Over the last few weeks leading up to Advent, I’ve seen this meme shared a handful of times on social media. It references a 1991 CCM Christmas song by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene titled, “Mary, Did You Know?” (click the link, listen to the song, bask in the schmaltz).
The song is written as a series of rhetorical questions directed at Mary:
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
The child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you.
The punchline of the meme (that most savvy readers of the Gospel of Luke already grasp) is that of course Mary knew all these things—they were announced to her by Gabriel at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel and reflected once again in Mary’s hymn of praise.
When I was working on my master’s thesis on the questions of Jesus in Luke, I spent some time parsing out the very first words spoken by Jesus in the Third Gospel. In Luke 2:41-51, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus travel to Jerusalem for Passover, and then depart for home once the festival is over. After traveling a full day outside the city, Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus isn’t with them, so they head back to Jerusalem and look for him for three more days before finding him in the Temple precincts, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions”:
And having seen him, [Mary and Joseph] were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I were anxiously searching for you!” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s [house]?”
According to Keith Reich in his book on rhetorical tropes in the Gospel of Luke, the point of confusion here is the word father. Mary apparently refers to Joseph as “your father,” while Jesus refers to God as “my Father,” a fact reflected in the NRSV’s translation of the first instance of the word in lowercase and the second instance capitalized. But in Greek, the question Jesus asks (ouk ēdeite, “Did you not know…?”) is in the relatively rare pluperfect tense, which suggests that Mary should have already known exactly where to find Jesus. The implied force of Jesus’s question is effectively, “Of course I must be in my Father’s house. Where else would I be?”
In fact, if it’s Jesus’s use of the term father that confuses Mary and Joseph, the reader only has to go back to Gabriel’s annunciation in Luke 1:32 (“He will be called Son of the Most High”) and 1:35 (“He will be called Son of God”) to know which Father Jesus is referring to.
In essence, the boy Jesus asks his mother, “Mary, did you know?” But despite Gabriel’s annunciation and Mary’s subsequent hymn in the previous chapter, the answer is actually negative: “They did not understand what he said to them” (2:50).
So what’s the deal? Why this apparent amnesia on Mary’s part? Either the author of Luke is horribly sloppy, not worrying about narrative consistency from one chapter to the next, or something else is going on. (Hint: I don’t believe for one second that Luke is a sloppy writer. Want proof? The very first question spoken by Jesus in Luke 2:49 is echoed again at the end of the gospel in the question posed by the two men in dazzling clothes outside Jesus’s empty tomb: “Why are you searching for the Living One among the dead?”).
What is really going on here?
I think Reich’s observation is right on the nose. The repetition of the word father referring to two different entities—a rhetorical trope known as epanados—re-emphasizes the definition of Jesus’s sonship as being of God and not of Joseph. For Luke, Jesus knows from the beginning that he is the “Son of the Most High,” as well as all the proper behaviors that accompany that designation (hanging around the Temple and asking questions of its teachers), even when Mary appears to forget.