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The rose was a pre-Christian symbol of veneration and since, became a symbol of Mary, great with expectancy, fully in bloom. The sweetness of this hymn is a fitting match for the fragrance of its subject and its symbol.
This hymn has long captured my imagination of the night of Jesus’ birth on a deep, nearly subconscious level, almost like a memory. The harmonic tones of the melody and its stream of conscious meter transport me to the stable, and even further in time, to the agitation and longing for a new kingdom when “Isaiah ‘twas foretold it….” The descriptive lyric stops short of romanticizing the mystery as the first two verses end with “…when half spent was the night…” I don’t think any of us have to have first hand experience with the details of labor and birth to imagine just how long that night must have been for young Mary with only Joseph and some animals as midwife. Nearly alone, she bore the pain, suffering, and darkness of that night and then shared with the world, the joy and promise of new life at the arrival of her baby and some friendly visitors.
I have had the privilege of witnessing this hymn’s story in motion at El Nido in Washington Heights. Indeed, the families, collectively and individually are living a similar Advent narrative in real time, real life. Their uncertainty and fears are as fragile as a “tender stem.” But the straw of el nido is the same as in the manger; softened and cleaned with love and welcome. The mothers endure and persevere through the dark night to bring new life. And as it was in our Bethlehem story, their hope radiates as brightly as that star.
Prayer: May the tender stem of the rose in bloom and fragility of our hope find strength, nurture, and shelter to deliver us safely through the night to new life, in the way of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.