Monday, January 05, 2004

More Than a Nursery Rhyme?

Last night, my buddy Stout came over and was chillin' for a while; he has that job with Brown and works really weird hours. We got on the subject of Christian rap music, so I played him my two favorites: DJ Maj, who compiles a whole bunch of artists' work together in a mixtape format; and KJ-52, who's been called the "Christian Eminem" (their style and phrasing is rather similar, but 52 has gotten so tired of the comparisons that he's now recorded a two-part appeal to the real Slim Shady to consider the effect he's having on young people).

Anyway, one of 52's songs featured a bunch of nursery rhymes, with the chorus coming straight outta "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Surely you all know the words:

Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.

And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day, which was against the rules.

It made the children laugh and play, to see a lamb in school.

And then it hit me, for the first time, listening to that rhyme in a Christian context: Mary=the Mother of Christ; the Lamb=Christ Himself, a.k.a. the Lamb of God.

It was especially interesting to consider, in those terms, the part about it being against the rules for the lamb to be at school. On the surface, it was a simple "no pets in school (except guide dogs)" rule, but dig below that, and it could be a thinly-veiled protest against the movement that limited school prayer. Was that possible?

So I had to know: When was this rhyme written? The school-prayer controversy reached its peak in the early 1960's; surely it was much older than that...

I did a little research on Google and found a site which traces the rhyme back to Sterling, Massachusetts in the 1830's. According to the locals, there was a real Mary and a real lamb, and the lamb really did follow her to school one day. (One of the locals who posted to the site also noted that "after the lamb died, she [Mary] knitted the wool into mittens and stockings." I think you see why that part didn't make the rhyme...)

Others have disputed this account, saying that it went all the way back to England "even before there was a Massachusetts." As legend has it, telling of Bible stories was forbidden at one time, so mothers made up nursery rhymes with the Bible stories hidden in them. At least one person posting to the site was thinking the same way I was last night:

Mary (the mother of Jesus) had a little Lamb (Jesus is the Lamb of God) whose fleece was white as snow (Jesus knew no sin, therefore being white as snow — according to the Bible) and everywhere that Mary went the Lamb was sure to go (Jesus is with us no matter where we go).

Yet even that person acknowledged that there could have been a real Mary and a real lamb that followed her to school one day.

So the jury's evidently still out on this one. What do you think--an innocent children's rhyme about an apparently true story, or a cleverly-hidden Bible story? (There is even a dispute over who truly authored the rhyme.) If nothing else, it's a really cool coincidence. Chime in with your thoughts in the comments section.

(Just think, this discussion got started over a rap song! Heh heh.)

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