What Mary knew

(RNS) — ’Tis the season for songs about expectant mothers and newborn kings — which is tough for those of us who have tried, unsuccessfully, to become parents. For me, the worst song of all is “Mary, Did You Know?,” which muses about what Mary might have known about her future son.

“Did you know,” the song asks, “that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?”

For three years, my husband, Andy, and I tried to become parents via in vitro fertilization. We transferred three embryos into our gestational carrier and all three times, we lost our pregnancy. Did God know in advance that we were going to have to deal with this sadness?

We certainly didn’t know. The day we found out we lost our third embryo, the three of us — my husband and I, along with our carrier — sat in a cold room staring blankly at an empty embryo sac on a monitor. It took a few moments, but one by one, we each came to know. 

Because of our recent experiences with grief, we’re sensitive when friends share their stories of loss with us. A few weeks ago, we visited a pregnant friend who told us she felt “off.” Two days later, she was no longer pregnant. “Mary, Did You Know?” came to mind because when my friend first told me her good news, I gave her a vintage Mary figurine. “She’ll watch over you two,” I assured her.

Mary, did you know then? I wondered. 

The trouble with the song is that although it’s framed as a question, it’s really sung as a triumphant answer. Yes, many Christians exclaim: Mary did know who her baby was because, according to the infancy narratives, an angel told her that she was going to become pregnant with the Son of God. 

I don’t like this reading because it turns a good question into a nonquestion, following the modern trend of ridding Christianity of mystery. In this reading, Mary knows everything that’s happening because God knows everything that’s happening. 

But what happens when something truly awful and unexpected happens? How does a God who knows everything in advance provide any comfort to my friend? To other parents who lose their pregnancies? To me and my husband? 

Since experiencing reproductive trauma, I’ve learned a lot about pregnancies and birthrates and statistics. It really is a numbers game. Women who become pregnant via IVF have around a 50% success rate per cycle. This is much higher than the success rate for women who become naturally pregnant, which is only around 20% in any given month.

Then there’s the maternal mortality rate. Even though it is quite low in the U.S., it was still 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2021. If a live birth occurs, parents aren’t completely out of the woods. In 2021, the infant mortality rate was more than 5 deaths per 1,000 live births. 

As tragic as each of these losses is, maternal and infant mortality rates were exponentially higher in the ancient world. According to Kirstine Henriksen Garroway‘s book “Growing Up in Ancient Israel,” “infant death in Ancient Israel was a reality for every family,” with some scholars estimating it “reached 50 percent in an infant’s first year.” 

Forget, then, asking Mary if she knew her son would one day walk on water. Let’s ask her, instead, if she knew her son would survive in her womb, if he would make it to his first birthday, if she would make it through labor. 

Some Christians might protest that these questions are absurd to ask. I disagree. I think there’s an important version of the story in which Mary doesn’t know, in which she has no clue what will happen if her son survives labor, because she is a young girl, and the world is a tricky place to figure out. 

I have a lot of respect for Mary. As his mother, she must have been the first to teach Jesus how to love God and love God’s world. Scripture says Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and that’s no doubt in no small part thanks to Mary’s child-rearing. 

Yet the Gospels sometimes portray the relationship of Jesus and Mary as less than peaceful. His miracle at Cana, when he turned six stone water jars into wine, was all thanks to his mother’s prodding. “Come on,” she challenged, “do something. And do it now.” What exactly she wanted him to do was unclear. 

Mary, when you told the wedding servants to do whatever your son said, did you actually know what he was going to do?

And what about when he got older and began traveling around ministering all over Galilee? Mary, did you anticipate how your relationship might change? When you were rocking him to sleep as a toddler, did you ever imagine you’d grow apart? That one day he’d tell his followers that the role of his mother could be replaced by anyone who agreed to do his father’s will? 

There are many unknowns in a mother’s life. “Call me when you get home,” our moms tell us, knowing they won’t be able to sleep until they know we’re safe and sound. All moms know what Mary knows: The world is a dangerous place and all of their children are playing a numbers game. All moms know what Mary knows: that we might, despite all their prayers for us, end up in desperate straits. Mary, did you know that Jesus would be executed on a Roman cross as a common criminal?

The night of Jesus’ birth was anything but silent — if he slept in heavenly peace, it’s likely he first exhausted himself from crying. There is nothing meek and mild about his birthplace, which was likely not, as scholars have long been telling us, a manger. Mary and Joseph would have been relieved that Jesus survived the birth, but they would have also been stressed about his chances of survival. 

Mary, did you know if your son would make it through his first night? 

For the past few years, I’ve been teaching theology at a Catholic university. I spend a lot of time with my students questioning the unchallenged beliefs we carry around with us. Beliefs like: Mary knew everything about Jesus from the moment she became pregnant. Beliefs like: God knew everything that would come of Jesus’ life before he was born. Beliefs like: It’s comforting to believe that God knows the future. 

I don’t in fact find this comforting. I don’t believe Mary knew everything about the baby she carried. I don’t even believe she was positive she’d carry him to term.

What I believe Mary knew is that God was with her — for better or for worse. She trusted not in God’s foreknowledge or his providence, but in his steadfast, loving commitment to be with her, come what may. And while this no doubt brought her some solace, it didn’t remove any of the risks associated with real life. Mary knew what Andy and I know, what our friend knows, what plenty of intended parents know: Things often go wrong with pregnancies. 

Ours is an uncertain world, an unpredictable world, a world full of did you knows? And we, like Mary, don’t know beforehand how any of them might turn out. 

(Brandon Ambrosino is a doctoral candidate in theology at Villanova University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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