What Did Mary Know?
Let us not be ashamed to receive instruction from her who carried in her womb Christ the eternal “wisdom of God.” –John Calvin
Every year as we get close to Christmas, we begin to hear familiar carols, hymns, and songs. We also begin to hear familiar debates over Christmas music. Should we wait until after Thanksgiving, or is it ok to play Christmas songs whenever we want? What’s your favorite or least favorite song? Is “Mary, Did You Know?” rhetorical or a genuine question?
I understand the concerns some raise over “Mary, Did You Know?” Of course, Mary knew who Jesus was and why He came. But to be fair, it’s not entirely clear that she knew everything Jesus would do and what all of it would mean.
Attitudes about Mary range from adoration and veneration to indifference and disregard. Given Catholic teachings about Mary as “co-redemptrix,” “mediatrix,” and “queen of heaven,” Protestant and Reformed churches have been reasonably apprehensive of over-emphasizing Mary. However, where Catholics are encouraged to pray to Mary, some Protestants seem to view Mary as merely a human incubator. Others focus on Mary’s quiet submission and obedience. They commend her for her feminine virtues and encourage women to follow her example.
Without falling into either of these extremes, it’s worth considering what the Scriptures teach us about who Mary was and what we should learn from her. What did Mary know? Let’s look first at what the angel told her.
We’re introduced to Mary in Luke 1 when the angel Gabriel appears to her in Nazareth. Mary was a young Jewish virgin, betrothed to Joseph, a descendant of David. The angel greets her and tells her she is favored and that God is with her. He tells her that she is going to conceive and bear a son and name Him Jesus. He says that Jesus will be “the Son of the Most High,” that He will sit on David’s throne and reign forever and that His kingdom will never end.
Mary asks how she can have a child since she’s a virgin. The angel explains that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her and that Jesus would be “the Son of God.” He tells her that her barren cousin, Elizabeth, was expecting a child and that nothing is impossible with God. Mary responds, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
From this passage, we can see that Mary knew quite a bit about who her son would be. As a Jewish woman from the house of David, she would have understood that her son was the Messiah. The promised Savior who would rule on David’s throne. She knew she would conceive through unusual circumstances. Whether or not she understood the full implications, she also knew that Jesus would be “the Son of God” and “Son of the Most High.”
We learn more about what Mary knew from her response in Luke 1:46-55. Often called the “Magnificat” from her song’s first word in Latin, Mary begins by praising God. She calls God her Savior and praises Him for His mercy. She also demonstrates her knowledge of Scripture and Israel’s history. She refers to Psalm 103:17, which says, “But the lovingkindness of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children,” and to Psalm 107:9, “For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, And the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.”
Mary recounts God’s promises and great deeds. He has scattered the proud, brought down rulers, exalted the humble, and fed the hungry. She recalls His promises to Abraham and his descendants. God has had mercy on Israel and sent help. Mary’s song displays her faith in God and her understanding of God’s covenant promises.
In his commentary on Luke, Calvin explains:
By these words Mary shows, that the covenant which God had made with the fathers was of free grace; for she traces the salvation promised in it to the fountain of unmixed mercy. Hence too we infer, that she was well acquainted with the doctrine of Scripture. The expectation of the Messiah was at that time, indeed, very general, but few had their faith established on so pure a knowledge of Scripture.
Mary’s song is similar to Hannah, Deborah, and Miriam’s songs from the Old Testament (1 Sam. 2:1-10, Judges 5, Exod. 15:21), further demonstrating her familiarity with Scripture. All of these songs share themes of salvation and praise for God’s mighty deeds for His people. Hannah’s song, in particular, has many parallels to Mary’s. She, too, delights in God’s mercy and salvation represented in the birth of a son. Hannah rejoices in God’s salvation and looks forward to the coming judgment and defeat of God’s enemies when God “will give strength to His king” and “exalt … His anointed” (1 Sam. 2:10). These are promises which were fulfilled in Jesus.
The picture we have of Mary in Luke 1 is quite different from either extreme mentioned earlier. Mary directs all praise to God alone for His salvation. She takes no credit for herself, but neither does she shy away from speaking boldly and intelligently of God’s mighty and miraculous actions. Her response to the angel and in her song are examples for all believers to follow. We should all submit humbly to the Lord and proclaim His gospel joyfully. We should also commend Mary in the way Scripture does.
After the angel leaves, and Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, who greets her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42). Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord” and says the baby in her womb leapt for joy at the sound of her voice. Elizabeth ends by saying, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45).
As Mary says in her song, “all generations will count me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Elizabeth and John (in the womb) both recognized that Mary was blessed, and so should we. We can learn about Mary, and we can learn from her. Did Mary know that Jesus would walk on water and heal the blind? Maybe not, but she did know that the baby she carried was the fulfillment of God’s promises to save His people. She knew Jesus was the Messiah and rejoiced! As we remember Jesus’s incarnation and birth, let’s join with Mary in praising God for His salvation.
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel … For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.Isaiah 7:14, 9:6
Rachel Green Miller is the author of Beyond Authority and Submission. She is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a popular blogger at A Daughter of the Reformation.