Last Monday, twenty-five members and friends of MCC went Christmas caroling. The tour, arranged by Hal Cutler, took us to different sites in Wayland, Framingham, and Sudbury and included private homes and assisted living facilities. There’s much to do on our caroling evenings and I sometimes feel the stress of corralling my children, rushing to the next location, dealing with the weather, cleaning the house…in the end, it’s always worth it to see the joy that music brings to folks.
When our group heads to places like Sunrise or St. Patrick’s Manor, we have a couple of friends in mind. Our plan is to sing for folks who are connected to Memorial Congregational Church in some way – as members or friends or friends of members. We usually begin singing on our way to see them. As we walk through the halls of these facilities we fill the halls with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Away in the Manger” and “Frosty the Snowman.” Along the way we see residents react to our songs with smiles, clapping, singing… and even tears.
Music can be so powerful. Familiar songs are often played in nursing facilities to bring some measure of comfort and joy to residents. In memory units and units with residents who are mostly non-verbal and even unresponsive, familiar music often has dramatic effect. Individuals who never say anything are often seen mouthing the words to songs from their youth; those who spend most of the day still and silent light up when they hear tunes and lyrics that they recognize.
Music can be so powerful. In Luke’s Gospel, we find four times when characters in the story seem to burst into song: upon seeing the infant Jesus in the temple, the elderly priest Simeon declares that he is now able to die because he has seen God’s promised savior; after the shepherds receive word of the birth of the Messiah, a band of angels appear praising God “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on Earth”; once Zachariah regained his voice and recognized the blessing of his son John who would grow to baptize others, Zachariah proclaimed the blessing of God and declared his son a prophet who would guide the people in the way of peace; and after Elizabeth’s leaping child and affirmation gave Mary courage and hope, the younger relative declares her praise for God and her happiness at being called by her Creator to make a difference.
Now, to be honest, there’s nothing in scripture that actually says these were songs. There is certainly a difference from the text surrounding them; the words are poetic and dramatic, they have rhythm and rhyme … but, apparently the original text didn’t include sheet music. So, we’ve taken these words and added music.
Mary’s song – often referred to as the Magnificat – has been given many different musical settings. Later on, we’ll sing one hymn version; last week the Senior Choir and Covenant joined together on The Canticle of the Turning using music that had an Irish feel to it (plus the rock and roll edge added by Covenant).
The stories of Mary’s pregnancy and the birth of her child are wonderful tales that lend themselves to poetry and song. In 1991, Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene penned a song called “Mary Did You Know,” originally recorded by Christian recording artist Michael English. Since then, it’s been recording by a variety of artists across multiple genres, perhaps most famously by the a capella group Pentatonix released in 2014. This haunting song wonders if Jesus’ mother knew who he would grow up to be.
I love the song. I fell in love with the Pentatonix version and my mind was blown by the question: did Mary know? Was she as surprised as the rest of us to find out about Jesus? It’s a beautiful, powerful song and it helped me think of her parenting in a whole new way.
Then I read the scripture again. Now, I have to be honest. There currently seems to be a lot of skepticism among many of my preacher colleagues, including myself. After remembering the words to the Magnificat and then hearing “Mary Did You Know,” many biblical snobs like me suddenly found ourselves upset at the modern song and dealing with our anger on our modern soapboxes of social media. Tweets and memes began showing up declaring what we knew to be the truth: of course Mary knew! She says it right in her song. After centuries of women’s stories and words being erased from scripture, here we are once again ignoring a woman’s word.
“For though I’m God’s humble servant, God has noticed me.”
Yes, but, Mary did you know?
“Now and forever, I will be considered blessed by all generations.”
Right, sure, but did you know?
“For the Mighty One has done great things for me; holy is God’s name!”
I mean, really know??
Hell hath no fury like a social justice oriented biblical snob. Maybe we’re a little touchy about some of this stuff.
Yes, Mary knew. At least some of what was going on. Mary knew that God’s world is a world of justice and equality. Mary knew that pride and corruption in power was an affront to God and that hoarding money and food while neighbors struggled and starved was a sin. Mary knew the stories and the words of the Hebrew prophets – her words echo the song that Hannah sings about her son, the prophet Samuel. And Mary knew that God was calling her to use her gifts to help change the world.
Mary’s song gives me hope. The Magnificat reminds me that we need to open our hearts to God’s calling in our lives to discover how God is calling us to use our gifts. Mary’s words amplify the generations of prophets who describe God levelling the playing field so that there is sharing by all and scarcity for none; and leaders who govern based on a love for the people not a desire to rule over them for personal gain.
But no matter how much of a biblical snob I want to be, none of Mary’s words are erased by the modern song. The questions raised in “Mary Did You Know” remind me of the potential of the Christ child that I sometimes forget at Christmas. It also helps me consider the potential held in all children – the youth here at MCC that learn and wonder about their place in God’s story through the Discovery Kingdom workshops, the joy that they share with us when they tell the nativity story in the children’s pageant, the energy they bring to the Christmas Eve “chaos” service. I look back on the generations that have grown up in this church and look at young people who have grown up here who are now serving humanity around the world as teachers and nurses and doing the work of God in so many different ways.
Music can be so powerful. Even when these two songs seem to contradict each other they still contain powerful truths about the kingdom that God intends for us and for our role as co-creators in God’s world.
Sing these songs of God, find the beauty, the comfort, and the challenges that these songs – and others – declare. Listen for God’s call to you in the Biblical poetry, the church hymns, and the Christmas carols even as they start to grate on your nerves.
Hear God’s voice, in old songs and new, listen as God sings of a love meant just for you; wonder about the great things God has done for you; explore your calling and the potential for God’s world to come.
May we continue to hear God’s song all around us. Amen.