Many are familiar with the song, “Mary, Did You Know?”. It was first released in 1991 (the words were written in 1984) and has been recorded and performed in various venues and contexts. It strikes at the heart of a conversation I’ve had with so many about what it would have been like for Mary to go through the journey of bearing Jesus, raising him, and then watching his ministry and death.
This Advent season I have had the opportunity to study and preach on the angel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:26-38 and Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-56. These passages help us think about what Mary knew from the earliest days of Jesus’s life that may help us answer some of the questions posed in this beloved Christmas song. Based on Scripture, here are some of my preliminary reflections on what Mary may or may not have known. (I say preliminary to reserve the right to amend my thoughts as I dig deeper into Scripture and try to connect it to some of these questions.)
What Mary Likely Understood About the Messiah
The angel announced to Mary that she would conceive a child and that “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). It would seem that Mary would understand this child to be the fulfillment of the promise God made to David to place a ruler on his throne forever and would connect this with the messianic understandings of the day, bringing salvation to Israel, judgment on enemies, and justice to the earth. Her song shows that she did understand her son to be the one who would bring about the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham to be a blessing to all nations (Luke 1:54-55), the hope of all nations. Therefore, Mary would know her son was the fulfilment of Psalm 2:7 (and other passages as well) that see the anointed as ruling over all the nations (one of the questions of the song). I think if you asked her, Mary would say that she knew her child would “save our sons and daughters” and would “deliver” her.- She might even say that the child would make her new – though she might not fully understand what that means (potentially thinking it was largely political with their oppression by the Romans).
There were prophecies and statements about the blind receiving sight when the anointed one came, with Jesus alluding to these in his sermon in his hometown (Luke 4:16-21, quoting Isaiah 61:1 – was Mary there?). Jesus points back to these prophecies when John the Baptist starts to have some doubts while in prison since he had not been released (see Luke 7:18-23; note that Luke 3:19-20 talks about John being in prison and Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1 in Luke 4:18 that discusses the captive). Therefore, while Mary may not have known that her son would be the very one who would miraculously bring sight back to the blind (this is a question pondered in “Mary Did You Know?”), she would not be surprised by it. I’m not sure if she would have known he would walk on water (another of the questions in the song), as that was not a prediction of the messianic age per se. Based on what we will see below, though, I am not sure if she would be surprised by it.
What Mary Might Be Struggling to Understand
It seems clear from these accounts that Mary’s understanding of how God’s plan would unfold was not yet complete when the announcement was made to her. While I do believe there were messianic undertones found in the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 (as the child is never identified and then seems to be connected with the child described in Isaiah and then the king of Isaiah 11), I am not sure if Mary understand that she would be the literal fulfillment of this prophecy, as she asks the question about how she can become pregnant (Luke 1:34). (This could stem from the fact that she was a young girl and not a teacher of the law who likely would have more familiarity). She did not jump to this passage right away; this may have been something she figured out later.
This also raises the question about whether or not Mary understood the terminology about the coming king being the “son of God” (in the common meaning of the time to refer to the king) or in its ultimate truth that Jesus is the second member of the Trinity, God Himself. The angel announced to Mary in Luke 1:32 that the child would be Son of the Most High, but she did not seem to understand that this meant he would not be born like an ordinary child, as she asked how that would be; she did not see this child as having a heavenly origin (note how there are many miraculous births in Scripture that seem to still come about the normal way). When the angel notes that the Holy Spirit would be at work to make this happen, there is more detail given about the child — that the child would be “holy, the Son of God,” it may have been expanding her understanding of the nature of this child. Elizabeth’s words that Mary is the mother of her Lord (something that seems revealed by the Holy Spirit that came upon Elizabeth and after John the Baptist leaps for joy in her womb as seen in Luke 1:43) may also add to this understanding – as Lord was a term that would apply to God and it would seem odd that Mary, the peasant girl, would have a child greater than the older son of the priestly family of Elizabeth and Zechariah. The shepherds told Mary the angelic proclamation that the birth of Jesus marked the birth of “a Savior, Christ the Lord” (2:10, 17). Mary might then have further connected some of the dots, as these were the terms she used to describe God in 1:46-47. Interestingly, Luke 2:18-19 says that “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart,” so it seems Mary may have understood things better than the others. Thus, Mary might have some inkling that her son would “walk where angels trod” and was “Lord of all creation” and that she was holding the “great I am” and kissing “the face of God”. However, I am not sure if she would be able to articulate such statements (as it seems like many struggled to put all the pieces together – we even struggle with fitting together what it means for Jesus to be God in the flesh!).
What Mary Might Have Missed
While Mary seemed to have some understanding, we also see her potentially struggling to understand some things as Jesus’s life progresses. For example, she did not know to look in the temple for him and noted that she was worried about him when he was missing, even being astonished when he was teaching the teachers at the age of 12 (see Luke 2:46-50). In fact, we are told that she did not understand what he was saying (2:50) but that she also treasured these things in her heart (2:52). In Mark 3:20-21 we read that Jesus’s family thought he was “out of his mind” in light of the crowds he was gathering and they tried to seize him; presumably Mary was included in this number (see Mark 3:31). This doesn’t mean that she no longer believed in his mission, but perhaps that she had a different perception of how it would play out. In the Gospel of John, when they run out of wine at the wedding feast, Mary tells Jesus to do something; Jesus replied by saying that his hour had not yet come (John 2:3-4). This would seem to indicate that they had different visions of how Jesus might achieve the purpose for which he was sent. While Simeon told Mary in Luke 2:34-35, “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed”; Mary may not have comprehended the suffering of the Messiah – while found there in Isaiah, it was something that many would have missed at the time. She would journey to the cross (see John 19:25-27) and would seem just as saddened and confused as the disciples.
Like the disciples, it seems that Mary came to a greater understanding after the resurrection, as we read that she with the disciples in the upper room after the Ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:12-14). Therefore, we might not be sure where she stood in terms of knowledge at each phase of her journey, but we do know where she ended up.
What Do You Know?
While it’s difficult to know for certain exactly what Mary knew and understood about Jesus from his miraculous birth to his death, there is another question just as important. What do we know and understand about Jesus? This exploration of Mary’s knowledge may offer us hope that our knowledge will grow over time and that we need to reside and walk in faith, both in Christmas 2020 and beyond.
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