Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

Anon. German Hymn, c. 1500, trans. by T. Baker, H. Spaeth, and J. Mattes
Addressed to one another, then to Christ
Lo, how a rose e’er bloomingSong 2:1
   from tender stem hath sprung,Is. 11:1
of Jesse’s lineage coming,1 Sam. 16:1; 2 Sam. 7:12; Matt. 1:5
   as men of old have sung.Jer. 23:5; Rom. 1:1–3
It came a flow’ret bright,Is. 4:2
   amid the cold of winter,
when half-spent was the night.Is. 60:2; Luke 2:8; Rom. 13:12; Gal. 4:4
Isaiah ’twas foretold it,Is. 11:1
   the rose I have in mind;
with Mary we behold it,Luke 2:19
   the virgin mother kind.Is. 7:14; Matt. 1:23
To show God’s love aright1 John 4:9–10
   she bore to men a Savior,Luke 2:11
when half-spent was the night.
The shepherds heard the story,Luke 2:10
   proclaimed by angels bright,Luke 2:9
how Christ, the Lord of glory,James 2:1
   was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they spedLuke 2:15–16
   and in the manger found him,
as angel heralds said.
This flow’r, whose fragrance tender
   with sweetness fills the air,Ex. 29:18; 2 Cor. 2:15
dispels with glorious splendor
   the darkness ev’rywhere.John 1:5
True man, yet very God;John 1:14; Phil. 2:6; Gal. 4:4
   from sin and death he saves usMatt. 1:21; Rom. 8:2; 1 Cor. 15:56–57
and lightens ev’ry load.Matt. 11:30
O Savior, child of Mary,Matt. 1:16
   who felt our human woe;Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 4:1
O Savior, King of glory,Ps. 24:10
   who dost our weakness know,Heb. 2:14
bring us at length, we pray,John 14:2–3; 2 Tim. 4:18
   to the bright courts of heaven
and to the endless day.Rev. 21:25

At certain points in church history, Solomon’s image of the Rose of Sharon has been taken as an allegorical representation of Christ. Many of our readers, and all Reformed ones, will find themselves compelled to reject this interpretation of that image. Among them, however, there may be some who think the interpretation, like other medieval allegory, may make bad hermeneutics but good homiletics. When botanical scholarship discovered that the “rose” of Song of Songs was almost certainly a “crocus,” some Christians received the news as a delightful curiosity while others felt the wind had been knocked out of their chest. The second group knows that, whatever greater good has been gained in the discovery, it does not come without a loss. Whether biblical, historical, or not, the use of the rose as a metaphor for Christ is coherent, and in the hymn printed above it affords many biblical ideas to dwell richly in us that would otherwise have been unavailable, had we no comparison out of which to build the hymn.

The hymn’s first three stanzas are an accessible and poetic retelling of some of the details from Luke 2. The idea that Christ is a shoot from the stem of Jesse is a biblical image and can we blame the poet for imagining the plant as a rosebush rather than a crab-apple tree? While the poet was probably thinking of Isaiah 35 at the onset of stanza 2, the Stem-of-Jesse image is also from that same prophet. This ties the first and second stanzas together in their opening. As the stanzas end with the same phrase, they become—after the parallelism of Hebrew poetry—amplifications of one another. They make an idea-rhyme.

The repetition of “when half-spent was the night” draws our attention to the timing of Christ’s birth. He was literally born at night. (The shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night “went with haste” to see the Savior who was “born this day”—that is, after sundown, in the Jewish definition of “day.”) Tradition puts his birth in winter. More important, however, is what this figure represents. These were the darkest hours of postdiluvian history. The universal and accumulated experience of many ages had demonstrated the hopelessness of humanity apart from the gospel. The cultural accomplishments of Greece and Rome could do nothing to ameliorate the spiritual death that prevailed everywhere. Even in Israel, the one nation where the promises of the Messiah were generally known, things had never looked bleaker: God had not spoken through a new prophet for centuries; Jerusalem was occupied by pagan Rome and ruled by (of all people) an Idumean; and the blind pride and hypocrisy of Jewish religious leaders offered perhaps the most moving proof of all of the degeneracy of humanity. That the Son of God should come to shed his blood for us then would seem—if the “men of old” had not sung otherwise—as improbable as if a rose bush (let’s make it a red one) should bloom in the middle of one of the longest nights of the year, in the dead of winter. But it is precisely at midnight, and at the solstice, that the terrestrial journey to light and life begins. The sun always shines, even when away from human eyes, and this rose, we discover, is ever-blooming (first line of the poem) in the courts of endless day (last line of the poem).

The third stanza directly paraphrases the narrative of Luke’s gospel and therefore departs from the rose image. The fourth stanza then returns to the rose image, or rather, not the image but the fragrance that it evokes. To have Christ emit a sweet fragrance is also a thoroughly biblical image, for he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Anyone familiar with Hebrew animal sacrifice will know that of old God delighted in the smell of the burnt offering as much as the sight of it. The sickly scent of scorched wool mixes with the warm esters of crackling fat and succulent meat producing something that is repeatedly described by God throughout the Old Testament as “pleasing.” But now Christ himself produces the pleasing aroma in place of lambs and bulls. In a synaesthetic gesture, it is the smell of the rose that, with glorious splendor, dispels the darkness. Though the connection of this smell to Christ’s offering is not directly stated here, it is certainly indirectly implied. For the God-man saves us from sin and death and lightens our load only because he offered himself up as a sacrifice to replace our stench with a pleasing aroma in the nostrils of God.

Following Christ’s own rhetorical method—of allegory leading to direct statement—the hymn’s last stanza abandons the image altogether in order to address Christ directly. The stanza’s contents are coherent however because of the nature of the original image. The rose, though heavenly, grows from an earthly stem and is beheld by a virgin and shepherds here on earth. So the last stanza’s emphasis on Christ’s humanity follows on from the image, even though the image has been discarded.

The tune ES IST EIN’ ROS’ ENTSPRUNGEN was obviously written for the original German text which we sing in translation here. The opening and repeated high Cs give it an initially uncomfortable range. This is all for effect, however, for the first third of the tune (setting the first two lines of each stanza) is a gradual and stepwise descent, accented by a syncopated rhythm to make it trip (like the roe buck of Solomon’s song) from “sol” to “do”—an upper neighbor-note figure on “sol” (sol–la–sol) eventually finds its answer at the bottom of the descent in a lower neighbor-note figure on “do” (do–ti–do). All this is repeated, following the expectations of bar form. The tune’s final third (a setting of the last three lines of each stanza) begins with a descent, this time much faster, from A to C. The tune has now descended an entire octave. It then ends by presenting once again the descending scale from “sol” to “do.” In short, the tune explores ways in which an ever-descending melody can prepare us for, and find closure in, itself. The melody of lines 6–7 achieves the fulfillment only promised by the nearly identical melody in lines 1–2, because the steeper descent of the intervening passage at line 5 prompts us to construe the original descent, when it returns at the end, with a different semantic function. Such a study in the meaning of melodic descent fits the incarnation ideas of the text perfectly.