One of my favorite Advent carols is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” a beautiful German hymn which, as you might guess, is not actually about horticulture. Rather, through poetic language, it opens the imagination to one of the most beautiful metaphors of the season: the Christmas Rose.
There is a long history in Catholicism of associating roses with the Virgin Mary and with Jesus himself. In Dante’s “Paradiso,” Mary is the “Rose in which the word of God became flesh.” John Henry Newman called Mary “the most beautiful flower ever seen in the spiritual world.” In litanies and hymns, “Rosa Mystica” (mystical rose) is one of the titles applied to Mary.
The word rosary itself means a garland of roses. The beads which comprise this preeminent form of Marian prayer are like a strand of flowers — a garden of prayers for Our Lady.
Art and architecture also reflect this floral imagery. There are a number of Renaissance-era paintings titled “Madonna della Rosa” (Virgin of the Rose), depicting Mary not in her usual blue but rather in a striking crimson color. Gothic-style churches often include a Marian “rose window” – a circular stained glass window with petal-like panels emanating from a central point.
On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, celebrated during Advent each year on Dec. 12, we recall that the Blessed Mother sent Juan Diego to his bishop with a sign: miraculous rose blooms on a rocky cliff in the dead of winter. To the amazement of all present, when these roses dropped out of Juan Diego’s cloak, they left an image of the Blessed Virgin imprinted in the fabric.
A rose blooming in December is a contradiction. It’s far too cold and the soil too hard to cultivate such a delicate flower. This defies our understanding of the natural world, much like the Incarnation of Jesus, born of a virgin. The spiritual Jesus cannot blossom without being rooted in the physical world — the mother’s womb and the humble manger at Bethlehem. This flower is both of this world and outside of it, both human and divine. It is a Rose “e’er blooming” — timeless yet part of history.
We should not get caught up, however, in the sweetness of this image of the Christmas rose and the snuggly baby Jesus. The rose cannot be without its surrounding thorns. In the midst of this joyful season, the rose’s thorns foreshadow the crown of thorns placed upon the head of the crucified Jesus. Like a bramble of vines, the mystery of the Incarnation is inexorably intertwined with Christ’s death and Resurrection. We cannot have one without the other.
On the Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete or “Rejoice” Sunday, rose-colored vestments may be worn in place of violet. Here in the form of a color, the rose again appears as a sign of joy because our Savior is nearly here.
This week, let us meditate on the image of the Christmas Rose as a way of deepening our understanding of this holy mystery of the Incarnation.