I suppose, if we’re going do this right, I should tell you up front that as beautiful as this song of Christmas is, in fact “Lo, How a Rose” is filled with errors; or if not errors, at least a fair number of uncertainties. To begin with, biblically speaking the “rose” of this song is a reference to the “Rose of Sharon” from the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament; and while traditionally “the Rose of Sharon” is thought of as one name for the coming Christ (as is “the lily of the valley”), when you turn to the 2nd chapter of Song of Solomon it becomes very clear that the verses of scripture from which this comes is in fact a love song – a romantic love song (albeit a spiritual one!) – and what’s more, sung with the voice of a beautiful woman!
And then there’s the assertion that “Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, this rose I have in mind,” which is fine except that there is no mention anywhere in Isaiah of roses; and for the most part, when flowers are spoken of at all, it’s usually in the context of them perishing in the harsh sands of the desert, which is not exactly the image we have in mind! The connection to Isaiah, of course, is the passage from the 11th chapter, in which “a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots;” and while that’s a powerful image in and of itself, a twig growing out of a stump is not quite the same thing as a rose blooming!
That aside, my real problem with this hymn is the very idea of it: I mean, a rose blooming in the dead of winter? It just doesn’t seem likely; at least not in this climate! I’m no horticulturist but even I know what happens when plants get left out overnight in the frost; even the heartiest of flowers will succumb to the cold and darkness. So to say of this rose that “it came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter when half-gone was the night;” blooming even given the harshness of the world around it; well, that would be… miraculous!
But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it; the spiritual truth of these familiar words we sing every Christmas season, a beautiful message of hope in the midst of a dark and cold winter. For just as this flower, to quote words of the song that aren’t included in our hymnal, has “fragrance tender [that] with sweetness fills the air [and] dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere,” so this “Rose of Sharon,” who is the light that shines in the darkness and is the true beauty of Christmas – this one who was “true man, yet very God” – saves us from sin and death, and lightens every burden we bear.
This rose that blooms – the evidence of spring arising out of the dead winter, with life bursting forth from the most unlikely of places – is a sign of God’s love and of the sure and certain hope he gives to us and to the world; but ultimately, you see, it’s a sign that points to something even more remarkable in God’s plan: and that was the birth of a baby; a baby born in, of all places, a stable somewhere in the shadows of some small backwater village; a birth attended by only a precious few, and which would happen, relatively unnoticed, amid the darkness of a silent, holy night; save, of course, for the light of a star overhead and the angels’ glorious proclamation to shepherds, and indeed, the whole world that this baby was, in fact, “the Messiah, the Lord.”
An unlikely happening? Most certainly… not to mention a strange set of circumstances for a Savior to be born! But that’s the funny thing about God’s signs; very often greatest ones of all are those that seem to us to be the least likely!
Consider our reading this morning from Isaiah. We’re all familiar with the prophecy in this passage of a young woman bearing a son who shall be named Immanuel; but what we don’t often hear about in this passage is how Isaiah brought this prophecy to a weak and rather wicked king of Judah by the name of Ahaz. You see, at this particular point in its history Judah was surrounded by foreign armies and was quite literally facing its own destruction; and given all this Ahaz is worried, fearful and quite honestly, concerned for his own well-being, all of this despite the fact that Isaiah had already brought to him God’s assurance that his kingdom would prevail. But in fact Ahaz is so unconvinced of this that God actually invites and encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign as to the certainty of the promise: ask for anything, the Lord says, “Be extravagant. Ask for the moon!” (The Messsage)
To his credit, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, not wanting to put the Lord to the test; but to God’s credit, he offers up a sign anyway; that of “a young woman [who] shall bear a son,” and of a child who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” But even after this, Ahaz is skeptical; and we’re left with the sense that even with the incredible news of heaven and earth colliding, this king of Judah is far too wrapped up in worrying about what his enemies might be planning to even notice.
It seems short-sighted and more than a little self-serving, but friends, I have to say that I understand it. What we have here is a ruler wholly focused on worldly matters, fixated on his own struggles for power and of the very survival of his kingdom; here’s a man whose back is quite literally against the wall, and here comes Isaiah in the midst of all of this bringing the Lord’s word about… babies? Frankly, I can understand why Ahaz might be less than enthusiastic; because this wasn’t the kind of sign he’d ever have anticipated; moreover, it didn’t seem to be the kind of Messiah the people of Israel should be looking for. But this was the sign that God provided!
