Before we begin, let me offer a disclaimer. You’re allowed to like the song Mary Did You Know. I’m not saying you can’t like it, or sing it, or use it in worship in your churches. I am not here to pry Mary Did You Know from your ever loving hands. I am not here to rain on the warm or profound Christmas moments and memories you may have attached to this song.
But I also need to be very honest with you:
I cannot “Mary Did you Know?” and #MeToo at the same time.
While this particular song’s lyrics have troubled me for some time, they’ve troubled me for reasons that the songwriter couldn’t really control. After all, it’s not Mark Lowry’s fault that people have repeatedly and habitually assumed that I am clueless about things I am an expert in.
It’s not Mark Lowry’s fault that men have silenced me when I am trying to advocate for myself, because they feel they speak for me better than I can speak for myself.
It’s not Mark Lowry’s fault that I’m used to people doubting me when I tell them important things, especially about important things that I see or experience because I move through the world and the church in a woman’s body.
And it’s not Mark Lowery’s fault that, this Advent, we are living through a great reckoning as our culture finally begins to grapple with the all-encompassing scope of sexual harassment, abuse, and oppression of women at all tiers of employment and in all halls of power.
I’m not laying the problems of sexism and patriarchy at Mark Lowry’s feet.
But I can’t listen to this song without listening through those problems, either.
For thousands of years, the church has taught the wisdom of Mary as captured in our Gospels.
Mary is on record, in black and white, right there in the bible that we American churches hold so dear. She is brave and bossy, revolutionary and strong. Her voice tells us that she knew the stories of her foremothers. In her mouth we hear the echoes of the songs of Miriam, Deborah, and Hannah. She is too self-assured, too wise, too powerful for a young teen woman living in occupied Israel. But her voice in scripture tells us that she knew.
So when we, in our worship spaces, turn around and ask “Mary Did You Know?” without pausing for the answer, or worse yet, smugly assuming that we know better than her – it feels like choosing ignorance over wrestling. It feels like taking the easy way out. And it feels like just another instance of what too many women have come to expect out of their churches: You do not want our answers. You do not want our voice. You only want to pretend like you do.
And I’ll be honest, in this moment of #MeToo, it is demoralizing to me. If we the faithful can’t or won’t even listen to the mother of God Incarnate, straight from scripture, how can I ever believe that you will hear me? Or any other woman? Or any other person who we’ve grown accustomed to projecting onto and talking over?
So in this season (and in all Advent moments), I would invite us to spend time remembering some of what Mary did know. And this will require the unthinkable:
We have to listen to a woman and let her be the authority on her own experiences.
Deep breaths. We can do this. It’s good practice, I promise.
Mary knew pregnancy and childbirth were dangerous and women did not always survive. When the angel visited, she was promised that her son would be Most High. (Luke 1:32) She was not promised that she would survive that birth.
When we are unwilling to risk ourselves and our lives in order to help God’s world to be birthed – we should remind ourselves of what Mary knew.
Mary knew her life, reputation, and all else would be at risk. She was engaged. Her engagement (and her stability and safety in the world) were reliant on her status as a virgin. She was defined by the men in her life – her father, and her fiancéee. A pregnancy was a disgrace to both and a great risk to her. In a move of great trust, and knowing her whole identity to her community and her world would shift around her, she said a triumphant Yes. “Let it be unto me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38).
When we turn away from the hard work that God calls us to because our identity is more closely tied to patriarchy than to God’s calling – we should remind ourselves of what Mary knew.
Mary knew the little baby boy she was carrying would live life as a Jewish man in an occupied territory. She knew that as he grew, he could be compelled by Roman officers and soldiers to carry their burdens for a mile on a moment’s notice – where he would be out of her reach and protection. (If you don’t believe me, recall her son’s words about going the extra mile).
When we want to turn away from the harm that our systems of culture and government perpetuate on minority people – we should remind ourselves of what Mary knew.
Mary knew what God was about – a total inversion of how our world normally works. A revolution where the mighty are brought low and the lowly lifted up, where the poor are filled with good things but the rich are sent away empty. She proclaims, in a Roman occupied territory, the sovereignty of God and the nation of Israel.
When we worry about the political repercussions of proclaiming the difference between God’s kingdom and our own government – we should remind ourselves what Mary knew.
Mary knew the God she trusted with her life and body and future, as much as any of us can. Mary knew that nothing about being a God-bearer guaranteed her safety – in fact, it greatly jeopardized it.
When we choose safety over pursuing God’s works of justice, when we ask for peace without being willing to lose everything in order to achieve it – we should remind ourselves of what Mary knew.
If the four minute performance of Mary Did You Know? Is the total time that the church spends thinking about, and learning from Mary – we are robbing ourselves of some of the most profound theology of the season and substituting it with a poor, thin replica. Something that is all shine on the surface, but of little substance. A candy theology that, without balance, will cause decay.
So in closing – remember. Yes, you are allowed to like the song. And even sing it. Loudly, and emotionally.
But if we’re going to ask Mary loud and emotional questions, we must listen to her answers. We must treat her like a person.
When you do, I promise she will deliver, with greater power than we’re ready for. She will answer loudly and emotionally. In all her raw and revolutionary power. She will give you permission to break out of your boxes, deny those who would belittle you, and put wild hope and trust in the God we strive to serve.
And, after all, it’s great practice for listening to women and treating them like people, too.