Last week, Jen and I took the boys up to spend time with her parents outside of Philadelphia for Thanksgiving. One night, as we were driving back to the house, Jen asked the boys, “What’s your favorite holiday of the year?” With little hesitation, the boys responded “Christmas!” That should come as no surprise, as by that time, their Christmas lists were already compiled and their letters to Santa already written. Without question, they already have a vision of what Christmas morning will look like – and it won’t be the coffeecake at breakfast that excites them most.
After their joyful response, they turned the question around, “Mom, dad, what’s your favorite holiday?”
Of all the holidays of the year, of all the reasons we have to gather with family and friends around the table to feast, of all the opportunities to sleep in and turn off the email inbox, of all the opportunities to celebrate the good in life, which one is your favorite?
It took me a few minutes to really answer the question. I mean, I do really enjoy Thanksgiving. I enjoy spending time reflecting on all I have in my life for which to be grateful, and an entire weekend of good football. … I really enjoy Easter. The Easter celebration is a reminder that spring is arriving, which means warmer weather … which, let’s be honest, means more golf. It’s a great seasonal shifting point that offers us the reminder of God’s gift of new life. … There are other celebrations throughout the year that are exciting too. There are three-day weekends that provide a break from the normal routine.
Yet, of all the holidays of the year, this season – the Advent Season – the Christmas Season – this holiday is the one that comes with the fullest package. Perhaps due in part to the commercialization of the season for the benefit of the capitalist society that defines us, this season is the one that is the most robust. Christmas decorations began to show up in stores in early October – a full three months prior to Christmas Day. The lights of the season began showing up as soon as Halloween ended, almost two full months prior to Christmas. The ribbon was hung on the light poles of town two weeks ago, and the market square Christmas Tree was lit last week, a full month before Christmas Day.
But beyond the lights, more than the décor, and yes, even more than the shopping lists, perhaps what defines this season as the greatest is the music. From acapella originals, like “That’s Christmas to Me” by Pentatonix, to upbeat neoclassical new-age remakes by Mannheim Steamroller, to the secular seasonal hits like “Frosty the Snowman” and “White Christmas,” to the so-called oldies sung by Bing Crosby, to the real oldies, like Handel’s “Messiah,” this holiday season has the greatest collection of music dedicated to it.
This holiday season is, at least in my opinion, the greatest, if for no other reason than the music is simply the best. Artist Chris DeRubeis is credited with saying, “All art should inspire and evoke emotion. Art should be something you can actually feel.” Christmas music – that is, the art of writing Christmas songs – is built upon this principle. The reason Christmas music is so great is not that it’s just happy music that makes you smile. Christmas music evokes emotion; the music elicits deep feelings of emotion, because the message of the music is so powerful – the message of the season is so powerful.
This year, our focus of the Advent and Christmas season will be to look more closely at some of the best seasonal songs. We will look at the lyrics and see how they remind us of God’s gift in Christ, and how they call us to prepare for and celebrate Christ’s birth. We’ll be studying a few hymns in the weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas, and then on the Sunday of Christmas – December 29 – we’ll have a Christmas Music hymn sing in worship.
This morning, our hymn of focus is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” As a quick history of the song: the lyrics of the first two verses were first penned in the late 16th Century by an unknown author in German with the title, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.” The melody was written in 1609 by Michael Praetorious. To this day, we still sing the same melody that was first given the lyrics over 400 years ago. The song was translated into English in 1894 by Theodore Baker. Verse 3 in our Hymnal, which was written by Harriet Reynolds Spaeth, was added in 1940.
The song pulls pretty directly from Isaiah’s prophecy; verses 1 and 2 make this connection pretty clear. Verse 1 sings, “Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as those of old have sung,” and verse 2 opens, “Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind.” There’s little question the song is signing of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the shoot to come in the lineage of Jesse’s family tree. To fully understand the emotion of the song, we ought to sing the hymn in the full memory of Isaiah’s prophecy.
This text in Isaiah 11 was written at a time of great concern for the people to whom Isaiah spoke. The text is written around the time of the Syrian-Ephraimitic war in 733 BC. The Jews had previously been divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had teamed up with the Aramaeans of Damascus, and had invited the Southern Kingdom of Judah to join them in a rebellion against the Assyrians, who were the clear powerhouse of the near-east world at the time. The Southern Kingdom refused. In response, King Pekah, of the Northern Kingdom, began to invade Jerusalem, which was located in the Southern Kingdom. To protect himself and his kingdom, King Ahaz of the Southern Kingdom asked the Assyrians to intervene.
The Assyrians did intervene; their response was devastating. The assault of the Assyrians led to the eventual demise of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In response to their help, King Ahaz had to pay tribute to the Assyrian King, and idols were built to the Assyrian gods in the land of Judah.
This is the time in which Isaiah is writing. The Northern Kingdom of Israel has been demolished. The Southern Kingdom, though still standing, has been greatly weakened due to the war, and they are left with no choice but to pay homage to the gods of their Assyrians, who now hold even greater power over the region.
The family tree of the Israelites has been chopped down and left in shambles. With the Assyrian King lording over the only remaining population of Jews, you can imagine that the historic Davidic lineage is now in waste. The royal tree is finished.
“[Isaiah’s] prophecy begins with a scene of horrible desolation, perhaps a battlefield. Isaiah’s Israel has no buildings left standing. Her enemies have stripped her fields bare.”[i] There is nothing but the stump of a tree remaining – a reminder of what was, but what will no longer be – a visual of what could have been, but is no more.
