Moving away from the obscure for a day or two we come to a Christmas selection that I know is a favorite of many. More than four hundred years old, it comes from German Catholic origins, first published in Gebetbuchlein des Frater Conradus (1582) in nineteen stanzas. At that time it focused on Mary, comparing her to the Rose of Sharon from the Song of Solomon 2:1. In Cologne, a later hymnbook, Alte Catholische Geistliche Kirchengeseng (1599) published twenty-three stanzas.
Before long the hymn was taken up by the Protestants and reinterpreted to relate to Jesus. Some claimed that the German word "Ros," or rose actually should have been "Reis," or branch. This would correspond more closely to Isaiah 11:1.
The translation we know today, mostly from Theodore Baker, somehow or other combines both the Rose with the prophecy of Isaiah. An earlier translation by Catherine Winkworth (1869) remains closer to the Marian German origins of the text. Many of the German stanzas are also preserved online. Most American hymnals today only print these three.
Lo! how a Rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
As those 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.
This Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
True flesh, yet very God,
From sin and death Christ saves us,
And lightens every load.
German carol, 15th cent.
tr. Theodore Baker (st. 1 & 2), 1894
Harriet Krauth Spaeth (st. 3), 1875; alt.
Tune: ES IST EIN ROS' (126.96.36.199.6.7.6.)
Cologne, 1599; harm, Michael Praetorius, 1609
Most people probably visualize a red rose when singing this hymn, and another legend about the origins of this carol tells how a German monk from Trier was walking through the woods in winter and found a rose in bloom growing up through the snow. He brought the miraculous flower back and placed it on the altar to the Virgin Mary, and the carol was first written by someone from that monastery. The flower pictured above, however, is the Christmas rose, which does apparently bloom in winter.
This week I came upon another stanza translated by Harriet Spaeth, sometimes used between the second and third one here. Looking further, I see that her full translation, in five stanzas, and generally used in older Lutheran hymnals, begins Behold, a Branch is growing (no Rose for her!). Some of you may know this one; I'm sure I've never sung it before.
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.
I don't dislike it (the word sped falls in a fun place in the harmony), but I think we've had a lot of shepherds and angels this week, don't you?
One Year Ago: Elizabeth Rundle Charles