Oh, you thought the questions in the song “Mary, Did You Know?” were rhetorical? Think again. The Bible has answers…and I’ve gathered some of them here as a handy reference.
To come to my conclusions, I ran each of the lines in “Mary, Did You Know?” through the following tests:
Did someone directly say it to Mary or someone close to her? Then she probably knew it.
Does the Old Testament, which Mary would have been familiar with, prominently feature the information? Then there’s at least a chance she knew it.
Was it not mentioned in either form, and/or totally illogical? Then she probably didn’t know it.
Ready? Let’s go.
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Answer: Probably not. There aren’t any prophecies I could find in the Old Testament relating to the Messiah walking on water (let me know in the comments if you know of one). You could maaaaybe stretch things and say that the Messiah was a “prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15-19) and walking on water would be parallel to the parting of the Red Sea. But chances are good that Mary would not have predicted this particular miracle.
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Answer: Yes. In Matthew 1:21, the angel tells Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Since in that same dream, the angel told Joseph not to call off the engagement, and since angelic visitations were highly unusual and highly terrifying, you know Joseph told Mary every word. Whether Mary understood what “save his people from his sins” meant…we aren’t sure.
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
Answer: Maybe. The concept of deliverance that most people were expecting seemed to be a physical, beat-up-the-Roman-empire sort of thing, even among Jesus’s followers (Luke 24:19-21). Mary’s cousin Zechariah’s prophetic song in Luke 1 contains some amazing promises, but most are very Psalm-like in their praise: “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” And yes, Mary knew that Jesus would “save his people from their sins,” but would she have thought of a personal, individual spiritual renewal, or was she still thinking of corporate deliverance like the Exodus or the high priest atoning for the people in general? I don’t think we can say for sure.
This child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you.
Answer: Not a question, but yes. But maybe not in all the ways that Jesus accomplished on the cross. See above. (more…)
According to my parents, there are no pictures of this Christmas program (I am not sad about this), but here’s me with my sister a year or so before this story.
Life isn’t fair, let me tell you. I’m not actually allowed to complain—my parents say that’s a “bad attitude”—but it’s my last year in kids’ choir and there was only one part I really, really wanted in our Christmas musical. And guess who got it?
My twin sister Erika, that’s who. She’s a member of the Fifth Grade Detective Brigade. They get to wear all black and sneak around to a cool theme song.
And guess who I have to be?
Chrissy. I call her Chrissy-the-Sissy, because she’s supposed to be all girly and dreamy. We’re performing tonight, and here’s my very first line: “Ooh, I want to be an angel! I just love wearing halos and big, fluffy wings.”
Really. I’m not kidding. Word-for-word, right there.
This is going to be so painful.
I wanted to ask to switch parts with Erika, but my mom said something like “Mr. and Mrs. Cox get to make the decisions, and they have their reasons.” But here are my reasons, for the record:
Why I Should Have Been in The Fifth Grade Detective Brigade
I can talk loudly enough that I don’t need a microphone. (Since the FGDB members walk around looking for clues, they don’t have any.)
Erika would be a better angel than me. Way better.
No offense or anything, but I’d be a better detective than her.
Anyway, she wants to wear a fancy dress and I want to wear sunglasses. Everybody would be happier this way.
Last year, I wrote a whole journal in code, an Ottendorf Cipher, where you pick a document and use numbers to substitute for letters. My document is a speech by Abraham Lincoln, but I won’t tell you which one, or where I hid the key to the code. Even if you found it, I put the key in another code, and you have to know twenty-four trivia questions about my life to break that one. So I have lots of practice at detective things and could really get into character.
I didn’t give this list to our directors, because I know the only reason I got the part of Chrissy-the-Sissy-Angel is because I’m supposed to sing a solo in the first medley. “What Child Is This?” Just a verse of it before the rest of the choir comes in. That’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, and to be honest, I like singing solos. That’s the not the problem. It’s just…well…
Let me explain by going back to last week. Every year, the 5th and 6th grade girls’ Sunday School class makes Christmas cookies with Mrs. K, and we eat way more of them than our moms would let us if they knew. While they baked, we watched this really old movie—like, barely in color and where all the women have big hair—called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.
It’s about how six of the most terrible kids in the world, the Herdmans, end up being the main parts in a Christmas musical, and how they make everything better, but accidentally. In case you think that sounds boring, there are also fight scenes and attack cats and fire.
Come to think of it, I’d love to be a Gladys Herdman kind of angel during the performance tonight, if anybody would let me. Yell, “HEY! Unto you a child is born!” instead of singing “What Child Is This?” That would shake things up at Pleasant View Bible Church, huh?
I would probably also get in big trouble.
Anyway, that’s not the point. There’s this part in the movie where Imogene Herdman is studying a picture of Mary and Jesus, trying to copy it. Trying her best to look like something she’s not, and she knows it and everybody knows it too, with her dirty face and tangled hair and loopy earrings.