Truth be told, sometimes I wonder if Joseph thought the same thing at first. As the story is told in our reading this morning from Matthew, we already know that when Mary “was found to be with child” Joseph had resolved to “dismiss her quietly” so not to expose to public disgrace; but then, of course, the angel appeared to Joseph in his dream and all that changed. Still, you still have to wonder if Joseph was asking what all of this really meant; not just to him and Mary, but also to the whole world. Surely, his head must have been spinning to think of just how much was hinging on the two of them becoming parents to this tiny, helpless infant who was no less than God come to earth!
There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” (one of the better film depictions of the Christmas story, in my estimation), in which Mary and Joseph are talking to each other about the same things that all new parents talk about: what it’ll be like to have this baby, and how they’ll manage to do everything that needs to be done with a baby; to take care of it, and feed it and clothe it and change it and bathe it. And Joseph, at one point in this conversation, says, “I just wonder if I can teach him anything.” That’s perfect, and might I add, a very legitimate fear; especially considering that Joseph has suddenly been cast into this role of an adoptive father charged with raising up the very son of God! You have to wonder, even with all the prophecies and dreams and angels’ songs that had led him to this time, if Joseph didn’t wonder, why me? Why us? Why now?
Again, on the face of it, it all seems a pretty unlikely scenario, but therein lies the beauty and the purpose of God’s plan; that this child, this birth, this coming of this Messiah simply didn’t seem to make sense by the standards of the world. That the whole of Israel’s history; that all the prophecies foretold from days of old; that the sum total of human history should all hinge on a young girl saying yes, she’ll be the handmaiden of the Lord, and on a husband who would not walk the other way; and on the chance that the two of them would find themselves in a dark, damp stable in Bethlehem on one particular holy night that divinely chosen from the foundation of the world (!)…
…well, we may still not wholly understand why, but it was, if I might draw from the words of our hymn again, truly “to show God’s love aright, [that] she bore to men a Savior when half-gone was the night.”
It was a sign; what you and I would a miracle: a miracle of divine proportion planned and laid out for centuries before it actually unfolded in all its glory. That’s the thing we need to remember, you know, especially as we draw closer now to Christmas; that all those wonderful things that make the story what it is – the angels’ chorus; the shepherds out abiding in the fields; the shining of a star in at a unique place and at a preordained time; and the magi who traversed across the miles so to discover where that star would finally rest – none of it was happenstance. It was all part of God’s plan and purpose; the miracle workings of a miraculous God.
It seems like every year about this time we’re presented with some newspaper or magazine article, or maybe a documentary on television that seeks to get to the “real story” of Christmas; and inevitably this will include some “expert” whose role it is to challenge the biblical account of the nativity; to give some sort of scientific rationale for the star shining over Bethlehem, for instance, or to call into question the possibility of a “virgin birth.” But lest we think that this is something unique to our post-modern age, in truth this is nothing new: there have always been “King Ahazes” in the world, people who remain skeptical as to God and his promises, and who will do everything they can to analyze, disseminate and perhaps discredit any truth to the story; and again, truth be told, there are times that even we might count ourselves among the skeptical.
But friends, despite such intense scrutiny, the truth of our hope and our faith endures at Christmas and always; and our proof comes down to those incredible and world-bending signs that God has provided to show his love aright; in the assurance we’ve been given again and again throughout history and continuing throughout our very lives: that yes, in God all things are possible.
This needs to be our focus as we draw near to Christmas, as it should be always. As Walter Brueggemann has put it – quite beautifully, I think – the first thing we need to notice as we move in these last days to Christmas “is that the expectation of Jesus… is outside all of our normal categories. Our business is not to explain this text [in Matthew, or Luke, or Isaiah, or anywhere else]. Our business is to be dazzled at Christmastime that something is happening beyond all of our calculations. This is a baby and a wonder and a gift that is designed to move us beyond ourselves.”
Not a bad prayer for you and me today, beloved; that as God’s unlikely and miraculous signs of joy and love begin now to unfold, we may truly be dazzled by it all, and moved by the sheer divine determination of it. Indeed, in these next couple of weeks, let us pray that God might again richly bless us in showing “his love aright” by the birth of the child; in the multitude of the heavenly host singing his praises, as well as through the wonder of the shepherds as they fairly well run to see just what’s happened. And let us pray (and sing!) that as “earth receive(s) her King,” we might wholly receive him as well; and that in this our joy will be “to the world,” because we know in all certainty that “the Lord is come.”
So “let heaven and nature sing…”and us along with it!
And thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry