One of my favorite Christmas carols of the past couple years has been “Mary, Did You Know?” especially as sung by the group Pentatonix. Then this year, I saw someone question the whole premise of the song, “Of course, Mary knew. The angel told her!” This got me thinking about what the angel actually told Mary and how Mary responded in her song, known today as the Magnificat. The next time I listened to the carol, I paid more attention to the lyrics:
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water? (Mary probably didn’t know this)
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters? (Yes, she probably knew this)
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new? (Yes, probably)
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you (Yes)
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man? (No)
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand? (No)
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? (Maybe)
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God (Yes) ….
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? (Probably)
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations? (Yes)
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb? (Maybe)
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am (Maybe)
My point is not so much to quibble with the comment but rather to think about what Mary knew and how she responded. When the angel told her she would conceive a child named Jesus, he went on: “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 ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). That’s all Mary knew, which didn’t give her a lot of details. Later, in her song of praise, Mary said that God had done great things for her and described some of what she thought it meant: God scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:49-53). And then after Jesus’ birth, Mary “treasured all these words [of the shepherds?] and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). While I suspect Mary had lots of questions to ponder about her baby Jesus, her song tells us that she did understand some of what God would do through her child.
I find it helpful to focus on Mary’s song in light of current events. The proud, the powerful, and the rich are put down, while the lowly and hungry are lifted up. These are the priorities Mary identifies out of the little bit of information the angel gives her about the child she will conceive and bear. Mary sang her song in the context of a powerful Roman occupation that was often cruel and a king (Herod) who would later try to kill her son. The idea that God would one day lift up lowly people like herself was indeed good news – and it’s still good news today.
Mary specifically identifies the lowly and the hungry as people God will lift up, and to them can be added the poor, captives, blind, and oppressed Jesus refers to in his opening message in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18), and the hungry (again), thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and prisoners he names in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) as people we should be caring for as if they were Jesus himself.
Today, when the interests of the powerful and the rich seem poised to assume even greater importance than the needs of the lowly, it is good to be reminded of the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus’ birth represents. And it feels important to commit myself yet again to speaking out and acting on their behalf even when it might be difficult and costly.