Mary, did you know?

The Anunciation -- Leonardo da Vinci

The Anunciation — Leonardo da Vinci

Work for the American Meteorological Society, and soon you’re using “meteorology” to refer to more than terrestrial weather. You come to see it as a big tent, extending to hydrology, oceanography, and climatology – and even weather in space.

Christmas has come early for (big tent) meteorologists this year. Like everyone else, meteorologists long to matter, to make the world a better place. We all hunger for our lives to hold meaning and significance.

It helps to see that importance acknowledged – to find decision makers and the public using meteorological science and services. And that’s precisely what’s been happening in the closing months of 2015, with regard to weather, water, and climate forecasts on all scales.

Start with life-threatening weather. Just two of many examples – some 22 hurricanes and typhoons reached category 4- and 5-levels this past season, breaking the previous record. Closer to home, Christmas week has seen a rare and dangerous December tornado outbreak across the southeastern United States. Such extremes used to develop without much advance notice, breaking into the news cycle after the fact. But not in 2015. Currently, even days ahead, those in threatened areas get the message and begin to pay attention to watches and warnings – and respond.

The same holds for larger-scale, more enduring features. For months now, forecasters have been issuing outlooks for strong El Nino development. Peoples from southeast Asia, the full extent of North and South America, and indeed worldwide have braced themselves for the associated departures from normal seasonal patterns in weather and the resulting impacts on human safety, food and water supplies, energy demands, and even the economy. As the event has unfolded, the American public from California (hoping for drought relief) to the eastern seaboard (looking for a white Christmas but finding daytime temperatures reaching into the seventies instead) have sustained a buzz about El Nino’s control of their local and regional weather.

Finally, the Paris Climate Change Accord shows nations worldwide to be cutting back on fossil fuel consumption and investing many billions of dollars more – in order to head off the impacts of warmer temperatures, changing patterns of precipitation extremes, sea-level rise on food, water, and energy supplies; on ecosystems; and on public health – even though these contingencies lie decades or centuries in the future.

Despite this progress, meteorologists aren’t feeling particularly smug. Instead they’re preoccupied with the job remaining. Three challenges block the way: more accurate weather, climate, and water forecasts per se; better understanding of the linkages connecting environment and impacts; and improved communication all around.

Speaking of communication, this is Christmas Day, and so it’s only natural to think about communication in another context: that moment 2000 years ago when the angel Gabriel delivered a hard-to-fathom forecast to the virgin Mary. The account comes from Luke Chapter 2:

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Examine the conversation closely. While it seems that the angel’s forecast was 100% true, it was a little vague with regard to the particulars[1]. But it would take two thousand years for this incongruity to catch the attention of the – famous social scientists? – no, song writers Mark Lowry (lyrics in 1984) and Buddy Greene (melody, 12 years later). They thought to ponder some of what had been omitted from the angel’s message. The happy result was Mary, Did You Know:

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.


Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?

When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.


Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?..

Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?..


The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.

The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb!


Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?

That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.


Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know? Mary, did you know?..

Mary, did you know?

Repetition and knowing the outcome have dulled our appreciation for Gabriel’s conversation with Mary. But look at it from the perspective of social science. Surely psychologists would agree that this would be a lot to take in, especially for a teenage girl of humble circumstances. Sociologists would stress the dreadful consequences to a woman for pregnancy out of wedlock in that culture and time (little different today). Risk-communication experts might stress that it wasn’t action-based, that it didn’t provide Mary with options. Somehow, though, both Gabriel and Mary found it adequate – and Mary was able to move on.

Why the emphasis here? It’s not just that it’s Christmas Day. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary reminds us that we too are operating on only the sketchiest understanding of our calling and the meaning of our lives. It’s not too much of a stretch to surmise that Mary wasn’t blessed with sudden, deep insight. More likely she progressively but only gradually became aware of the fuller import of what was unfolding. And that understanding was belated – comprehended through life’s rearview mirror. Similarly, much like Mary, our lives and our impacts on each other and on history going forward are far more significant than we ever imagine.

In closing, it goes without saying that Mark Lowry’s questions are much more meaningful when sung. For years, my favorite version of Mary, Did You Know? has been the Kathy Mattea rendition; but there’s a video by Pentatonix (over 50 million hits) that merits a view/listen.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Today and every day, may your soul feel its worth.  [2]


[1]Gabriel also omitted some of the particularly tough bits… such as Mary would witness her son’s crucifixion a third of a century later, before his resurrection three days later.

[2] You can find LOTRW Christmas posts from prior years here.

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