A Spotless Rose – Paul Mealor
A Spotless Rose is blowing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.
The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
Through God’s great love and might
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night.
Author Unknown (16th C. Germany), trans. Catherine Winkworth
“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.” This 16th Century text is most commonly known by a different English translation, “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” by Theodore Baker, which is found in our hymnals. Though not uncommon in choral circles, this edition of the English text, translated by Catherine Winkworth, is most popular as Herbert Howells’s rendition of “A Spotless Rose.” I imagine that were it not for the frequent low Bs demanded of the bass section and high Bs demanded of the Soprano voices, Mealor’s adaptation would be performed much more often!
Though this arrangement is absolutely lovely, it really is about the text with this one. Too often, I think this text is misinterpreted to be about Mary, as she is mentioned by name and referred to most frequently in the text – but it made clear through the second stanza that the rose itself is Christ. Yet to say this is a poem about Christ seems to miss the mark, too.
For me, this is a poem about a prophecy and a miracle.
The prophecy bit is pretty straightforward. The rose is “Jesse’s promised fruit,” “of ancient seers foreshowing,” “whereof Isaiah said.” This is a poem that reminds us that the 4 Sundays of waiting that we experience are but a fraction of a fraction of the waiting that the world did for this Rose to bloom. This rose, this Messiah, was promised as far back as Jesse, the father of King David! As far back as Isaiah, a book dated to 700-681 BC!
In long periods of waiting, what tends to happen? We imagine a time when the waiting is over. We’re in a bit of that season now, aren’t we? It’s not even Christmas yet, and I am already thinking ahead to Christmas 2021, and how I will get to see my parents and family that time around. I fantasize about a time I can hug my friends, fly in an airplane, rehearse with a choir. I, as so many of us are, am ready for normal again.
The Hebrew people did the same thing as they waited for a Messiah, and they fantasized the exact same way I do – they filled in the gaps of what they think they are missing. They imagine a glorious and powerful king, a mighty conqueror of lands, a provider of wealth and security who will bring Israel back to its former glory. They imagine this for years, decades, generations – and they get a baby who grows up to be some sort of hippie traveling preacher. No wonder the pharisees were annoyed with Jesus. He didn’t live up to their expectations.
But this weak, powerless babe, who didn’t even merit a hotel room birth, was what the world needed. The seed, planted in Jesse does not grow to a mighty oak in full springtime foliage, but a rose blooming at midnight in the cold of winter. A true miracle – just not the one they asked for.
Maybe if instead of skipping ahead and waiting for a Christmas on the other side of this pandemic, we take the time to live out this Advent, this waiting, with no expectations, we just might find a rose blooming where we really didn’t think it could.
And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.
But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church