What do you think of when you think of Christmas songs? Roasting chestnuts? Riding sleighs? Walking in a wintery wonderland?
Can I be real with you? The running musical repertoire for Christmas in our social consciousness is, well, trite.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for some good old-fashioned holiday musical fun. Flying reindeer. Sidewalks dressed in holiday style. Santa Claus Lane. Ten lords a-leaping. I'm not a prude. This is entertaining stuff.
What I really love at this time each year is when the church dusts off the compositions written with the birth of Jesus in mind and introduces them in the liturgy for our worship gatherings. Some call these songs carols, others hymns. Regardless, some of the richest theological truths inspired by the sacred Scriptures are found in the church's songs of Christmas.
One of my favorite Christmas hymns is entitled: "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." The hymn's origins have been traced back to the late 15th century in a manuscript found in St. Alban's Carthusian monastery in Germany's oldest city, Trier.
In 1609, Michael Praetorius, a German composer, organist, and music theorist, would harmonize the hymn and this arrangement is the recognizable version we sing today.
"Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!Of Jesse's lineage coming, as men of old have sung.It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,When half spent was the night."
This song revolves around a coercive truth found in the book of Isaiah 11:1-2. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse and from his roots, a Branch will bear fruit.
God had promised Jesse's son, David, that his lineage -- specifically his sons -- would be kings forever. But something happened on the way to this reality.
Author Ann Voskamp says, "When his sons and grandsons and great grandsons turned from God and loved sin more than their Father...their kingdoms fell, and it seemed as though the whole royal family tree of Jesse had been chopped right off at the roots."
Out of this actuality, God's people needed more than the promise of fertile land or continued national prominence. They needed the very incarnation of God's life in the "Branch" to come and redeem them from their spiritual alienation with God. An arboriculture miracle had to take place or God's people were doomed.
So foretold through the prophet Isaiah, God initiates a radical concept. From the bloodline of David, a new king would "blossom" from this dead tree.
But this royalty wouldn't come from within time and space. It would come from without.
"This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,And lightens every load."
Now, why the image of a rose?
The derivation of the image of the rose has been open to much debate.
The carol, originally published in the late 1500s, was a 19-stanza Roman Catholic hymn based on Mary, the mother of Jesus. In this seminal work, Mary was likened to the "rose" from Song of Solomon 2:1: "I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys."
The legend surrounding this tune is that a monk in Trier happened upon a blooming rose while walking in the woods and placed in the vase in front of the altar to Mary, providing inspiration for its writing. Choral scholars Christopher Keyte and Andrew Parrott have also noted that the tree of Jesse is often depicted as a rose plant in medieval iconography.
In the early 1600s, Protestants adopted the hymn and changed its emphasis from Mary to Jesus, citing the aforementioned Isaiah 11:1 as its substantiation. This was a significant development that signaled a deep theological shift in what the song would "teach" thereafter.
This modification would communicate that Jesus is the true and better "rose." His aroma disperses the gloomy clouds of night. His beauty puts death's darks shadows to flight. His flawless sacrifice gives victory over the grave.
In the book of Philippians, the apostle Paul says that though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped and he emptied himself by taking the form of a servant. He did this by being born in the likeness of men.
In the person of Jesus, God took on human flesh, leaving the culture of heaven and entering the culture of man. He did this as a means of reconciling what was squandered in the garden between God and man (perfect communion with God) and initiating his "already not yet" kingdom (declaring his reign on earth as it is in heaven).
That is what we celebrate at Christmas. Jesus, fully man and fully God, humbling himself by being born in the flesh. But this is half of the picture.
We also celebrate at Christmas a pre-Easter reality: without a manger, there is no cross. This baby would grow to be the Redeemer, becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross.
This is the mystery of the incarnation. Jesus, the God-man, was sent by a missionary God to seek and save that which was lost. He would "lighten our load" as we placed our heavy burden of sin upon him.
Matthew 11:28 says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." That is the free offer he extends to us.
Jesus is the flourishing Branch that bears the fruit of spiritual hope and life to a fallen and broken people.
Jesus is the blooming Rose, whose fragrance of forgiveness redeems and restores.
Jesus reconnects us to the Tree of Life, God the Father, in a startling act of servitude. Substitutionary atonement. Once-and-for-all salvation.
In a stunning hymn steeped in rich doctrine, we find these truths to be self-evident. This is what makes Christmas truly merry.
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