The Advent Rose


The rose is a symbol found in a number of Advent and Christmas carols, the most popular being Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming. The origin of the rose symbol is open to much speculation. What is its meaning and can we still find relevance in it today?

There are many seasonal interpretations of the rose symbol, influenced by both culture and religion. It has a rich and ancient history—and like the cross, it can have paradoxical meanings. The rose is both a symbol of purity and passion; heavenly perfection and earthly passion; virginity and fertility; death and life. What the rose means to Catholics in the United States might be different to Anglicans in England. Someone in New Zealand may go online and read about a Mexican legend, bringing meaning where there may have been none. 

Here I share with you some of my own findings, stories that piqued my interest or fed me in some way while researching the text for my own Advent song, Night of Silence. When I encounter the rose in holiday music, these are the stories that come to mind for me. 

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, from tender stem hath sprung!
—15th Century German carol

the rose of sharon

In the harsh desert landscape of the Middle East plant life takes on particular symbolic significance. Biblical stories abound with references to the fragile beauty of simple flowers, rich pastures, and lush forests—all seen as sources of profound meaning and rare beauty. Sources of earthly flora become symbols of life, birth and sustenance. One such place is the coastal plain of Sharon, a region of Israel known for its lush fertility. 

In the Song of Songs the beloved says to Abraham, “I am the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley,” in reference to her own beauty and fertility. Scholars vary in their interpretations of rose in this passage. Rose is a product of translation from the original Hebrew. Varying scholars suggest the biblical rose of Sharon may actually be translated as lily, crocus, tulip, rock rose, narcissus or hibiscus. Other translations suggest it refers to “a budding bulb” or a “flower among the brambles.” The rose, then, serves as an ambassador of the beauty and fecundity of a fertile land.

The rose is a common symbol of Mary (think rosary, which is Latin for rosarium, or “crown of roses”). The rose of Sharon in the above passage is frequently seen to be a symbol of Mary and the mother church. Some biblical scholars even argue the entire Song of Songs is an allegorical expression of the sublime feelings held between Jesus and his holy mother Mary. Through this lens the erotic tone of the text is recast into something purely spiritual.      

Mary as rose may also be found in the well-known carol, Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming. In this song we are presented with the narrative of Mary, mother of Jesus, as a rose sprung up from the lineage of Jesse to bring forth the child. The text expresses the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

From the Middle Ages, the Isaiah passage is understood to refer to both Mary and Jesus: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” For early Christian authors the root represents the genealogy of David: God is the seed, the stem is Mary, and the rose is Christ, the Rose of Sharon. As symbolic use of the rose evolved beyond Mary to include Jesus, references to the Christmas Rose started becoming more prevalent. This symbolism takes on even deeper complexity when contrasted with the rose's thorns.

the mystical rose 

Of the many symbols used to represent Mary mother of Jesus, the rose is one of the most prominent. History shows that the rose was likely her favorite flower. 

The Mystical Rose refers to Mary's mystical participation in the Holy Trinity, or her relation to Jesus, God, humans, and heaven. Theologically, she is the immaculate virgin—mother of God and of all mankind. She is considered the most noble and perfect of all mothers. Like a magnificent rose she shines in the splendor of her virtues. Because her heart is on fire with love for God and human, she is, as St. Jordanus says, likened to the flaming red rose. The open, blooming rose is a symbol of pure and perfect motherhood.

As the rose is considered the queen of all flowers, it is closely associated with Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth. As such, the rose is no longer earthbound, but rather an element that may be inferred into other biblical stories and places. In Song of Songs, Mary (the bride) is the “enclosed garden” of God, an image describing Mary’s virginity (“enclosed”). As a Mystical Rose she herself is the new garden of Eden – the place where God Himself dwells, and through which Jesus blooms.    

In medieval times the Mystical Rose symbol was drawn with four petals, three for the trinity, plus one for Mary, or it was stitched into quilts, a practice still in effect today.

A spotless rose is blowing...Amid the winter cold, a spotless rose unfolds.
—15th Century German carol


the glastonbury rose 

Did you know the hawthorn plant is a member of the rose family? The Glastonbury Thorn is a type of hawthorn found in England. It is a dense, thorny tree or shrub that may grow as tall as 13 feet. Its exquisite white rose-like flowers are said to be without comparison.

Unlike ordinary hawthorn trees, the Glastonbury Thorn flowers twice a year, the first time in winter and the second time in spring. According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea—the saint credited with bringing Christianity to the British Isles—visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and thrust his staff into Wearyall Hill on Christmas Day; the staff then grew into the original thorn tree. The emergence of its beautiful white blossom in mid-winter on or near Epiphany was considered miraculous and inspired centuries of myth, legend and Christian iconography. 

The flower, sometimes called the Christmas Rose, became a symbol of the Virgin Mary as well as the newborn infant Christ. The Christmas Rose also bears the sharpest of thorns, pointing to the crucifixion. Hawthorn is said to have formed Christ's crown of thorns. 

A sprig of flowering Glastonbury Thorn is sent to the British Monarch every Christmas. The original tree has been propagated several times, with one growing at Glastonbury Abbey and another at the Church of St John, also in Glastonbury.

Upon a winter night, was born the child, the Christmas rose.
—Gesu Bambino, Pietro A. Yon

the rose of joy

Most are familiar with the Advent wreath and its four candles. To heighten the anticipation of Christ’s birth, some churches have given each candle of the wreath specific meaning.

Week 1: The Prophet’s Candle, reminds us of the coming Christ
Week 2: The Bethlehem Candle, a symbol of faith
Week 3: The Shepherd’s Candle, a symbol of joy in the coming birth
Week 4: The Peace Candle, reminds us of the angels’ message of peace on earth

It is more common to use each candle of the Advent wreath to simply mark time. However, within some churches, the candle for the third week of Advent is often pink in color. While weeks one, two and four employ purple or blue candles, the third candle’s color is more correctly referred to as rose rather than pink. The rose candle is lit on Gaudate Sunday, the third week of Advent, and reflects a lightening of the purple/blue used throughout the rest of Advent. The rose represents the beginning of the transition from darkness to light and a turning away from penance to celebration. 

Advent has not always been observed as a liturgical season. Many of the Advent rituals we observe today were influenced by Lent, a solemn season lasting seven weeks, much like today. In the early church, on the third Sunday of Lent worshippers were encouraged to stop fasting and to feast instead. This was in anticipation of the coming resurrection. The purpose of the feasting was to offer a twinge of joy amidst a dark season. To emphasize this joy, the Pope would wander into a crowd and give one lucky citizen a beautiful pink rose.

As time passed priests wore pink vestments on this day as a reminder of the coming joy. This explains why Advent today is sometimes referred to as “little Lent.” Advent's Gaudate Sunday involves the same pink vestments, the same break in the darkness of the season. It is also very similar to today's Laetare Sunday, which is now observed on the fourth Sunday of Lent. 

While both gaudete and laetare refer to “rejoicing,” gaudete more correctly refers to “enjoyment,” while laetare means to “be light-hearted.” Think of both as you imagine the pink rose of joy. 

There is no rose of such virtue, as is the rose that bare Jesu.
—Anon. 14th Century

the golden rose

While some historians claim the origin of the rose color used during Advent can be traced back to the Pope’s pink rose, there may also be a connection to the tradition of the Golden Rose. During Lent, on Laetare Sunday, a golden rose ornament would be sent by the pope to religious shrines, Catholic kings and queens, and other Catholic individuals. While the custom dates back to the early 8th Century, the practice is still observed today. For example, when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in 2008, he presented a golden rose to the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

And said that she should bear the flower, To break the Devil’s chain of woes.
Of a Rose, a lovely Rose, Of a Rose is all my song.

—15th Century Middle English carol


flores de noche buena

There is no other flower that says “Christmas” like the poinsettia, also known as the Winter Rose in some cultures. Its association with Christmas, according to legend, comes from a young Mexican girl named Pepita. In Mexican Christmas tradition, young girls present gifts to the manger scene during Christmas Eve service. Pepita, being poor, was saddened by not being able to give the Christ Child a lavish gift. As she walked sorrowfully to church with her cousin Pedro, he consoled her by telling her even the most humble gift, given in love, is acceptable. Pepita then gathered a bouquet of weeds along the road and entered the church. As Pepita approached the altar to place her gift near the Christ Child, miraculously her weeds burst into brilliant red blooms, which are called Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night. The poinsettia is also known as the Mexican Flame Leaf.

A spotless rose is blowing...Amid the winter cold, a spotless rose unfolds.
—15th Century German carol


The rose of palestine

While a bit more obscure, the Little Rose of Palestine is an Advent symbol in use within some protestant U.S. churches. Some claim it references a version of rock rose found in temperate parts of the Mediterranean basin. Its coloring includes a deep yellow at the center with white petals highlighted by red streaks, signifying blood. The custom of using this symbol during Advent is thought to have begun around the 13th Century. In its Advent use the rose is often combined with a golden candlestick holding a white candle. This combination speaks of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy pointing to Christ, the light of the world. 

Of lily, of rose of ryse, of primrose, and of fleur-de-lys, 
Of all the flowers at my device, that flower of Jesse yet bears the price.

—Ancient English Carol

The rose of hope and love

While hope is the underlying belief that permeates the Advent season, love is the motivating force of God's choice to come to us as human. The rose, arguably a symbol of love worldwide, has the power to direct both heart and eye to the promise of something bigger than itself. In this context, the rose takes on a power that can unify all of these stories. During Advent, what we essentially wait for and hope for is love. The rose expresses this beautifully, especially within the context of a desert landscape or a frozen winter scene. Like a candle in the dark, the rose represents a glimpse of hope, a sign that love will return—through new life, or through birth, or through the presence of another.   

Somewhere, a long time ago, someone took notice of a rose and saw beyond the flower itself. Living symbols ask this of us. They ask us to participate in the making of meaning by including ourselves and our own experiences in the seeing. Growing up in northern Wisconsin, I often wondered how plants and trees could survive such harsh cold winters. Each spring felt like a miracle of nature, if not a celebration of survival. For me, winters are still cold and dark, and spring still feels like a miracle. 

Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping, flowers that will echo the sunrise.
from Night of Silence, Daniel Kantor

Daniel Kantor