What Mary Did, In Fact, Know: A Comprehensive Checklist

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…)

Advent Stories: What Child Is This?

Amy Green

Warsaw, Indiana, 2002

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.)

Advent Stories: O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks

Boston, Massachusetts, 1892

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.

I was wrong about that too. (more…)

Advent Stories: Silent Night

Elisabeth Vincken

Hurtgen Forest, Germany, December 1944

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.

(more…)

Advent Stories: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

William Hayman Cummings

Essex, England, 1855

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…)

On Being Thankful for Famines

Do you remember why the prodigal son came home?

I hadn’t. That story is fixed in my mind in the stained-glass image of the father embracing his son, the moment we all remember and hope for. And, because I relate to him, the dangling plotline of the older brother who wouldn’t go inside to celebrate, the one who was the farthest away even though he never left.

We all shift our roles in the story, over the years, in different relationships, passing the script around to play the part of the runaway outsider, the dutiful-but-secretly-resentful legalist, the longsuffering embodiment of home. We understand the people of the parable because we’ve been them, and that’s what stories do.

But this time, a different detail stood out to me—a silent, non-human antagonist in the story: “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.”

See that? It wasn’t the sudden realization that his father still loved him, or even sorrow over his bad behavior, that drove the prodigal away from his old life. His stomach, not his heart, led him home. (more…)

What Matters More Than Your Problems

Right now, I’m surrounded by people who are going through every kind of hardship and heartache possible. You probably are too…and those are just the ones we know about. If we could somehow see a feed of the unspoken anxieties and hurts and doubts of people we interact with every day, it might be too much for us to handle.

That’s why I love the song “Is Anyone Worthy?” by Andrew Peterson. It’s got a congregational call-and-response format, and I’ll explain why that matters in a minute. But first, listen to the song. Seriously. It’s great.

Here’s what I love about liturgy and catechism and really good worship songs like this one: they allow us to affirm truth together.

Because there are days when we want to give the wrong answers to the questions in “Is He Worthy?” Sure, we know what we’re supposed to respond to “Does the Father truly love us?” Sometimes, though…it doesn’t feel like he does.

But when you’re repeating back God’s faithfulness with dozens of your brothers and sisters, from all different backgrounds, suffering in a hundred different ways and still singing…you start to be able to feel the things you know in your head. It gets you outside of your narrow focus on whatever trial is in front of you and helps you remember that you’re part of a community, that God has done amazing things in the past, that there are other believers who care about you, that it’s possible for something to be 100% true and still feel like a far-off hope. But the more you repeat those hopes and the past realities they’re based on, the closer they feel.

That’s why I love the seemingly content-less question in the song, “Is it good that we remind ourselves of this?”

It is.

It is, because it’s so easy to forget, to lose perspective and hope.

In the end, God will make all things new. He won’t utterly destroy the old things, but he will transform them, and all creation is waiting for that day. He can do it because he’s already accomplished the ultimate act of renewal and reconciliation in the cross.

If Jesus can fix the most deeply broken thing—our relationship with God, made up of millions of hard hearts and defiant rebellions stretching out over centuries—then he can restore all of the broken bits of our lives and give them purpose and meaning, sometimes here, sometimes not until the new heavens and new earth.

If he is worthy to die in our place, then he is worthy of it all. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12)

I remember thinking once, overwhelmed by some decision or difficulty now forgotten, that it’s easy to say that faith the size of a tiny mustard seed can move mountains…until you’re looking up at the mountain.

The answer to that was obvious: So don’t look at the mountain, Amy. Look at Jesus.

It’s good to process and to listen well to others who are struggling. Both self-reflection and sympathy have their place. But they often grow out of their place, at least for me. It’s easy to dwell on my problems—feeding them my time and attention, constantly returning to questions that refuse to be solved, cycling through self-pity or resentment or worry as if that helps anything at all—or to let someone else do the same. We justify and even praise those processes when honestly that’s what seems to make us feel most stuck and scared and paralyzed by the unrealized good that might have been or the possible bad that might still be. None of it is helpful.

But you know what is? Directing our thoughts back to what God did, is doing, and will ultimately do. “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5). That’s a truth the Bible speaks louder than all of the groaning of creation and the groaning in our own hearts during the waiting in between.

It is good that we remind ourselves of this—of the mercy of God, the shortness of life, the beauty of faithfulness in hard times, and the ending of the story.