In the book—I read it after we watched the movie, it’s way better—the kids sang “What Child Is This” while Imogene is holding baby Jesus. The same song that I’m singing as a solo.
Later, Imogene looks at a picture of Mary and says it’s exactly right. And then the book says, “I think it meant that no matter how she herself was, Imogene liked the idea of the Mary in the picture—all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything at all except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.”
That’s the way I feel, sometimes, being Chrissy the angel. Like a fake, who doesn’t look anything like one of those frilly tree-toppers. I didn’t put it on the list, because it seems silly, but I’m just not…the angel type. You know? I’m clumsy and I’ve got thick glasses and short hair that sticks out and I didn’t used to care…but I do a little bit now that I’m older.
Tonight’s the performance. I’m out of time. Soon, everyone’s going to be watching me, and maybe I can sound like an angel, sort of, if I breathe from my diaphragm like I learned in choir class. But I can’t look like one. Some days I think every other girl in my class would be better at that part.
But maybe that’s okay. That’s the whole point of the book and the movie. Imogene didn’t look a thing like the way we picture Mary. Gladys wasn’t exactly the most normal angel of the Lord, either. But there was something real about them, and anyway, what if we’ve been wrong all this time about what they’re supposed to look like? What if Mary wasn’t even pretty? The Bible doesn’t say she was.
Jesus sure wasn’t, because he was a human just like us, and don’t tell anyone I said this, but human babies are ugly when they’re just born no matter how much you lie your head off to their moms and say they’re cute. They’re just red and wrinkly and usually screaming.
I don’t know about the angels, but I’m guessing first off, they mostly looked scary, and also they probably didn’t care how they looked, so I shouldn’t either. People are supposed to think more about the song and what it’s about than me. “This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.” It really is a beautiful song.
I’m gonna do it. I’m going to go out there and stand tall in my pinned-up baptismal robe with my tinsel halo that itches. I’m not going to think about my hair or my lines or which of the older girls would have been better at my part. I’m going to stare into that spotlight and stop trying to look holy or pretty and just sing like I mean it. For the Herdmans…and for Jesus.
And who knows? Maybe I can play a spy when I get into the youth group next year.
(This is the latest in a series of fictionalized narratives based on the true history of beloved Christmas carols…except since this is my last one of 2018, I broke the rules to include a true story about my personal interaction with a Christmas carol. I have no links to biographical information, except that sixteen years later, I read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever each December…and I still can’t crack the code I wrote that journal in. To read past narratives, go here.)
How does one write a funeral address for President Abraham Lincoln? Defender of the Union, the leader who stood at the end of indescribable violence and promised restoration and reconciliation—until his own life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.
That was the task I was charged with as a young, rising preacher who had been relentless in opposition to slavery. I labored over that sermon, going without sleep, knowing it would be kept in an ecclesial vault for the ages, and knowing too that this eulogy must somehow find itself equal to the task of remembering the greatest man of our age. I drafted and redrafted until it was beautiful, finding the perfect balance of eloquence and truth and delivered it perfectly.
These, I knew, were the most important words I would ever speak.
I was wrong.
Then, shortly afterward, weary of war and violence and longing for rest, I took a sabbatical to the Holy Land. I journeyed from grand Jerusalem to insignificant Bethlehem, there to celebrate the birth of Christ in an hours-long service. Looking at the dark horizon, so little changed over nearly two thousand years, the beginning of a poem began to form, and the poem became a song: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.”
The children’s choir sang my song that next Christmas, their innocent voices warbling in the candlelight, and the response was incredible. Hymnals began including my humble verse, with churches throughout the country playing it each year in December.
These, I thought, surely were the most important words I would ever pen.
Battle of the Bulge, a few miles from Elisabeth’s cabin
Each Christmas Eve, my father would tell us again of Christmas truce of the Great War. It was one of the only parts of the war he spoke of at all, a story kind enough for small ears and for his own battle-scarred heart.
Those nights around the fire, he would make us feel the first terrifying steps into No Man’s Land, testing the truce…and then of shaking hands and playing soccer with the young men who you knew would try to kill you again the next day. He spoke of the drinks, the cheer, and most of all, the singing. Each country sang in their own language, and after some of the French launched into a boisterous “Noel,” my Papa began his favorite carol, with the rest of the men of his regiment joining in once they recognized the beloved tune.
Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht. Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
A song from a simpler time, first performed at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve in a small village church, sung now over the bloodied, disease-ridden trenches, in hopes that there would be another silent night again. Soon.
“It was beautiful,” Papa always said, “and it was brave.”
