I suspect that everyone considers the rose the “queen of flowers.” In almost every culture, the rose has held quasi-mystical value. In the Greco-Roman world, the rose symbolized beauty, love and the season of spring; it also denoted the fragility of beauty and hinted at death, so that the pagan Roman feast of rosalia was a celebration of the dead. In Christian iconography, the rose came to stand for an eternal paradise, as well as being the symbol for martyrs. Not surprisingly, then, the rose has been considered the quintessential botanical representation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
What Advent is complete without singing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”? The rose spoken of there is Christ Himself. However, if Christ has a human nature, He received it from His holy Mother, who must likewise be a rose since like always comes from like. Surely, that was Dante’s1 understanding as we hear Beatrice counsel Dante in the Paradiso: “Why are you so enamored of my face that you do not turn your gaze to the beautiful garden which blossoms under the radiance of Christ? There is the rose in which the Divine Word became flesh; here are the lilies whose perfume guides you in the right ways” (23:71-75).
And so, we sing:
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;
with 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.
According to the anonymous medieval author of these verses, Jesus the Rose has come forth from that “tender stem” who is Mary. The hymnographer proceeds to teach us that we see the Son best through the lens provided by the kindly Mother, who brings us the Savior to demonstrate the depths of divine love. And this provides us with yet another Marian title – Mother of Fair Love. The rose once more betokens love.
In splendid Gothic cathedrals, our attention is drawn to the magnificent rose windows, with the central one depicting Mary presenting the Infant to the world, as she has ever done since that midnight in Bethlehem. Likewise, in the Middle Ages under the influence of courtly manners and culture, the rose garden came to be regarded as the privileged place to encounter one’s beloved lady. Spiritualizing that notion, especially in light of the Song of Songs, led to the rose being viewed as the mystical union between the soul and Christ, between Christ and the Church, with Mary as the primordial example of such a blessed relationship, so that the Litany of Loreto could invoke her as “Mystical Rose.”
Shakespeare would opine in Romeo and Juliet: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Pope Benedict XVI asserts: “Indeed, she [Mary] is the most beautiful flower to have unfolded since the Creation, the ‘rose’ that appeared in the fullness of time when God, by sending His Son, gave the world a new springtime.” And so, we would have to part company with the Bard of Avon on that one, for the sweetest-smelling rose has the name of Mary. Cardinal Newman would seem to agree:
How did Mary become the Rosa Mystica, the choice, delicate, perfect flower of God’s spiritual creation? It was by being born, nurtured and sheltered in the mystical garden or Paradise of God. Scripture makes use of the figure of a garden, when it would speak of Heaven and its blessed inhabitants. A garden is a spot of ground set apart for trees and plants, all good, all various, for things that are sweet to the taste or fragrant in scent, or beautiful to look upon, or useful for nourishment; and accordingly in its spiritual sense it means the home of blessed spirits and holy souls dwelling there together, souls with both the flowers and the fruits upon them, which by the careful husbandry of God they have come to bear, flowers and fruits of grace, flowers more beautiful and more fragrant than those of any garden, fruits more delicious and exquisite than can be matured by earthly husbandman. . . .2
Roses also began to represent those prayers, especially the Ave’s offered to Mary in that meditative prayer which eventually was called a “rosary,” that is, a collection of roses. Some rosary beads are actually made in the form of roses to reinforce the meaning.
It is probably no exaggeration to suggest that when non-Catholics are asked to identify a specific form of prayer they associate with Catholics, it is the Rosary, which not infrequently even accompanies the Catholic into eternity as his hands are wrapped in the beads in his coffin. The Popes of every age have recommended this form of prayer, with Leo XIII penning eleven encyclicals on the Holy Rosary. Traditionally, the month of October is devoted in a special way to the recitation of the Rosary as the Church celebrates the memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7, originally called Our Lady of Victory because of the totally unexpected and stunning victory of the greatly outnumbered Christian forces over those of the Muslims at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto – a victory Pope St. Pius V attributed to the fervent praying of the Rosary by all of Christendom.
The Rosary is a meditative form of prayer, combining elements of formulaic prayer (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be) and reflection on the mysteries of redemption. It was originally intended to be the poor and illiterate man’s Psalter, since the 150 Hail Marys parallel the 150 psalms. Catholics do not see in the Rosary the “vain repetition of words” which some non-Catholic Christians see, because we are not seeking to “win a hearing by the sheer multiplication of words” (Mt 6:7). On the contrary, the emphasis is not on the words but on the attitude and atmosphere of prayer which is created, allowing the believer to become lost in reflection on the divine and enabling us to hear God more clearly when He speaks.
Sometimes uninformed individuals attack the recitation of the Rosary as “Mariolatry.” What must be understood is that the Rosary is, at root, a Christological prayer far more than a Marian one. Catholics pray to Our Lady and with her for the grace to meditate on the mysteries of our salvation with the same fervor as did she (cf. Luke 2:51). Wisely and insightfully, Pope Paul VI in Marialis Cultus described the Rosary as “the epitome of the whole Gospel.”
In 2002, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, in which he announced a “Year of the Rosary” for 2002-2003, what he deemed a fitting homage to the Blessed Virgin as he embarked on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his election as the Successor of Peter. In that same document, the Pope also offered the Church a fourth set of mysteries – the luminous mysteries or mysteries of light – to join the traditional joyful, sorrowful and glorious in place for centuries. He ended his letter with these touching words:
A prayer so easy and yet so rich truly deserves to be rediscovered by the Christian community. . . . Rediscover the Rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the Liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives. May this appeal of mine not go unheard!
1We have been celebrating the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of Dante, arguably the greatest poet in history.
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