This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!
“Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming” by Theodore Baker
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.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger they found Him,
As angel heralds said.
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.
Written in the late 16th century, “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming” was originally a German hymn. Not entirely included in our culture of Christmas, I first heard this song in an Episcopal church I attended in 2009. Then, I heard it again sung by Sufjan Stevens, whose version is phenomenal. Anyhow, the verses in “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming” are chalk-full of Hebrew Bible imagery and present a high view of Christ as God-babe. At the same time these lyrics overthrow systems of fascist political domination.
In current theological discourses, God is taught as being most sovereign, totally in control, and having knowledge of everything at once. It is common that for such a strong God that God’s followers should also reflect such strongness in their acts of worship.* Workout worship videos, wrestling and cage-fighting matches at all gathers, and pastors should have complete knowledge of their members’ activities. This of course is preposterous! Churches don’t run this way; instead, we project such beliefs onto our secular structures, such as the government (NSA, CIA), family (patriarchal), and violent state authorities (police/military). “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming” deconstructs and resists such strong interpretations of a strong God and government.
Ripe with metaphor, in the first verse Jesus is “a rose…from a tender stem,” “sung by” humanity, and “a floweret bright.” These phrases do not demonstrate a sovereign divinity, but a gentle, compassionate loved one. Again in the second verse, the Rose represents Jesus. It is not God’s power shown through Jesus’ birth; instead, it is God’s tender love. And tacked on at the end of both of these verses is, “When half spent was the night.” Clearly, the middle of the night is the worst time to demonstrate any kind of authority. Power is demonstrated in broad daylight that everyone may heed its authority. Overthrowing any power for dominance and control, Jesus was born when no one expected it, in the middle of the night during winter.
The shepherds make an appearance in this song by traveling to see the sweet child. In the US context, shepherds are crusties, homeless persons, and day laborers. They are the forgotten, the nobodies. The ones no one wants to recognize, so we ignore them. It’s these people that the angels first proclaim the message of Jesus’ birth. Once again, this resists any kind of power play. Then finally, in the last verse, Jesus is called the “Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness” still “fills the air.” No remark of the cross that saves humanity, but salvation is found in the incarnation.
Our load is now lightened that we may breathe life where only death is found.
To disrupt power that goodness may abound.
* John Caputo makes the distinction between strong and weak theologians. Strong theologians teach of God’s sovereignty and the omni-s. On the other hand, weak theologians understand God not as sovereign, but as a Derridaian event. When an event takes place, it transforms everything. Everyone involved are no longer the same.