All of this, of course, makes for very good stories and very bad war policy, which is why such truces were banned from then on. The ban continues in this new war, I’m sure, though I am not on the front lines to know. My husband might be, tonight. He is a baker—or was before our bakery was bombed to pieces three months ago. Fritz and I moved to the hunting cabin in the woods, while my husband stayed in town to rebuild. He was supposed to be here for Christmas, but it seems something has kept him from us. I pray it’s the weather or an emergency shipment of bread to the troops, rather than being caught in the battle rumbling these past few days.
When he comes, I’ll tell him about the celebration he missed last night, Christmas Eve. It started, as it must have the first Christmas long ago, with a knock at the door.
William Cummings fifty years after this narrative.
Good day. My name is William Cummings. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?
No? Well, I’m not altogether surprised. At twenty-five years of age, I haven’t yet made my mark on the musical world. It’s rather a shame. All those classical pianists who began composing when they were still toddling in the nursery created an absurd standard for the rest of us. By the time you’re old enough to have ambitions of being a prodigy, you’re too old to actually be one.
But perhaps you know the men whose work I have here altered and combined for our upcoming Christmas service.
First, Charles Wesley, the Methodist preacher inscribed in every beloved hymnal, wrote the carol. Second, George Whitefield, he of the Great Awakening, adapted it, changing some of the words. (Losing one of my personal favorites, “welkin,” an underappreciated bit of frippery.)
And I? I gave it a new tune, which I daresay it needed, no offense meant to either aforementioned man. As I read the verse and hummed the original melody line printed above it in all its plodding dreariness, I thought of Felix Mendelssohn, the renowned composer.
When I was a youth, I was able to meet Mendelssohn in person, as a tenor in the London premier of his opera, Elijah. One has perhaps not fully lived until he has shouted a call for Baal to bring down fire in guttural German. And to a hall packed with reserved Englishmen in evening dress, no less.
Mendelssohn, like Bach and Handel before him, desired to use his tremendous gift to honor his creator. Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory. (more…)
By all rights, this oughta be a pretty miserable Christmas. There’s no money for coal, we’ve eaten enough cheap beef that I swear I’m part cow, and the whole freedman’s school is probably headed toward collapse in a year or two.
But I got chocolate tonight. Actual chocolate, can you believe it? Oranges too. And so the world doesn’t seem so bad after all. Good ol’ Mr. Spence was feeling generous tonight, after we sang for him and his wife and some rich white folks at a Christmas social they had.
Mr. White—that’s George White, school treasurer, music instructor, and the tallest man at Fisk University, you can’t miss him—is starting up a choir. A cantata, he calls it, where we’re going to sing songs the proper way just to prove we can. I’m the star tenor, of course. Only because bossy Maggie Porter can only sing one part at once, though. I swear if she could do more, she’d take over soprano, tenor, bass, and director besides!
Mr. White’s got grand plans for some kind of fundraising tour. As if Mr. Spence would let him get away with that. Another one of his crazy schemes that’ll never take off, like as not. But it got us to put together a decent program for the school’s social, so that’s something, anyhow. Afterward, Mr. White let us into the kitchen for some sweets, then rushed on back to meet and greet with donors and such. So there we were, a dozen of us young people, all on our own.
And everybody knows that’s when the real singing starts.
Now, I’ve got nothing against that white music. Some of the songs, hymns and things, they’re real nice. But they’re missing a little something, something that’s in the songs we learned before the War, when we were still slaves. Those, we only sing when it’s just us about.
Not like we’re ashamed of them or anything. Well, some of us are, maybe. They don’t have proper grammar and such like they’re teaching us in school. Mostly, though, it’s because they’re too special. Private. Not the thing for concert halls…but just right for the Fisk University kitchen on Christmas Eve.
Some call them spirituals because folks took the words straight out of the Bible. Hardly a one could read a Scripture if you put a book in front of them, and they wouldn’t admit it if they could, that being illegal and all. But some slaves got dragged to the fly-buzzed Negro gallery of their masters’ churches every Sunday, and they heard enough. (more…)
Helen in the late 1800s when she first met her husband.
HELEN: The year was 1906. Ships bobbed in the Atlantic that stormy Christmas Eve, monitoring the primitive radios that could only deliver a litany of dots and dashes, the stutter-slow letters of Morse code.
Until the charged air filled with…music. Something no one had heard before. Operators blinked in astonishment. What magic was this?
And then the deep, rich voice of Reginald Aubrey Fessenden introduced himself and read from the gospel of Luke. “And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
Hundreds of miles away, in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, surrounded by wires and meters and the radiating heat of the microphone, Fessenden smiled, raised a battered violin to his chin and began to play, even singing along for one verse. The strains of the beloved carol “O Holy Night” broke the silence in the first ever radio broadcast outside of a laboratory.
“O night divine” indeed.
I was there too, watching. Celebrating my husband’s achievements, even if I didn’t understand the years of technological labor it had taken to get there. I remember it like it was yesterday. My Reginald. The first broadcaster.
