(RNS) — For Mark Lowry, almost every day is Christmas.
Whenever the storyteller and singer takes the stage for a concert, he always closes the show with the same song — “Mary Did You Know?” — no matter what time of year it is.
“When you have one hit, you better end with it,” Lowry said in a recent phone interview.
Lowry co-wrote “Mary Did You Know?” with Buddy Greene, a well-respected songwriter and instrumentalist, in 1991, while both were on tour with famed gospel singers Bill and Gloria Gaither. Recorded first by Christian singer Michael English, the song has become a modern Christmas staple — covered by some of the biggest names in the business: Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd, Mary J. Blige, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood and the a cappella vocal group Pentatonix.
The idea for the song dates back to conversations the 63-year-old had with his mother about Jesus and Mary. Most revolved around the question: What was it like to raise the son of God?
“Literally, what was it like teaching the Word of God to talk,” he said, referring to a title used for Jesus in the Gospel of John. “What was it like to give him a haircut? Did she ever walk into his room and say, ‘clean this mess up’?”
He added that most of the questions he had did not make their way into the song — only the ones that rhymed made it.
Those conversations also touched on spiritual topics, like the mystery of the incarnation, said Lowry — the Christian belief that God became human in the person of Jesus. They eventually inspired a series of short monologues Lowry wrote in 1984 for a Christmas concert at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, then led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Those monologues were the glue that held the show together, serving as a transition from one Christmas song to another.
They stuck with Lowry, who thought they might work for a song if he could find the right music. Several musicians tried to come up with melodies, but none fit, said Lowry. Then, while on tour with the Gaithers, he showed the lyrics to Greene and asked him to have a go. Greene took them home and started working on some music. Lowry recalls that Greene, who could not be reached, had spent a day listening to Christmas carols written in minor keys, like “What Child is This?” and “We Three Kings” before composing the melody for “Mary Did You Know?”
“It was beautiful,” he said. “It was haunting, and it made the song work. It didn’t take away from the message — it elevated the message.”
While writing lyrics, Lowry said he imagined himself as an overly enthusiastic angel who showed up at the manger during the Christmas story and was filled with questions. He used the phrase, “Did you know” to express that enthusiasm — as if the angel was bubbling over with joy for what the birth of Jesus meant. The questions in the song are the questions Lowry would have asked if he had been there.