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3)? I have to think she did not. But, to pose a slightly different question—how could she have known? Who could have possibly fathomed that God’s plan from the foundation of the world to restore all things would involve God himself, in the second person of the Trinity as the eternal Son of God, taking on flesh and dwelling among his people? There simply was no category for the first-century Jew to conceive of such a thing.
God was gracious and would never forget his people. Surely he would send them a deliverer like Moses to free them from their oppressors. He would forgive their sins as they continued to be faithful to his covenant and kept his commandments. But to think that God himself would become a man, endure the scoffing and rejection of his own people, and then willingly go to his death to pay the penalty for their sins? No one could have expected such a thing. It was simply too wonderful to believe.
The miracle of Christmas is captured well in another Christmas song, this one written by Bob Kauflin and Jason Hansen: “Who would have dreamed or ever foreseen / That we could hold God in our hands? / The Giver of Life is born in the night / Revealing God’s glorious plan / To save the world”
Who would have dreamed, much less known, God’s plan to redeem his creation through the birth of his Son?
Such is the wonder of Christmas.