December 11, 2006

“Where the Rose Bloomsâ€?
by Pastor George Van Alstine

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 Saviour,
When half spent was the night.

This haunting song in celebration of the deep mysteries hidden in the birth of the Baby Jesus was first published in 1600 in the German language. It captures something of the awe that must have been felt by the shepherds, the wise men, Mary and Joseph in the presence of the tiny Person who drove them to their knees.

Like the event itself, this song is pregnant with meaning. Think of the combination of Old Testament ideas that are packed together in two brief stanzas.

First, there is the prophecy by Isaiah that the Redeemer will come as “a shoot from the stump of Jesse, a branch growing out of his rootsâ€? (Isaiah 11:1). Jesse was the father of King David, so this was a promise that God would restore the throne of Israel that had been chopped down because of his people’s rebellion. The new King would come as Messiah, the Anointed One. It’s because of promises like this that the shepherds became so excited when the angel announced that the Savior had been born in Bethlehem, “the city of Davidâ€? (Luke 2:11).

Strangely, the song writer sees this shoot from the stump of Jesse as “a Rose e’er blooming.â€? A rose from the stump of a tree? This seems even more peculiar when we learn that the Hebrew word translated “roseâ€? in the key Old Testament passage really refers to a tulip or a narcissus, certainly to a bulb-produced flower, and not one normally associated with a tree.

The passage behind the “roseâ€? image is found in Song of Solomon 2:1:
“I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys.
As a lily among brambles,
so is my love among maidens.�

Sharon was a long valley next to the Mediterranean Sea, where the conditions were just right for an annual spring bloom of these beautiful “roses.â€?

The Song of Solomon is a poem about intimate love. In fact, it’s so romantic (even erotic in spots) that most Bible interpreters over more than two thousand years have believed it must have some other, more spiritual meaning. And so, Jewish rabbis before Jesus’ time saw it as an allegory of God’s love for his people Israel. It did not take long after Jesus left this earth for Christian scholars and preachers to follow suit, developing out of it elaborate worshipful meditations on Jesus’ love for his church.

Somehow, Jesus became identified as the “Rose of Sharonâ€? in Song of Solomon 2:1. This happened in spite of the fact that any casual reading seems to lead to the conclusion that verse 1 refers to the maiden and verse 2 to her bridegroom. Over time, the phrase “Rose of Sharonâ€? became attached to Jesus in popular Christian thought.

All this history went into the writing of these poetic lines in 1600. Out of the mix came a striking image—a rose blooming where you wouldn’t expect it, from the stump of an apparently dead tree. The poet adds some other incongruities. The blooming occurred in the “cold of winterâ€? and when “half spent was the night.â€? This beautiful flower was in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

And finally, the ultimate surprise—the fact that Jesus was born from “Mary, the Virgin Mother kind.â€? A Baby Savior from a Virgin Mother! As likely as a rose from a tree stump blooming on a dark winter’s night.

There’s one other little gem in the lyrics of this song: this Rose that isn’t a rose, and is in the wrong place at the wrong time is “e’er blooming.â€? “E’erâ€? is a contraction for “ever.â€? So this floral evidence of God’s love, grace and salvation is still blooming today, sending the aroma of God’s forgiveness to us.

There is a more modern song that was popular among Christians a generation ago. Written in 1922 by Ida Guirey, it begins with these words:
“Jesus, Rose of Sharon
Bloom within my heart . . . .�
Another unlikely place!