I’ve always disliked that song “Mary Did You Know” (sorry if you love it!) It plays this time of year on repeat, and I switch the channel whenever I hear it. This is partly because it is pretty cheesy (see also: Christmas Shoes), but it is also because I feel that it is a rendering of a captivating and beautiful subject that is markedly inferior to another, less popular song.
When I was in tenth grade, I went to a high school in Virginia, one that had a nationally recognized chorus program. The elite women’s chorus was a group of 12 female juniors and seniors (3 on each part), who were all best friends. They traveled through the mid-Atlantic, performing shows and competitions, winning recognition far and wide. All of them were also required to perform in the larger, less elite mixed-sex chorus that I was in. I used to watch their intimate, familiar interactions with envy – the inside jokes about stuff that happened on their trips, the backrubs, braiding each others’ hair, crying about boys. I wanted to be in that group, for about a million reasons.
They sang Mary Speaks by Daniel Gawthrup in my tenth grade year. The group won awards for their rendering of this piece, and when I observed it in person, my focus was so great that I nearly blacked out. Shortly after I heard them perform, I was notified that I had been selected to sing in this chorus. There were 4 spots, and over 100 girls auditioned, so it was a big deal to get in. A few weeks after that, my dad got orders to California – we would be moving in the summertime. I told the choir director to release my spot in the elite choir to an alternate alto, and then I went out to the track and I wrapped my arms around myself and I walked, and walked, and walked.
At my new high school in California, I learned with no small amount of bitterness that there was no choir. Instead of singing, I joined the marching band and became involved in the theater program. I made very close friends very quickly in that school. We had inside jokes. We traded backrubs. We braided each others’ hair. I traveled to China with the band, and got to see Hong Kong in the last months before it switched from British rule to Chinese. The theater program won a state competition with our performance of Little Shop of Horrors, and we traveled south to LA to attend the awards ceremony and collect our prize. One life – the Virginia women’s choir – traded for another – the California band nerd/theater geek. Not better, not worse, just different. All good. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and all that.
Nevertheless, I hear “Mary Did You Know” and it makes me think of “Mary Speaks,” and I get a little wistful. I heard the popular song this morning, switched off my radio and looked up Mary Speaks on YouTube while sitting at a red light . . . stuck my iPhone in the cupholder and listened. I have always wanted to sing this song as part of a group (it wouldn’t work as a solo). Now that I am the mother of sons I know I never can, because it is impossible for me to hear without openly sobbing. I would never be able to get the words out in the perfect, glossy, straight toned shining discord that is its hallmark. Listen to it performed by a group called the Manitou Singers, and read the lyrics below. Does it not split you wide open? Christian or not, when you hear this song can you not occupy the beautiful sacrifice that is the center of the Christian story? The famous Bible verse goes “For God so loved the World that he gave his Only Begotten Son,” but I’ve always thought the greater sacrifice was from the human mother, the girl who didn’t pick the path of grief that she was called to walk.
O you who bear the pain of the whole earth, I bore you.
O you whose tears gave human tears their worth, I laughed with you.
You, who when your hem is touched, give power, I nourished you.
Who turn the day to night in this dark hour, light comes from you.
O you who hold the world in your embrace, I carried you.
Whose arms encircled the world with your grace, I once held you.
O you who laughed and ate and walked the shore, I played with you.
And I, who with all others, you died for.
Now I hold you, now I hold you, now I hold you.
May I be faithful in this final task, in this last hour I hold my child, my son;
His body close enfolded to my breast:
The holder held, the bearer borne.
Mourning to joy, darkness to morn.
Open, my arms; open, my arms; thy work is done.
“In mid-November 2014, he laid down his life for the Syrian people he came to know and love” reads the obituary of Abdul-Rahman Kassig, formerly known as Peter, the latest young American captive to be brutally murdered in the sand in front of video cameras. Although I never met him, his and my educational paths crossed at one point, and the teachers we had in common are mourning publicly on my social media accounts. His obituary was widely shared by them today, the day that I happened to look up a YouTube video of Mary Speaks and listen to it. Abdul-Rahman, who changed his name when he converted to Islam, is not Jesus, and I do not mean to imply that he was. He was not even Christian. His mother is not Mary – her name is Paula. But – O you who laughed and ate and walked the shore, I played with you / And I, who with all others, you died for. . .
I sent a small package today, to a little family in Charleston that is sitting vigil next to their little boy, just turned two, who sleeps the long days in a hospital crib while his body is ravaged by leukemia and the cruel, cruel ‘medicine’ that is chemotherapy. The gift of hope came in the form of a late-in-the-game bone marrow donor, a total stranger who had joined the Be The Match bone marrow registry. He got a phone call and then flew to Charleston to save a life. Now the little boy’s family is walking the slow, torturous path through the woods on the other side of a bone marrow transplant. The little boy suffers dangerous complications. His mother puts up Christmas decorations in his hospital room and holds desperately to the tight thread of her sanity, while the little boy’s twin brother wonders where he is, while the rest of us wait and pray and read her facebook updates while holding our breath. The little boy is not Jesus. His mother is not Mary, although that happens to be her name. This is not her song, not yet – his odds are good, he will make it to adulthood. We continue to hope. Open, my arms. Open, my arms.
Through this lovely song by Daniel Gawthrup, through the pain and sacrifice of the biblical Mary, I am Abdul-Rahman’s mother today. I am Lachlan’s mother. I am my own children’s mother. I exist today at the intersection of the Christian story, the melancholy season, connections made and maintained on the internet, the pain and beauty of being a mother of sons, and all of the incredible risk and courage that motherhood entails. Sharing my sadness with you was therapeutic. Your responses were so lovely – comments and emails of support and love. This second post may sound sad, but it is only melancholy and pensive, which is a step up from sadness toward hope. Mourning to joy, darkness to morn.
We put up the Christmas tree this week. I strung lights in almost every one of the rooms in my house. I continue to do the work to keep the dark at bay. I appreciate each one of you – points of light in the dark – and I endeavor to be a light for you as well. Merry Christmas. And pray for Lachlan, pray for Abdul-Rahman. Pray for their mothers (and their fathers, whose sacrifice and courage and pain is no less and no different). Pray for me. And pray for each other.