The Rose of Christmas

The Rose

Photo by Robert C. Trube, Own work

On Christmas eve morning, a small ensemble of which I’m part sang the beautiful old German carol, “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming,” the English translation of the German Est ist ein Ros entsprungen. It is one of the most beautiful of Christmas carols, set to harmony by Michael Praetorius, a German court composer. It is not difficult music to sing, and yet Praetorius’s chordal harmonies make it joyfully satisfying to singer and listener alike.

It is the words, however, that I am thinking about, translated by Theodore Baker (verses 1 and 2) and Harriet Krauth Spaeth (verse 3). The image of the rose is not one I often associate either with Christmas, or with the Christ child. Here are the words with a few reflections:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Where does the image in the first two lines come from? Isaiah 11:1 speaks of “A shoot come up from the stump of Jesse.” I have usually thought of the stump as a tree stump, and perhaps this what was in mind. But if you have ever ordered roses in the mail, it comes as a “stump” with roots. When you plant it it appears dead, as did the kingly line of David, Jesse’s son. For centuries, Israel endured exile and foreign rule. Was this stump dead? The carol speaks of a stem and a “Flowret bright.” In the cold winter of Israel’s life under Roman rule, this baby, a stem, a rose from Jesse is born, a flowret bright!

Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The carol writer confirms that Isaiah is his inspiration. Some have suggested that the rose was in fact the virgin Mary, and there is some discussion that this may have been the carol’s original intent. But these words have the virgin, who is indeed blessed as well as kind, beholding the Rose. The image is that of a mother gazing upon a child who is not only the object of her love but the demonstration of God’s love to a humanity living in the half-spent night. She bears this child into life who will be her Savior, the one who gives her life.

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

The carol writer reflects on how the scent of this rose dispels all that is fetid, all that is of death with “fragrance tender” and “sweetness” that fills the air. But there is more. Have you seen flowers that almost seem to have a light, or luminosity of their own? This rose is like that, replacing darkness with glorious splendor. We also see how he saves us. As true man, he could stand in our place, bear the load of our sin. As very God he could do what we could not and effect our salvation.

Christmas Day 2017 comes amid the winter of international danger, political strife, seeming intractable problems of gun violence and slavery to addictive drugs. The times can seem dark, and one wonders whether the work of God in the world is no more than a dead, lifeless stump. The Rose, the shoot of Jesse, the one who brings fragrance and light reminds us that the long awaited King has come, that the one who is life has broken into the culture of death, and has already delivered his people from the power of sin and death. This Rose will not wilt, or fade but is the Rose ever (e’er) blooming. Jesus is born!

Merry Christmas!

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