Monday, December 22, 2014

The Lily and the Rose

On this fourth Sunday of Advent we take a welcome turn away from the themes of apocalyptic endings and wild looking wilderness prophets and focus on what finally feels like an appropriate figure as Christmas nears: Mary, the mother of our Lord.  She is a wonderful devotional figure who, down through the centuries, has inspired and fueled the arts: painting, sculpture, poetry, writing, music, and hymnody.  In this one humble young woman we find so much worthy to ponder.

And speaking of pondering, many of you know of my love of Christmas music.  Last year I came across a carol called “The Lily and the Rose”.  The lyrics come from an anonymous 16th century poem that is set to music by Bob Chilcott, who is described as being “a contemporary hero of British choral music”.  As a special treat, our own Al Reese is going to play this beautiful carol for us this morning.  I want you to follow the words (and you may want to watch a video of the carol on Youtube: and ponder what the lyrics are all about.

  The maidens came when I was in my mother’s bower.
  I had all that I would.

     The bailey beareth the bell away.
       The lily, the rose, the rose I lay

The silver is white, red is the gold.
  The robes they lay in fold.

     The bailey beareth the bell away.
       The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And through the glass window shines the sun
  How could I love and I so young.

     The bailey beareth the bell away.
       The lily, the rose, the rose I lay

Well, as you can tell, the music is beautiful, but the poem itself is, as one critic described, “elusive and layered.” 

At one level, it appears to be a poem about a young girl who has been given in marriage to an older man.  The maidens come for her on her wedding day and find her in her mother’s private room (the bower).  The ‘bailey’ may be slang for bailiff.  What he is taking away is not certain.  It could be the girl’s virginity (the white) – ‘the lily and the rose’ she lays down for her new husband.  Well, all of this is well and good, but it does not strike one as a Christmas carol.

Another interpretation has to do with an on-going war between England (the Rose) and France (the Lily).  The husband, or perhaps a more true love, is the victim of war whose dead body is carried away by the bailey.  Still, not much of a carol.

Chilcott himself says that the poem describes the Virgin Mary mourning the death of her son.  Bells are rung over the body of a corpse as it is carried away to a ‘Keep’ known as a ‘bailey’.  Another interpretation revolves around the French word ‘Belle’ – ‘the beautiful one’.  Jesus, the beautiful one, is born away to heaven by the bailiff – God.  In this interpretation, the white silver refers to Mary’s gift of her virginity to bear God’s son.  While it is a marvelous offering, it pales in comparison to the red gold of Christ’s blood shed for all humanity. 

So, why is this a carol? 

Most contemporary inspirational writing (both poems and lyrics) tends to downplay an ancient tradition of Mary contemplating her son’s death as she cradles his infant body.  Chilcott’s carol invites us to imagine Mary in her mid-forties holding the beaten and bloodied body of her lifeless thirty-year-old son.  In that moment every moment she had with him comes flooding back into her memory.  Pondering the angel’s announcement we heard today and reflecting back to events of his birth, the poem places these words on Mary’s lips:

How could I love and I so young.

In her grief, Mary is able to sense the greater good of her offering, along with the offering of her son.  In that dark moment the sun shines through the window – an image of hope – and Mary reflects back to her son’s birth in wonderment of her ability to love and care and bear all she has from such a young age.

There are three great scriptural images of Mary: when she hears Gabriel’s announcement and embraces God’s will, when she gives birth to Jesus, and when she waits at the foot of Cross.   There are other stories of course, but these three are the most central.  Chilcott’s carol binds together these moments by reflecting on innocence, wonder, and sorrow.  While being elusive and layered, it invites us to ponder levels of deeper meaning. 

What I like most about the carol is its beautiful melody.  But I also like that it challenges the notion that Christmas and all the events around it are static; that they are and have been described, quantified, and understood.  There is a temptation to wrap up the meaning of Christmas into a box as nice and tidy as any present under a tree and think, “there, that is it.”  But at its heart, the Incarnation is an event wonderful and complex beyond knowing and beyond description. 

Al and I spent forty-five minutes one afternoon pondering the meaning of this carol.  While I don’t know that we found ‘the’ answer, I believe we are richer for the experience.  It has reminded me that the Incarnation is a luminous moment radiating the mysterious glory of God’s infinite Being as it is cradled in the arms of a young mother.  It is something you experience more than you understand, something you feel more than you describe, something that moves and molds you more as you try less to make sense of it.