The Merry Limits of Knowledge

Editor’s Note: Every year, Bryce chooses a song to explore what the Christmas season can and should mean to us this year. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from all of us at Team BVV!

Each Christmas season, several things are assured: A minimum of one present will not arrive on time, a Christmas feast will be had, and Mark Lowry’s Mary, Did You Know? will be scrutinized on every corner of the internet. The argument against the Christmas classic can be summarized as this: Of course Mary knew! She was told in Luke 1 that she would be with child despite her virginity, that that child would be called Jesus, that he would be in the lineage of David, and that he would be God’s son, appointed to oversee the world. Of course Mary knew.

Thirty some years and twenty-one chapters later, a man sits at a table with his best friends. It should be a feast but there’s a clear tension in the air. The leader of the pack is being hunted in backrooms by the government. The man’s name is Peter and he suckles on the tautness in the air like oxygen. No matter what happens, he will be with his friend, his brother, even if it means his own death. The hunted man, Jesus, looks into his eyes and tells him no, he will do no such thing. It isn’t a noble decree, some Hollywood script to manipulate your heartstrings into silent contemplations on ethical sacrifice and the limits of brotherhood; it is a prophesy: Peter will not just refuse to die for his friend, he will deny to know him not once, not twice, but thrice. The spoken word becomes flesh. Peter denies knowing the friend he swore he could die for.

Knowledge is insufficient.

One chapter after an angel visits her, giving her the guidebook to being the Son of God’s mother, Mary walks a day into the desert before realizing Jesus is not with her – the original Home Alone moment. She is angry when she finds him like any mother would be. Our anger is often repurposed grief, recycled fear. He responds to her worried question of where were you with where did you think I was? I’ve been in my Father’s house. Pay attention to verse fifty – they did not understand what he meant by that. Mary knew that Jesus was the Son of God but, twelve years later, lacked the understanding of what that would mean, how consequential his existence would be. Twenty-one years later, she would watch her boy suck in his last breath nailed to a wooden slab, blood dripping down his naked chest as every citizen gathered around cheering his demise, cursing his existence.

Knowledge is insufficient.


I don’t think we have to look far in our own lives to feel how deeply insufficient knowledge is. The best parallel is of course to those who are parents. You have nine-ish months of knowledge. Nine-ish months of tangible evidence of a growing human being expanding your flesh or the flesh of your partner. How did that knowledge compare to the first moment their skin touched yours? How did that experience compare to every parent before you who told you that nothing in your life would rival the love you felt in that moment? Did knowing prepare you? Did knowing enlighten you? Or did the knowledge come up woefully short of what it felt like in your own flesh and bone in that moment?

I’m not a parent so I conceptually get the above paragraph, but I need a better moment to sink my teeth into. I’m picturing Diego from the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy (use whoever you wish) time-traveling to me in January 2020 and saying “Hey, man, there’s gonna be a huge global pandemic over the next couple of years and it’s going to really impact your life.” Even with that foretelling, I’m not sure I would understand.

I don’t think I would understand what those first few months of fear would look and feel like, when I slipped on gloves and a mask and stood outside my grandmother’s garage with her trying to fix her phone so she could stay in contact with us, knowing I was putting her at risk by not being there and letting her lifeline to the outside world not work, and also by being there. That I could literally kill her by standing next to her. No amount of knowledge could prepare me for what that would feel like.

Knowledge is insufficient.

The beauty of the coming Christ is that he comes not as a sibling to Caesar Augustus, poised from privilege to overthrow, but as a baby born to starving parents lying in a filthy, feces-stained manger. Then, he comes as an infant fleeing with his parents to a different country as politically exiled immigrants. Then, he comes as a prophet who spends more time with whores than pastors and finally the savior of the world comes as a criminal sentenced to death row for inhabiting his own flesh and saying his own name. To know that is a great first step but it is not enough.

We, like those in the internet echo chambers debating the extent of Mary and the angel, can convince ourselves that hearing a fact is the same thing as embodying knowledge. That to know something excuses us from the experience of living it. This Christmas, as we head into a third year of the pandemic, grapple with climate change, stare the injustices of Christian Nationalism in the face, it is not enough to read the Christmas story, to hum the hymns with our arms raised, to pass the cup and light the candle. The knowledge of the angels and the virgin and the crucified can live among us all they want but until we embody the knowledge, seek for the mourners among the cheerers on Calvary, flip the tables in our temples, seek out the meek and the powerless, the knowledge of Christmas is insufficient.

Emmanuel has come and hallelujah for that. But now that I know that, what’s next? And what mysteries of God might I be ignoring by writing the living God off as someone I already know?

Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page). Like him on Facebook or follow him on Goodreads.

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