Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caroling the Gospel II: The Holly and the Ivy

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

This lesser-known carol may have roots in pagan traditions--ivy and holly songs were symbolic of the competition between male (holly) and female (ivy)--but the version handed down to us today is rich with gospel imagery.

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.


The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.


The holly and the ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

Here, interspersed throughout the celebration of life--of evergreen plants (which live through the winter when other plants seem to wither and die) and new birth--we see a foreshadowing of death. 

We see the lily whiteness of Christ's purity (possibly symbolic of Mary's own sexual purity at the time of His birth).  It is no accident that white lilies are associated with the resurrection of Christ, and indeed, the angels attending His resurrection were clad in white.  (See Matthew 28:3)White is the color associated with his appearance in heaven.  (See Revelation 1:12-16).  And white is the color of Christ's clothes at the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-3), and white is the color of the righteousness God sees in us when we are clothed in the sacrifice of His son.  (See Psalm 51:7; Revelation 7:9-14)

We see the red of the blood Christ would shed "to do poor sinners good."  Despite our rebellion against God, Christ came willingly to give His blood to effect a reconciliation--to substitute His death for the death we had earned.  (See I John 2:2; Rom 3:25) In the words of another hymn writer, 'Jehovah bade His sword awake / O Christ, it woke ’gainst Thee! / Thy blood the flaming blade must slake / Thine heart its sheath must be / All for my sake, my peace to make / Now sleeps that sword for me.'

We see the thorns that pricked His bloody, sweat-crusted brow.  (Mark 15:17) It was not enough that He should die--we reviled and mocked Him.  (Mark 15:18-20) The King of the universe came to absorb the wrath of God on our behalf, and we sneered at him, jeered and derided Him. (See Matthew 27:41-42; Luke 23:10-11, 35-39) A painful thorny 'crown', meant to make foolish His claim of kingship, perfectly symbolized the mercy and justice that characterizes His rule. 'O Christ, what burdens bowed Thy head! / Our load was laid on Thee / Thou stoodest in the sinner’s stead / Didst bear all ill for me / A Victim led, Thy blood was shed / Now there’s no load for me.'

We see the gall he drank upon the cross, as He was separated from God the Father for the first--and only--time in history.  We, who had run from and rebelled against God from the first, were reconciled to God by this estrangement. (See Romans 5:9-11)  The perfect Trinity, united in perfect love and communion from beyond time, endured this bitter separation so that God might be glorified in the plan of salvation.  (See Isaiah 43:25; Ezekiel 36:22-23; Mark 15:34) Christ drank the bitter cup of God's wrath down to the last drops "to redeem us all". (See Isaiah 53:4-6; Galatians 3:13-14) 'Death and the curse were in our cup / O Christ, ’twas full for Thee / But Thou hast drained the last dark drop / ’Tis empty now for me / That bitter cup, love drank it up / Now blessing’s draught for me.

And we see that, in the fullness of time, He will be crowned Lord of All.  "And He shall reign forever and ever, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Hallelujah!" (See Revelation 11:15, 19:6, 19:16)

That is the message of Christmas. 

For the full text of the hymn 'O Christ, What Burdens Bowed Thy Head', click here.

To read the next entry in the series, 'Caroling the Gospel II: Joy to the World', click here.

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