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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

"What Mary Knew" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

 December 24, 2023

Luke 2


            There’s been a song making its rounds on my social media pages the past few weeks that bugs me. It’s kind of like when the middle of your back itches and you can’t reach the spot to scratch it. My reaction to this song was like a brain itch I could scratch every time I heard it. Based on the song, “Mary Did You Know?” whose words were written by Mark Lowry of Gaither fame, the response called, “Yes, I Freaking Knew” is sung by Charissa Merrick and here are some of the lyrics,


“Yes, I freaking knew that my baby boy would one day walk on water,

Yes, I freaking knew that my baby boy would save your sons and daughters,

Did you know that the angel Gabriel himself gave me the news?

I’ve known about my kiddos a lot longer than you.

Yes, I freaking knew.”


The song goes on from there to point out that, in fact, Mary was there when Gabriel came to give her the news of who and what Jesus would be. It also makes the point that perhaps the original “Mary Did You Know” is a bit patronizing because if anyone knows what Jesus is to be it’s his mother.


            Now, to be fair Charissa says in the caption to the video that this is a song “we all know and love” and she’s right. Lowry’s original song is beautiful and speaks from a rhetorical stance that says more about us understanding Jesus’ impact than it does anything about Mary. The revision of the original was written by Cindy Sadler and I have no doubt that it was done in good fun. To offer a different, more feminine perspective. After all, we know things about our children that others simply can’t.


            But let me get back to the brain itch I mentioned. I think this version of “Mary Did You Know?” makes my brain itch because there’s a difference between understanding something intellectually and understanding something due to lived experience. There’s a difference between knowing what words mean and living with the emotional impact of that thing happening. There’s a difference between hearing and - even at our most engaged - and doing. And I wonder if that isn’t what differentiates the Mary we experience tonight and the Mary that will outlive her son. I’m also not convinced that we can give the emotional knowledge of the latter to the former.


            Yes, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s “found favor with God ”and will become pregnant”.  But listen again to what else he says - this is from The Voice translation- “...You will have a son, and you must name Him “Savior,” or Jesus. Jesus will become the greatest among men. He will be known as the Son of the Highest God. God will give Him the throne of His ancestor David, and He will reign over the covenant family of Jacob forever.


            With a pedigree like that, it’s obvious Jesus is going to live an extraordinary life. He’s got some big milestones to hit and shoes to fill. That “Messiah” word can’t be tossed out with Mary knowing her child would be special. And that word coming from the mouth of God’s inhuman messenger? Mary would have been a fool not to be aware that her life and her son’s life are going to be outside the norm.


            But did she know that Jesus would walk on water? Heal the blind and sick? Raise people from the dead? Rise from the dead himself? When she snuggled her baby, smelled his head, kissed his cheek, was she thinking of snuggling and smelling and kissing God? Was she thinking about God when she was changing dirty diapers and teaching her toddler to walk? Could she have foreseen where Jesus was headed when she was knee-deep in spit-up and teething, colic and weaning? To say nothing of Jesus as a teenager! Can you imagine the sass that’s possible from a 13 year-old-boy who knows God’s his father?


            There’s a remarkable conversation you can find on YouTube between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert. Technically Cooper is interviewing Colbert, but the two men have such a thoughtful back-and-forth that “interview” really isn’t the right word. It really feels like you’re getting to be a fly on the wall during a personal chat because what ties these two men together is grief.


            You see, at the time of the interview, the loss of Cooper’s mother Gloria Vanderbilt is recent. He brings this up because when his mother died Stephen Colbert wrote to Cooper and said in part, “I hope you find peace in your grief.” The two go on to talk about grief in detail which is something Colbert is deeply familiar with after the death of his father and two eldest brothers in a plane crash when he was 10 years old.


            I really can’t recommend their conversation to you highly enough. Please go home and look it up on YouTube, it’s 21 minutes you will not mind spending being that fly on the wall. But I bring this up tonight to share one piece of Cooper and Colbert’s conversation with you. Colbert is a devout Catholic as was his mother and mentions that after losing her husband and two sons she’d pray to “Our lady because she knows what it is to lose a child.”


            Death, loss, the shattering grief of losing your child. Mary knew that. Will know that again as we move from this night toward Holy Week. But here in this space, on this night, as we consider what this exhausted young girl is thinking as she faces the pain and effort of labor after an uncomfortable journey to a place that is not her home can we imagine that she can comprehend much beyond the next step? The next breath? The next contraction?


            And when she does have time to think, to ponder, to take mental snapshots of this whirlwind night is it even possible for her to compare the knowing of her lived experience with knowing what the angel Gabriel told her about her son? The truth is we’ll never know. We’ll never know what Mary was thinking, what she remembers of Gabriel’s visit, what she’s aware of about Jesus’ future as she looks at his sleeping baby face.


            But what we can know and celebrate and ponder in our own hearts is the promise of this night. The work and effort of new life coming into the world. The joy of God living and breathing and crying and snoozing as a newborn baby just like us. And most of all what we can know and celebrate and ponder is love. The love of a mother for her child. The love of God for each of us and all of us. And the love that brings us here together in celebration and sends us out in joy to proclaim this good news to all the world: Christ is born! Thanks be to God!


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