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Carols with Roses

I like Christmas music. Perhaps I should qualify that. I like Christmas carols. O.K., I’ll sing, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “When Santa Got Stuck up the Chimney” when I’m at a Christmas party: but I really enjoy listening to a good choir singing carols in a church; and, while I like “Silent Night” or “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” or any of the better-known carols, I particularly enjoy some of the lesser-known ones. I listened to two beautiful carols just the other night … “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” and “A Spotless Rose” … and wondered why the lyricists had used the symbolism of a rose to represent Jesus, for ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’ is usually translated into English as ‘Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.’ The English translation of the second verse of this carol is: “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 them a Saviour, / When half-spent was the night.”

And the words of the second verse of “A Spotless Rose” show very clearly that they are actually an alternative translation of the same lines by an unknown German poet: “The Rose which I am singing, / Whereof Isaiah said, / Is from its sweet root springing / In Mary, purest Maid; / Through God’s great love and might / The Blessed Babe she bare us / In a cold, cold winter’s night.” However, I still don’t understand why the original poet used the symbolism of a rose to represent Jesus; and, as best I can follow the threads, here is the reason for this.

Well before the coming of Christianity, roses were symbols of love and beauty. In mythology, the rose was sacred to a number of goddesses including Isis and Aphrodite, the Goddess of love. As happened with a with great many ancient beliefs, the early Christians grafted the use of the rose to symbolise love and beauty on to specifically Christian beliefs; and as the centuries unfolded, Christian poets and writers gradually developed the idea that the rose might be a uniquely Christian symbol. The first Christian use of the rose appears in scenes representing Paradise, where it shares certain virtues with lilies. The rose was particularly associated with shyness or having been specially selected, while the lily became specifically associated with purity. And both flowers were often associated with the female of our species … beauty, shyness and virtue being more often associated with women than with men.

The theme of the rose having a special Christian meaning was picked up by medieval artists, many of whom painted Mary holding a rose, studying a rose or in a rose garden; and the rose gradually came to be used as a symbol of the Virgin Mary. But the writer Gertrude Schiller pointed out that this theme of Mary contemplating a rose actually means that the rose symbolizes Christ; it is an allusion to the tree of Jesse, Mary being the Virga Jesse … the root of Jesse bearing Jesus. So, while we tend to think of the rose as being a symbol for love, beauty and womanhood, the reality is that the rose, which is considered by many people to be the most perfect flower, is a symbol of perfection and of having been specially selected, but is not specifically associated with these virtues in women. So the Spotless Rose of the carol is Jesus, not Mary; Mary is the tender root that this Rose is sprung from; and it was Jesus … from the line of Jesse … whose coming was foretold by Isaiah, and not Mary.

Well, there you have it; and whether you prefer, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” to “Frosty the Snowman” or “A Spotless Rose”, I hope you had a merry Christmas!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society