JAMES: The Christmas Eve Broadcast of 1906. It’s like one of those Hallmark Channel holiday movies, you know? All that was missing was an unexpected snow and George Bailey hearing the program from the bridge and deciding that life was worth living after all.
Except after months of research for the centennial, I’ve concluded that it’s all a lie. Or most of it, anyway. (more…)
The older brother is the mature, responsible one, the younger carefree and reckless. That’s what everyone says.
But not in my family. One look at our family photograph, taken when my mother was still alive, and you can see at a glance: Ernest, the small, timid, logical one who preferred books to athletics. And next to him, favoring the viewer with a smile despite the photographer’s warning to the contrary, Charley, the golden boy, the ace scholar and champion sportsman…and now the Union army lieutenant.
Well, he was a lieutenant, anyway.
It’s been 25 days since we received the telegram that every family dreads. I remember that clearly because it came on December 1, the first day of Advent, the season of expectation. It sounds terrible to say, but I’d been expecting the news ever since we heard the causalities from Antietam. Our boys, our Boston-raised, tried-and-true Yankee boys cut down by the hundreds, thousands even.
But I didn’t expect Charley’s first letter, tossed on the table like an afterthought over a year ago. Father’s hands trembled as he read it. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.” That’s what Charley said when he ran off to join the Union army, as if he was compelled by an irrepressible instinct and couldn’t help himself. Then he went on about duty and love of country and sacrifice.
Even then, at sixteen, I knew it’s not the son who leaves who sacrifices. It’s the one who stays.
The telegram informed my father that a reporter friend of his had chanced upon Charley among the wounded in a Virginia hospital.
Of course, Father wanted to go to the capital right away, where the worst cases were being taken. I left my classes in military engineering to go with him, battling miserable December weather to scrounge a ticket on a late-night steamboat from Fall River to Washington City.
At least the prodigal son had the decency to come home and save his father and brother the trip.
Do you know how many times I wanted to blurt that out, every hour that the swaying of the steamboat and the muttering of the other passengers kept us awake? But I didn’t, not once, because I’m the son who cares about what his words and actions do to our father.
I just moved his armchair closer to one of the lounge’s small stoves and prayed. Not that Charley would live, but that Father would. (more…)
It’s ridiculous, really. In my life, I have fled Belgium on the last train to Paris to escape invading Nazis. I have worked midnight-hour shifts at an infirmary in Rome during a deadly typhoid epidemic. I have fought with the distinguished heads of Cambridge University for years to be allowed to study a nearly-dead form of ancient music.
And yet here I stand, working on a simple academic article, not knowing what to say or how to say it. Bested by an empty page.
You see, I’ve solved a mystery. Just a small one. Outside of my little corner of the world, you may not have even been aware of it at all. But you’ve heard of the song being questioned, surely: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a favourite of Christmas services and concerts the world over.
The translator of the song, John Mason Neale was, like me, an English musician and a scholar. Unlike me, he was an Anglican. His particular controversy was founding the Society of Saint Margaret, a group of women trained to nurse the poor and sick. Too Catholic, the naysayers of the 1800s said, as if it was the pope who gave dignity to women and instructed true believers to serve the least of these, rather than Jesus.
Neale’s bishop disapproved, his congregants muttered, and others went farther. Death threats. Stoning attempts. He was once physically attacked at a funeral for one of the women he had dedicated his life to serving.
I would have liked Neale, I think. I know what it’s like to disagree with my superiors, with the masses, with the mindset of an entire generation.
His friend Thomas Helmore is credited with the music that accompanied the translation, though he in turn attributed it to “a French Missal,” a medieval liturgy similar to the Gregorian chants I’ve dedicated my life to studying. (more…)
I figured I should get that out of the way. It’s not the best opening line, but when humans are constantly fainting or having near heart failure every time they see you, you learn to do a little advance damage control.
I realize an angelic appearance can be a little startling at first, but every single time? Come on. When faced with something you don’t understand, you always reach for fear. It’s your way of protecting yourself from the unknown, I guess, but it seems strange to me.
I’ve had more chances to terrify people these past few months since the days of the patriarchs. Not that that’s my goal—although, okay, I’ll admit, it is fun.
No, the point, the whole focus of my existence, is being a messenger of the glory of God.
Sound familiar? It should. That’s your purpose too. It’s just you humans get so caught up in the tiny externals of your little lives that you forget why you’re here.
I’m doing it again. That condescending thing. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, we’re not that different: me, an ancient, heaven-dwelling, genderless, warrior-messenger and you, a weak, mortal human born to live on Earth for a hundred years at most and doomed to fall and fail a thousand times before then.
See? Practically the same.
For example, we both…ah…we’re almost….
Nope. I got nothing. But I’ll think of it, I promise. (more…)