His Love is a Red, Red Rose: The Church’s Own Language of Flowers
by Susanne Dietze
As a writer, I love the Language of Flowers -- the symbolism attached to flowers which imparts a coded message, expresses a feeling, or describes a moral truth. While most strongly associated with the Victorians, the Language of Flowers actually has ancient roots which (brace yourself for a pun-fest!) blossomed into the medieval period and bloomed through the Renaissance. It exploded in the 1800's, and while its popularity has faded, floral symbolism still bears some significance today. For instance, a red rose means only one thing to a lot of us, and receiving a long-stemmed beauty sends one’s heart pattering. Add the components of a bloom’s rich scent and the soft touch of its petals, and the symbolism of a flower can go a long way for me as a romance novelist. I’m not the only one I know who incorporates a heavy floral theme into my stories.
Image by "T"eresa via Flickr
Much of the Language of Flowers seems quaint or curious to the modern reader, its codes temporal (and here I’m referring to Victorian-era symbolism. Other flower languages exist, notably Japanese hanakatoba.). Yellow carnations, for example, no longer communicate the desire to break off a relationship. Crysanthemums don't say “resignation” to their recipients any more. Fortunately, there’s no longer a downer of a connotation placed on lettuce: when my husband brings home a big salad, I’m gleeful that I have a vehicle for blue cheese dressing. A few hundred years ago, though, I might've been peeved that he considered me “cold-hearted.”
While the concept of a floral language might seem secular, Christians have long used flora (flowers, fruits and other vegetation) to symbolically convey moral, spiritual or emotional truths. Long before the printing press, manuscripts, stained glass windows, icons and vestments attested to a Christian "language of the flowers."
There are numerous Biblical examples of symbolism attached to plants. The olive branch reminds us of peace and God’s provision (Genesis 8:11). Almond blossoms indicated God’s favor in Numbers 17:1-8 and are still used in some instances as a symbol for Mary, mother of Jesus. Apples, though not specifically mentioned as the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3, certainly bear the heavy burden of that connotation.
Image by cobalt123 via Flickr
Palms continue to serve as a symbol of spiritual victory, triumph, and glory. On the first Palm Sunday, bystanders tossed their cloaks and palm fronds on Jesus' path as he entered Jerusalem (Matthew 21: 1-11). Where I live, we’re able to cull the fronds from our own trees and bring them to church, where we celebrate with a hymn-singing procession around the block. Waving a palm frond provides a tactile way to feel connected to the triumph of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem.
The spiritual triumph denoted by palm fronds is also used for other purposes, such as the herald for Stephen, the church’s first martyr (Acts 6-7). Other symbols have survived the ages, too: evergreen trees remind us of God’s undying love. Wheat and grapes call to mind communion. Legend or not, St. Patrick’s use of the clover to describe the Trinity survives, and clovers, shamrocks and anemone flowers are still used as a symbols for the Triune God.
Many other symbols aren’t as popular today, but they still give me goose bumps: the pomegranate represents the Church, as it holds many seeds in unity within one fruit. Ivy signifies eternal life for its evergreen leaves, and fidelity to God because it clings for support. Red carnations, not roses, indicate pure love: that of Jesus for us.
Image by Old Shoe Woman via FlickrWhile some symbols fade, others spring onto the scene and find themselves becoming the stuff of legend. Take Dogwood blossoms, for instance. This American bloom sports "wound marks" on its white petals, reminiscent of those suffered by Jesus on his hands, feet, and head when He was crucified. While Dogwood blossoms may not be an ancient symbol, they have come to symbolize Jesus' sacrifice to many Christians, though they are not as widespread a favorite as lilies. Emerging from the ground after a long, cold winter, the fragrant, gorgeous easter lily has served as a reminder (at least in America) of the new life we have through Christ’s resurrection.
Image by **Mary** via Flickr
The lily's pure white coloring has long served as a reminder of purity and innocence. Age-old artisans portrayed Gabriel with white lilies in hand when he visited Mary, his floral gift symbolizing her purity as he announced that she would bear the Son of God.
Perhaps this connection, as well as its seasonal availability, is one reason why lilies are considered a Christmas bloom, rather than an Easter one, in other climates. A friend of mine, transplanted from New Zealand, annually laments the lack of lilies in church on Christmas Eve here in the northern hemisphere. The availability of a bloom clearly has an important role to play in its use as a symbol, which is perhaps why some floral symbols have been lost (you mean you don’t have a centerpiece of Glastonbury Thorns at Christmas?).
My prayer for all of us this Holy Week is that we would bear spiritual blossoms of hope, purity, and faith in our own lives as we reflect on the power and meaning of His Resurrection.
What flower or plant makes you think of a particular holiday or special event?
Post, W. Ellwood. Saints, Signs and Symbols. Morehouse Publishing, 1962.