It is into this devastation that Isaiah writes, “A shoot shall come out from the root of Jesse.”
Jesse was David’s father – King David’s father. The King who is loved by the people as being the most faithful to God. Isaiah begins by promising that the Davidic line is not yet done. “Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as those of old have sung!”
But the promised shoot of Jesse’s family tree will be different than the others. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, and he will be filled with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear – he will not give in to rumor and deception. The promised one to come will rule with righteousness and faithfulness.
“God directs Isaiah’s eyes to a tiny, green branch growing out of a lifeless rotting stump. God gives the prophet a vision of great life and hope.”[ii] In the midst of devastation, the prophet promises that God will bring new life from what appears to be certain death; a new hope from what seems like certain devastation. The prophet invites the people to see this new and unexpected growth, “giving a trampled people gazing on a trampled land the power to imagine a different polity and a transformed world.”[iii] The opening of this promise in verses 1-5, “paint[s] a powerful portrait of one to come in the line of David who is empowered by God’s spirit, equipped with the qualities of covenant commitment, and directed to the welfare of the most defenseless and marginal.”[iv]
Verses 6-10 then describe the result of this new growth of Jesse’s tree. Because of this new growth – this new branch of life from the seemingly lifeless rootstock – the wolf and the lamb shall lie together, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion. The cow and the bear shall grace, their young will lie down together. The image being painted by the prophet is one of peace that passes all understanding. Yet, the portrait is not one of simplicity and cuteness. In apocalyptic writings (prophecies of the world to come), the images are not simply idealistic Animal Planet visions – they are metaphorical promises of the reality for all of creation. “The text has its eye on the deadly aggression and fears that sicken the world, the ending of which can be envisioned only in a far-future tense.”[v] This isn’t just some hallmark card visual, “it’s the future that God repeatedly says he has planned for creation.”[vi]
On that day – at that time when this future vision becomes a reality, “the root of Jesse shall stand a signal to the people; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” That off-shoot, that new branch, that unexpected growth – the one who rules with righteousness and faithfulness – that one will be there, and we will all stand in awe and wonder in his presence.
The words of the hymn seek to paint this vision. To do so, the words pick up on the shoot of Jesse’s tree, portraying the branch to be a rose. “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as those of old have sung.”
Admittedly, I do not have the most green of thumbs, but I do know that roses are very finicky flowers. Roses can’t grow in just any soil, nor in every climate. I’ve learned that even being here at Washington Street. We have a dedicated team of gardeners, who, over many years, have sought to keep some rose bushes alive out in the front of the church. However, our soil had some problems that caused the roses to die. We tried everything we could, even seeking guidance from local flower experts, to save the roses. But any soil won’t do – any climate won’t do. Roses are a bit bougie like that – they need special attention, and more than just a little TLC to thrive.
So I find the author’s choice of flowers in the song interesting. One would not expect the offshoot of the stump to be a rose, because roses don’t have that kind of resiliency.
And yet, the hymn sings, “It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night.” The rose came in the cold of winter – an impossible feat. It came as an offshoot of a stump – an impossible new growth. What beautiful imagery.
The one to come, the one blessed by the spirit with righteousness and faithfulness, comes not because the soil is ripe for growth. The offshoot that is promised, the most unlikely of new beginnings, is birthed not from that which is expected, but in the most unexpected of places. “Isaiah ‘twas fortold it, the Rose I had in mind; with Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind. To show God’s love aright, she bore to use a savior, when half spent was the night.” The lineage, the offshoot, the new life – the Rose – will come not from any of the expected places, or in expected forms, but in the most impossible of places – born of a virgin, a betrothed, yet unmarried young girl, in an unexpected place.
For this new beginning to happen – for this offshoot to grow – God will not wait for the soil to be prepped, but instead, God will offer new life in the midst of the impurities and impossibilities. In the midst of the darkness – in the midst of the night, the darkest of times – God will provide for a new hope, a new future, and new life for all of creation.
The final verse, added on almost 350 years after the original hymn was penned, looks at this Rose – the unexpected promise of new life in the most desolate of places – and asks for this new growth to not just be a theoretical and future promise, but to be present in the here and now. “O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere. True man yet very God, from sin and death save us now, and share our every load.” The Rose is not grown simply for a future of God-created peace, but that in the here and now, we might be have the hope of the promise of this new life, made possible by God in the most devoid of spaces. It is, but is not just a promise of a future of eternal peace among creation, the prophecy, and the hymn that sings of the promise, is an invitation to know that the Rose – the Flower – the offshoot of Jesse’s tree is offered for us to receive new life in the here and now in the hope of peace among creation.
So as we sing, “Lo, how a Rose e’er Blooming,” may we be reminded that no matter how dark a world we live in now – no matter how devastated we may be due to the power of kings – no matter how broken we may be as a people – that there is a King to come – a Rose that is born an offshoot of God’s righteousness, that by God’s grace finds a way to claim love and peace, truth and justice, in the midst of those spaces where love, peace, truth, and justice are most devoid.
This is the best holiday season because the songs that we sing promise us something more than any artist may author. The emotion is built upon an eternal truth. The words remind us of the possibilities of God in the impossibilities of humanity. The words remind us that in the midst of the darkest night, God’s love is birthed to reign over all creation. A greater world is to come, thanks be to God.