We were 5 songs into pre-production for what is now IMMANUEL, a Christmas album, when my producer asked if I had written a song for Mary yet.
“Oh, right. Nope. I’m not writing a song for her. There really are wayyyyy too many ‘Mary songs’ out there. I’m leaving her out.”
You see, I had written a song for all the characters in the Christmas story, and the songs were written from their different perspectives: Isaiah the prophet, Gabriel, one of the shepherds, the angel chorus, Joseph, one of the wise men. I even wrote a song for the innkeeper who turns the holy family away.
But I intentionally didn’t write a song for Mary.
To say Ben, my producer, was quizzical is an understatement. “What the heck, Mel. You’re doing a Christmas album. It’s Christmas. Mary gets a song!”
We worked through a few initial ideas for Mary’s Song and then I was went back to New York City with the assignment - finish it. I was terrified.
Rewind to the summer of 2016. For two solid years I had grasped at health while my reproductive system slowly unraveled. See the story about the woman who reaches out to touch Jesus cloak. That could have been me, desperate for life again, reaching out for healing of some kind.
In my case, healing came in the form of aggressive abdominal surgery the summer before I started the Christmas album. I had hysterectomy and 13 abdominal tumours removed, leaving behind 5 one-inch incisions and one C-section scar as my battle wounds. Surgery was aggressive, curative, and final. And the price for restored health was losing the ability to have biological children.
What Ben didn’t know in the studio that day was that I felt totally unworthy to write a song from Mary’s perspective. The most natural text for Mary’s song came from the Magnificat, verses that are recorded in the book of Luke. The text is an actual song she sings with the famous phrase: He has done great things for me.
After all I had been through, how could I access Mary’s point of view and write a song about having a baby? Never mind that her pregnancy was a miracle, and the baby was Jesus. How could I even identify with her as a mother? But I knew Ben was right. I couldn’t make the Christmas album I wanted to without including her.
To finish Mary’s song I went to the woods for a week. I spent so much time thinking about her, this young girl with a warrior spirit, and a voice that would never get the attention of the establishment of her time. She had no position, no rights. Then suddenly an angel comes to her and tells her she’s going to play a part in freeing her nation.
I imagine that she often longed to be in an army, so she could fight on behalf of her oppressed people group. Maybe God heard her prayer, choosing her to help bringing salvation to Israel ... that's why she sings, He has done great things for me.
I mean, it’s all conjecture right? But I like to think she would never have wanted me to feel unworthy of singing her song. That was her battle cry, and it could be mine too. The lowly would be lifted up, and the hungry filled. There I was, feeling lowly and unworthy, when the very thing she sang about was God’s people walking in dignity, fullness and freedom.
Somehow, there was a breakthrough and I wrote her song. It’s one of my favorites on the album.
As I sent the finished demo to Ben, I was reminded of something my dad said during my recovery (I had to stay with my parents after surgery). Sometimes my dad would walk with me - slowly and painfully - around the block while my scars were healing.
He said, “Don’t forget. You don’t have to have children to pass on a legacy. You can pass on your likeness through every song you write, every person you meet, every conversation you have. You can leave songs to the next generation.” That’s what I intend to do.
Mary might be one of the most famous mothers in history. And at Christmas we certainly sing about her legacy as a mother.
But she has a legacy as woman of God, too, just like I hope I do. I like to think she’d be proud that I overcame my fears and wrote a song, making her words my own: “He has done great things for me.”
Melanie Penn is a worship leader and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn. She serves on staff with Tim Keller at Redeemer City to City and her third studio album, IMMANUEL, releases November 3. IMMANUEL is a concept album that tells the Christmas story.