Mary and Mamie Till
Here in the States, we Christians find ourselves in the now-annual kerfuffle regarding “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s a song loved and hated by millions of Christians and is a staple of the Contemporary Christian Music scene during the Christmas season. The lyrics ask Mary if she knew she was the God-bearer, the mother of the Lord, if when she kissed her little baby that she knew she “kissed the face of God.”
Well, I don’t know what Mary knew or didn’t know about Jesus’ divine status. Nor does the song. It ends with the same question as it began. The minor key and the longing tone of both lyrics and melody seem to indicate that perhaps Mary didn’t know (but would have been better off if she did).
Every time I hear the song, I wonder what exactly the point is, if it leaves Mary as apparently ignorant as she began. It seems to me that the point of the song is to make sure that we “know” all about the Divinity of Jesus as the Incarnate One.
I find that the song reflects the perspective on Christian faith that equates believing with intellectual assent to a set of facts and/or principles and/or doctrines. It reflects what the theologians would call a Christology “from above.” Such a Christology privileges the “God’s-eye” view of Jesus and is always in danger of minimizing or ignoring the human, finite, limited, and suffering dimensions of Jesus’ life.
The Lukan account, by contrast, is pretty specific about what the angel tells Mary. The Magnificat doesn’t put this knowledge in the theological or narrative terms of the Lowry/Greene lyrics. But Mary does sing pretty clearly that she knows what God is up to in this baby – the overturning of the powers of sin, death, and evil, and the establishment of God’s reign as God intended it to be from the beginning.
Lukan Christology certainly knows the details that come “from above.” But the Lukan author begins with the view of Jesus “from below” and stays there through the crucifixion. Not only does the Lukan author see Jesus “from below,” but the author portrays Jesus as seeking out those who are “below” in the world around him and spending most of his time with them. Those are things that Mary could know.
That being said, it seems to me that we can say something more about what Mary may have known. Or, at least, I wonder about other things she might have known. Mary may not have known about the miracles and the manifestation of Divinity. But I’m pretty sure that Mary had an idea what this little boy would face in his life under the oppressive rule of empire and the terrified compromises of those kept in power by the oppressors.
I recently watched the PBS documentary, “The Murder of Emmett Till.” In that film, Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, describes the conversation she had with her barely-fourteen-year-old son before he boarded the Illinois Central train in Chicago to spend some time in the Mississippi Delta. She described how she told him when meeting a white person to step off the sidewalk, to keep his eyes down, and never to talk to or touch a white woman for any reason whatsoever.
Emmett apparently thought she was exaggerating the danger, and she agreed that she thought she was as well. But she hoped that through this heightened description, she might penetrate Emmett’s teenage bravado and natural good will. I know that Black parents across this country can identify with the need to have “the talk,” especially with their pre-teen and teenaged sons, hoping and praying that those sons will not become another story on the evening news after an interaction with local police.
I’m pretty sure that Mary knew what dangers lay ahead for a little Jewish boy in Galilee in the twenties of the first century. Judas of Galilee led a revolt against the increasing and crushing tax burden imposed by the Romans. At least some of the fighting during the revolt happened in the neighborhood of Nazareth. The surrounding hills were covered with the crosses of the revolutionaries as a clear advertisement of what happened when Galilean boys resisted the Empire.
Did Mary have the first-century equivalent of “the talk” with Jesus at some point in his young life? Did she give him instructions on how to deal with the Roman occupiers and their local collaborators? Did she remind him of the crosses and the rotting corpses on those hills while he was playing with his toys in Nazareth?
Did she worry that no matter how much she tried to explain things, she couldn’t protect him from that world?
Mamie Till described the last time she talked to her son as she put him on the train headed south. Emmett was exuberant over the possibilities and in a hurry to get on the train. He had forgotten to give his mother a goodbye kiss, and she called him back for one last embrace. She told him that she wasn’t about to put him on a train, possibly never to see him again, without that goodbye kiss. That conversation was far too prophetic.
Did Mary ever send Jesus over the hill with lunch for his father, wondering if she would him again? A chance encounter with a few Romans, a sideways glance, an ill-chosen word, and her son might have disappeared into the oblivion of oppression. Jesus was certainly capable of a sharp word to the grownups, as we shall note in the second chapter of Luke. What if that wise mouth had gotten him in trouble with a sharp sword and a Latin curse?
I don’t have to wonder if Mary knew about that.
And it didn’t take an advanced degree in political science to know that someone who was destined to challenge the powers was destined for trouble. If this child of hers was to bring the powerful down from their thrones, was to send the rich away empty, was to scatter the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, Mary knew there was going to be trouble.
Is it any wonder that after Jesus’ birth, Mary’s response was a thoughtful “pondering”?
“I wonder as I wander out under the sky,” the old spiritual says, “that Jesus my Savior did come for to die.” John Jacob Niles heard the song and captured it on paper for us to know and to love. We can come to terms with that sentiment knowing how the Jesus story turns out. But what about those other young people, those young black people among us, who seem to have “come for to die”?
Did Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, know that her son had come for to die? No, I don’t think so. Did Samaria Rice, Tamir Rice’s mother, know that her son had come for to die? No, I don’t think so. Did Larcenia Floyd, George Floyd’s mother, know that her son had come for to die? He cried out for his mother as he breathed his last, but I don’t think she knew.
Except that these mothers did know. They did know that it could happen. That it happens all the time. That the chances of their sons dying at the hands of white law enforcement are many times that of white sons. I never had to have “the talk” with my sons (well, not that talk, anyway). I never had to think about how likely it was that my sons had come for to die.
But Mary had to think about it. Mary, did you know that your little boy could die at the hands of Roman executioners after a trumped-up trial with the collaboration of the local power bosses? Of course, you did. That was the one thing Mary could know for sure in this whole story, and it didn’t take a prophetic vocation or the gift of the Spirit to figure it out.
It didn’t get better as Jesus grew into adulthood. We know how things worked out for his kinsman, John. Speaking truth to power is a good way to get yourself killed.
In the end, it’s not about what Mary knows or doesn’t know. The song of victory we know as the Magnificat isn’t about what Mary knows but rather is about who she trusts. Mary trusts in God, who is bringing about the promised end of a world where “the talk” is still necessary. She trusts in the God who brings down the powerful, rejects the reign of riches, and stills the hands of violence. She trusts that her baby will bring the inauguration of that new world, and she rejoices in the hope of that promised future.
We who follow Jesus are privileged to proclaim that same Advent of justice and hope. Yet, we still live in a world where “the talk” is necessary for Black and Native children in America, for Palestinian children in Israel, for Uighur children in China, for Muslim children in Europe (and North America). But “the talk” is only necessary because we who benefit from power, privilege, position, and property allow it to be so.
I don’t think Mary knew about the miracles and the majesty. And I don’t think that mattered. She trusted the One who was bringing the Good News. She depended on God for all she was and hoped and knew. She didn’t have to believe the What because she trusted the Who.
What Mary knows is that how things work in the “real word” will come to an end. What she trusts is that ending begins in Jesus. We Jesus followers today – do we?
References and Resources
Boesak, Allan A. “The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness: Miriam, liberation and prophetic witness against empire.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73.4 (2017).
Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.
Skinner, Matthew L., “Looking High and Low for Salvation in Luke” (2018). Faculty Publications. 306. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/306.
Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.
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