Mary had a Baby

Weekly Reflection, Sunday, December 29, 2019

By: Eleanor Wellford

Mary had a baby (O Lord), Mary had a baby (O My Lord), Mary had a baby (O Lord) The people keep coming but the train has gone. (Bruce Cockburn)

These are words of a classic spiritual. Historian John Lovell, Jr. states that “the genius of those who created over 6,000 existing African American spirituals was their ability to weave together complex ideas and make them appear simple.”

The questions and responses in this spiritual are certainly simple. Mary had a baby as the focal point is followed by the practicalities of: Where did she lay him? She laid him in a manger. What did she name him? She named him King Jesus. Who came to see him? Shepherds came to see him.

The simple statement of the event masks the complexity of how the baby was conceived, of Joseph’s shame over Mary’s pregnancy, and of the danger surrounding Jesus’ birth in a barn and later by Herod’s threat to exterminate newborn baby boys causing Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt.

The most complex issue of all has to be how this baby represented any hope among an impoverished and oppressed people during the 1800s. But it did. It can be heard in each refrain of “O My Lord” which represented a deep spiritual understanding of God with them in the midst of challenge and misery. It’s a response of gratitude, reverence, and awe not only for the miracle of birth and for the eventual freedom for all people that this birth represented.

And what about that train that’s mentioned so many times in the spiritual. What did that represent? During the 1800s, trains were emerging as a new method of transportation. For many people, trains represented a new way of connecting to people and places. For African Americans, they represented an eventual way out – to freedom. The train may have gone as the spiritual says, but what’s understood is that because of the nature of trains, there’ll be another one comin’.

Mary had a baby. The simplicity of the event was that it was like any other birth in changing the lives of Mary and Joseph. The complexity of it was that it was like no other birth in changing the lives of us all.