Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caroling the Gospel VII: Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

[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--both lyrics and music--hails from 16th century Germany (though a fifth verse was added later).  The 'rose' referenced has been connected to Mary (by the Catholics) and to Jesus (by the Protestants) since the song first appeared.  The slow pace and eerie harmonies make this a less common choice for carolers, though it's yielded some interesting professional arrangements.  Usually only the first two verses get any attention, but it's worth examining in its entirety.

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 floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

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 shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, 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.

Optional Fifth Verse
O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!
We don't see many roses in the Bible.  In fact, pretty much just one--the rose of Sharon in Song of Songs 2:1 (though it's possible that Isaiah 35:1 is referring to similar flower--both are related to the crocus).  And it's a bit of a stretch to see how that connects back to Christ.  After all, it's in a passage many modern bibles attribute to the Beloved, and while Song of Songs is treated as an allegory for Christ and the Church, Christ is the Lover--the Church is the Beloved.  However, Matthew Henry treated this verse as spoken by the Lover, that is, by Christ self-identifying as a 'rose of Sharon'.  He (Henry) reasons that the rose is the chief of flowers, for its beauty in fragrance.  So there is some (admittedly tenuous) biblical connection between the imagery of the rose and the person of Christ.  This was born out by the medieval habit of depicting the 'tree of Jesse' (which has clear connections to Christ, as discussed below) as a rose plant. There's also some evidence that, because the German word for 'rose' ('ros') and the word for 'branch' ('reis') were so similar, it may be that the original text referred to a branch. All of which to say, it's not the most obvious way to refer to Christ.

Fortunately, later lines make the connection clearer.  This rose would come from the lineage of Jesse, David's father--that is, from the line of David.  Prophecies about Messiah clearly referred to him as springing from the 'stump of Jesse' (Isaiah 11:1-5) and from the line of David (See Isaiah 16:5), and Paul explicitly ties these prophecies to Christ (Romans 15:12).  As, as a purely factual matter, Jesus was, in fact, in the line of David on both his mother's side and through his adoptive father (see Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38; Romans 1:3; II Timothy 2:8). No fewer than ten times the synoptic gospels record people addressing Jesus as the 'son of David' (see, e.g. Matthew 9:27, 15:22, 21:9; Mark 10:46-48; Luke 18:37-39), and the bible makes multiple references to the Messiah as the 'branch' of David. (See Jeremiah 23:5-6, 33:14-6; Zechariah 3:8, 6:12)  So here we have a much clearer reference to Christ, born one winter night.

Isaiah's prophecies about the Messiah are explicitly cited in the second verse, and we are further told that this unique birth showed God's love, and that the child born would be our Savior.  (See Luke 2:10-11; II Timothy 1:10; I John 4:9-10, 14)  Angels shared this good news with shepherds, who went to Bethlehem to see the child.  (See Luke 2:8-16)

The fourth verse delves a bit deeper into the significance of this event.  We are reminded of Christ's sweetness (see Song of Songs generally); the Psalms praise the sweetness of God's Word (Psalm 119: 103), that is Christ (John 1:14).  We are invited to enjoy his fragrance--his appeal to the Church, his Beloved (Song of Songs 1:2-3), echoed in Mary's anointing of his feet with perfume (John 12:3), itself a foreshadowing of the death of Christ and the perfume that would be used to embalm him (Matthew 26:12; John 19:38-40).  Then, too, it implicates Christ's role as a fragrant offering to God on our behalf (Ephesians 5:2), reminiscent of Noah's sacrifice to God after the flood (Genesis 8:20-21) and the Israelites' repeated sacrifices over the years.   

This lovely and precious sacrifice is full of splendor, and his splendor dispels darkness (see Psalm 18:28; Psalm 104:1; Isaiah 9:2; John 8:12, 12:46; Colossians 1:13-14).  He is 'true man yet very God'--another incisive description of Christ's nature as the God-Man.  He saves us from sin and death (John 3:16, 10:28-29; Romans 8:1-2; I Corinthians 15:54-57; Revelation 21:3-4), and lightens our loads (Matthew 11:28-30). 

This, then, is the true meaning of Christmas.

Linus has it half right.  Because the true meaning of Christmas is not just that Christ came, but that He came to die, to save His people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21) The true meaning of Christmas is the gospel.

To read the next entry in the series, 'Caroling the Gospel VIII: Good Christian Men, Rejoice', click here.

No comments: