Thought for the Day : Thursday 17 December

Thought for the Day by Adriaan van Klinken (All Hallows’)

Mary, Did You Know?

A popular modern Christmas song is ‘Mary, did you know? It addresses Mary, the mother of Jesus, and asks her whether she knew about all the things her son would be doing later in his life, as narrated in the gospels: walk on water, calm the storm, heal the blind, bring deliverance and salvation.

I used to sing along with this song without spending too long thinking about the text. At least, different from many more traditional Christmas carols, the lyrics of ‘Mary did you know’ is clearly based on the Bible, while the dramatic tune carries you away meditating on the story of Jesus and the meaning of his life.

So, I was a little surprised when, just this week, a friend of mine told me that she despised this song. In her words, the song patronises Mary, especially the chorus that repeats the question eight (8!) times: ‘Mary, did you know?’ Calling it a ‘stupid’ text, she argued that the song is patronising towards women.

Did Mary know? Of course she did. After all, the Gospel of Luke opens with the story of the angel Gabriel telling her in detail what would happen to her son. In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel gives a similar message, but then to Joseph (let’s assume he passed it on to his fiancée). So, why then a song asking Mary time and again whether she knew that her baby boy ‘would one day rule the nations’?

There is indeed a long tradition in which Mary is depicted as this naïve young girl from Nazareth, and praised for being meek and docile. This modern song might well reinforce this depiction. Mary doesn’t need a sweet-sounding male voice asking her time and again whether she really knew something that, according to the Gospel, was made clear to her from the beginning.

My friend sent me a link to another version of the song. Here, Mary sings back, retorting the question by saying: ‘Yes I freaking knew!’ The Mary in this song is articulate, strong, and outspoken. Not the way in which the church, for a long time, wanted (and still wants) women to be. And not like society, for centuries, has treated (and still treats) women. Yet this articulate and outspoken Mary might be much more like the Mary of the Magnificat.

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