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 flow'ret bright, Amid the cold of winter, When half spent was the night.
This hymn has always been a favorite of mine, even when I was far too young to understand the symbolism and history behind the lyrics. It seemed to carry a certain gravity shared by few hymns I know; the hush that fell over the congregation before they opened their mouths in song seemed more sacred, the circle of musicians that played it seemed an echo of Renaissance counterparts in an ancient church. Still, years later, I imagine the same scene when I hear the song—a clear, bitterly cold night; the world silent under a blanket of snow; a red rose blooming deep in the woods, lit by the moon. It’s a vivid image I’ve seen clearly since I was a child.
Only recently did I dig back into the song’s history. The hymn we call “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” was originally “Es is ein Ros entsprungen,” a hymn written in Germany sometime in the late 16th century. Its interpretation—not in terms of words, but of intent—is a subject of some debate. Catholics assert it is a Marian hymn; Protestants believe it references Jesus himself. Whichever the song’s theme, I love the legend behind it—the story goes that a monk was walking through the forest late one winter night and found a rose. Inspired by its beauty, he placed the flower at an altar to the Virgin.
Whatever its origins or meaning, many musicians and interpreters have been struck by the hymn’s simple beauty. There are several widely-known translations of the hymn from people of different theologies, and many versions of the tune have been played by artists both Christian and secular. It’s played in churches’ vaulted sanctuaries and on music systems in shopping malls alike.
The rose in the hymn has endured far longer than the song’s author or the thousands of people who have sung about it. The carol has sparked many debates about its interpretation over the last several hundred years, and musicians have continued to be inspired by the image of the rose, just as the monk was inspired by a rose so many centuries ago. However you consider “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”—either as an ancient Marian hymn, as a description of Jesus Christ, or as the poetry of an inspired monk—let the image of the rose’s stillness in the cold midwinter remind you of the still beauty of advent and the hush of expectancy as we celebrate Christ’s birth.