Christmas Eve

What Mary Knew

What Mary Knew

What a blessing it is to walk through the stories of the birth of Jesus this Christmas season! We revel in traditions and we add new songs and patterns that may become part of our traditions each year. One of the more recent additions is a song called Mary Did You Know? As a beloved choir director used to tell us, “In a contest between the text and the tune, the tune always wins.” Meaning that while there is emotional power in the text, especially if it is full of images, the tune reaches past our understanding and connects our emotions in a powerful way. The sweet, soulful music is a powerful aspect of the impact of this song.

But what about the words? The song asks whether Mary knew about specific events in Jesus’ life that are not part of the birth narratives. So, fair enough. We have no evidence that Mary knew that Jesus would walk on water, heal a blind man or calm a storm. This is readily understandable. No one expecting a baby knows all about what will happen during the child’s life. Similarly, no one who has ever said “yes” to God’s invitation knows all about the journey ahead. During this season of our 150th Anniversary, we can clearly see this in the young women (older than Mary likely was, but some not too much older) and more mature women who said “yes” to missionary service, at home or abroad, or to becoming a deaconess, or to leadership in all our predecessor organizations. They didn’t know all that they would face. In this way, we can identify with Mary, and the questions being raised by the song. Who would ever have thought that saying “yes” to one role would have led to so many others, or that some of our work together would have the breadth of impact that we now see? Who could have imagined all the challenges and setbacks that we would experience? So, no. In some ways, Mary didn’t know.

However, in what I would argue is the important way, Mary certainly did know. As the gospel of Luke records, she was told by none other than the angel Gabriel that her child would be called God’s son. That he would rule Jacob’s house forever. That he would be holy. She herself spoke about the mercy God was showing to everyone, about the overthrow of the haughty and powerful and the way the hungry would be filled. If you are like me, you may have been thinking more about Mary since Assembly and seeing her role in the fulfillment of God’s promises as something far beyond the gentle maid, meek and mild of so many contemporary nativity scenes and Christmas pageants. Mary must have been a force to be reckoned with. Facing Joseph, her family and her village with a story about her pregnancy that was unlikely at best. So yes, Mary knew a lot, and right in the biblical narrative, she tells us as much.

Today’s Context

In today’s context we can easily see something else in the text. She was a young woman, and even though we know something about the journeys of her people over the centuries, perhaps we should see her as an indigenous woman. She was living in a small country, oppressed by the iron hand of the widespread Roman Empire, which accommodated her religious expression in some ways and in others demanded a god-like level of reverence for Caesar. Who believed this young woman’s witness? Who credited her story? We assume that Joseph did not, since he was considering putting her away quietly until he had his own angelic visit (Matt 1:19-20), and even Elizabeth credited the leaping of the baby in her own womb with witnessing to the truth about Jesus. Perhaps we hear an echo of that first Easter morning, when Mary and the two other women told another story of encountering an angel. The text records, “their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they did not believe the women.” (Luke 24:11) I suspect that many of us have relatable experiences, in which the testimonies we have offered have not been believed.

To return to the song, I suspect that the depth of what Mary knew is obscured by the sweet tune to which it is set. We could use a much stronger tune and rhythm to reflect the truth that Mary did know—quite a lot—about what God was doing and willingly agreed to be part of God’s work. Sisters, we at leas, should believe Mary’s testimony about who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish. We should demonstrate our belief by our actions, by our own willingness to say “yes” to God’s call and participate in God’s own purposes. We also get the opportunity to respond to this God who is with us—Emmanuel; who came to interrupt the power of an empire that favored the rich, the powerful, and those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations; and who continues to call us to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).

I’m awed, all over again, by the grace of God in coming to Mary and granting her a prophetic understanding that God’s own mercy was about to be displayed. I’m convicted by the power of Mary’s witness and inspired to recommit myself to turning faith, hope and love into action. What about you? How is God calling you to live your faith boldly this season?

Christmas blessings to you and to all who are on this amazing journey.


Harriett Jane Olson is General Secretary and CEO of United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 12/21/2018 12:00:00 AM

Give Thanks. Give Now.


Advent 2018

December 2: First Sunday of Advent
December 9: Second Sunday of Advent
December 16: Third Sunday of Advent
December 23: Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 24: Christmas Eve
December 31: New Year's Eve


Many of this year’s Advent devotions were written by Native American women, reflecting United Methodist Women's principles of inclusion, multiculturalism and equity.


Contact the Spiritual Growth Office:

Alisha L. Gordon, M.Div.
Executive for Spiritual Growth

e-mail agordon@unitedmethodistwomen.org
phone 212-870-3905

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