Litany of Loreto – Mystical Rose
Writing this on St Valentine’s Day it is impossible not to recall that of all the flowers it is the rose more than any other that symbolises beauty and love. We find a number of references to roses in the Bible, all of which have been used in thinking about Mary. In the Song of Songs (as we are learning in this series, a rich source of imagery and symbolism for Mariology) the rose is referred to twice: the beloved describes herself as ‘a rose of Sharon and a lily of the valleys’ (Song 1:17; 2:1). The lily came to symbolise purity on account of its brilliant whiteness, the rose to symbolise love, for the rose is most often red and red means passion, desire, zeal, and love. The rose is also a complex flower, combining beauty and threat (no rose without thorns), straight and curved lines, making itself available and yet hiding its beauty in the recesses of the flower. The rose garden is the original ‘rosary’, or rosarium, a place for quiet contemplation and meditation.
Isaiah uses the image of the rose when talking about the power of God’s re-creating Spirit. The desert will rejoice and will blossom like a rose, he says, the land that had been barren and unfruitful will flower like a rose (Isaiah 35:1,2). It is easy to see how, because of her virginity, this might be applied to Mary: the place in which we did not expect to find fruit has become fruitful by God’s power.
There is a wonderful poem in chapter 24 of the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) which speaks about the role of wisdom ‘alongside’ God in the creation of the world: ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High’, she says (24:3), and she is present everywhere, in all that is made and in every nation. She has come, by God’s command, to dwell particularly in Israel (24:8), putting down her roots among God’s chosen, ministering in the holy tabernacle, taking root in an honored people (24:10,12). Wisdom continues:
‘I grew tall like a cedar in Lebanon, and like a cypress on the heights of Hermon. I grew tall like a palm tree in En-gedi, and like rose plants in Jericho; like a beautiful olive tree in the field, and like a plane tree I grew tall … Like a terebinth I spread out my branches and my branches are glorious and graceful. Like a vine I caused loveliness to bud, and my blossoms became glorious and abundant fruit’ (24:13-14, 16-17).
Even as a poem this is beautiful, but its associations with Wisdom and then with Mary give it an extraordinarily profound significance for Christians. These phrases, as well as other parts of Sirach 24 referring to water, and gardens, and spices, provide the antiphons for the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For the liturgy it is she, Mary, the Mystical Rose, who is speaking in this great poem, pointing to the wonders of grace worked in her by God and to the complex beauty of His gift to her (exceptional joy, extraordinary sorrow). It is a striking recapitulation of the mystery of creation and of the human longing for a wisdom that seems elusive: ‘those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more’ (24:21). ‘Do whatever he tells you’, Mary/Wisdom tells us at Cana, opening our eyes to the One in whom our hunger will be satisfied and our thirst cured, the son of Mary, the fruit of the Mystical Rose, whose love is everything we could ever need or want, whose beauty holds us, and whose aroma we have become.