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!

Some of My Favorite Advent and Christmas Carols

This is a season of singing! Of course, the interesting question is, what is there to sing about but I will leave that to another blog. I thought I might share some of the Christmas music I love the most. This is in no particular order except what comes to mind.

1. O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This is properly an Advent song, that longs for the coming of “God with us” and the very music speaks of both longing and the great joy that Emmanuel has come.

2. What Child is This? The tune of “Greensleeves” is part of the wonder of this song, but only part. The other part is the words, the first part of which ask a question of wonder about this child and the second declare the greatness clothed in the garb of the babe.

3. Joy to the World! This Isaac Watts carol with music by Lowell Mason (and part from G. F. Handel) captures in music the tremendous thing that has occurred in the coming of the Christ. Here is verse 4:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

4. I must include Silent Night not only for the wonderful story of this carol’s composition but also the memories of singing this for most of my life at candlelight services.

5. Of the Father’s Love Begotten is a chant whose words date back to the 4th century and explore the wonder of the incarnation. More recently Caldwell & Ivory wove this song into their Hope for Resolution which Capriccio has had the chance to sing at our Christmas concert a couple years ago and several times since.

And some lesser know carols:

6. Thou Who Wast Rich was written by Frank Houghton to a French Carol melody. Here is the first verse:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.

There are “covers” of this song on YouTube by contemporary artists, not all which acknowledge the authorship and none of which are particularly satisfying. You can find the lyrics to the song and a midi file here.

7. Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming is a German carol (my ethnic heritage!) and likens the infant Christ to an ever blooming Rose drawing from the prophecy of Isaiah 11:1 that ‘a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse.”

8. Who Comes this Night is a contemporary carol written a few years ago by David Grusin, the jazz musician and performed by James Taylor on his Christmas album.  You can listen to a choral version of this here.

9. A few years ago Capriccio sang The Darkest Midnight in December written by Stephen Main.  Here is a recording I listened to many times as I practiced this music.

10. And just yesterday we sang another piece I’ve come to love, What Sweeter Music by John Leavitt. Here is a link from Stanton Music’s website (a great source of sheet music located right here in Columbus!).

What are some of the songs you most love to hear and sing at this time of the year?