Today in church our Scripture lessons and sermon were about the journey to the Promised Land – both metaphorically and literally in terms of preparing ourselves for Heaven. As I was choosing hymns I was surprised and thrilled to find the song above in the United Methodist hymnal. It fit the scriptures and sermon perfectly.
Just two problems: (1) I suspected very few in the congregation knew it; and (2) how on earth does one explain what Mary’s weeping and Pharaoh’s army getting “drownded” has to do with going to heaven?
Here’s what I shared with the congregation. May it be a blessing.
O Mary Don’t You Weep is an old African-American spiritual that has to do with arriving in heaven. But that’s not immediately obvious from the text of the song. Let’s take a closer look at it.
The verses are meant to be sung by a song-leader or soloist, with the congregation singing the chorus (“O Mary don’t you weep, don’t mourn…”). And there are many verses (I know of about a dozen) that can be interchanged as the song leader chooses. We won’t be using a song-leader today — I’m not going to ask anyone to sing a solo! – so we will sing just the three verses in the hymnal.
So what does Mary weeping and Pharoah’s army getting “drownded” have to do with going to heaven? Hang onto that thought, I’ll come back to it. But first…
African-American spirituals often talk about crossing rivers. Here are some well-known examples:
Michael Row the Boat Ashore
“River Jordan is chilly and cold, chills the body but not the soul”
“River Jordan is deep and wide, milk and honey on the other side”
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
I look over Jordan, and what do I see? A band of angels comin’ after me.
Deep river, my home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into Campground.
The river represents death, and crossing the river and arriving safely on the far side represents arriving in the promised land — in heaven.
So in this song, the writer of the hymn is standing by Mary’s side. [I assumed it was Jesus’ mother Mary, but it may also be interpreted as Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning.] The song writer is telling her, “Don’t cry. Remember the Red Sea? Remember how God’s people ended up safe on the other side, and the river they crossed became the death of Pharaoh’s army, their enemies? Jesus is doing the same thing. Jesus is crossing the river of death right now to make a way for God’s people, and the enemy (which is death) is being destroyed. So Mary don’t you weep.”
So this hymn is about looking through life’s challenges to the joy in God’s saving power and the celebration of our arrival in heaven.