Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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.

Chrysanthemum/language of flowersImage 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.

Palm Frond CompositionImage 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.

DILO~March 20, 2008: Dogwood BlossomsImage by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr
While 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.
Easter LilyImage 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.

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  1. Suzie, I loved your post. I'm working out a spy code based on flowers. We'll have to see if anyone else (as in an editor) finds it as fascinating as I do.

  2. I use the language of flowers in my historical novels as well. In my second book, Lily (named so because she was illegitmate and her mother wanted her to feel pure) plants a prayer garden and explains the spiritual symbolism of the flowers.

    My favorite plant related holiday tradition is probably Palm Sunday. For the past for or five years I've bought bundles of palm branches from the local wholesale florist to hand out at church. The tradition has grown to letting the kids lead us in praise marches and dances, and many of the adults join in.

  3. Good morning! I don't feel particularly springy today: it's cold and windy. Well, I've got a large mug of coffee and a plate of croissants for everyone.

    Lisa, I love, absolutely love your idea for a spy code! That idea seems to me to have been given to you by the Lord. I think it's adorable and clever.

  4. Hello Andrea! Blessings and prayers!

    Dina, what a wonderful idea, having your character's mother give her such a gorgeous name as a way to communicate a truth to her. Powerful stuff. I love it.

    Your Palm Sunday sounds a bit like ours, containing the element of a celebration march. This year, the kids led our march around the block, wearing "Israelite" costumes and waving fronds...but the guy in the lead of it all was a bagpiper. It was cool!

    I use flowers as symbols in everything I write. Everything. I don't always use them as their offical symbolism intends, however. Lady's Slippers are supposed to mean "capricious" but I was inspired by the flower's fragile beauty, and how delightful it can be to find one outside of its habitat, which sometimes happens.

  5. Susie, this was lovely. I must confess I am fairly ignorant about the language of flowers. I never knew about the dogwood and the corellation to Christ's wound marks. Wow. I've always loved that particular bloom, too. Now I have to go see what almond blossoms look like. I'm intrigued!

  6. Susie, what a wonderful post! Isn't it wonderful that God's good creation can be used to communicate our gratitude back to Him! When I think of dogwoods, though, I must confess that I think of the Masters in Augusta, Georgia - along with the azaleas, of course!

  7. Hey, Suzie! Isn't that cool about dogwood blossoms? I think the legend behind it is that Jesus was crucified on a dogwood cross (no, I don't think dogwoods grow in Israel, but I haven't googled it.). I live near almond orchards, and their blossoms are quite pretty. I don't know if they have a fragrant scent, however.

    Karl, I knew you'd mention the Masters. :-) Thanks for popping by during your busy week.

  8. Hey, Susie! Your questions have had me thinking all day. Hmmm.
    Can't wait any longer so I just want to say how much I enjoyed it!

    I am interested in learning more about Fig trees though. Wouldn't you love a trip to the holy land?

    Happy 'last-day-of-March'!!

  9. Hey Susie, I've always associated lilies with death because anytime a cartoon figure plays dead, they always hold a lily on their chest.

    Up here in Canada, we decorate our Christmas homes with Poinsettias. They used to only come in red but selective breeding has given us white and pink now as well. But it doesn't seem like Christmas unless it's red.

    Excellent post, Susie.

  10. Hey Deb! Ooh, I didn't think about fig trees at all, but you're right. They're Biblically significant. When I think of figs, I think of two things: my grandpa ate them like candy, and they remind me of ants. I've lived in 2 houses built on old fig orchards, and apparently the two go together like choclate and peanut butter. Ants like figs. I have no clue why they build mega-anthomes under those trees, but I guess they do.

    I'll have to look into this.

  11. Anita, whoa! I'm going to have to pay more attention to cartoons. I never noticed that before. Very interesting. You're right, lilies do seem to be in a lot of funeral arrangements.

    Wedding arrangements, too. I didn't have lilies in my bridal bouquet, because my dad is allergic, but I had phael (sp -- I can never spell that word) orchids. Whenever I see those, I think of my bouquet. Nice association.

    Poinsettias are popular here in December, too. Red is the most festive color to me, as well, but this year I saw striped ones, red and white like a candy cane. Pretty, but not particularly Christmassy to me.

  12. Susie - probably because lilies mean peace. So funeral bouquets with lilies would mean 'Rest in Peace' I'm guessing.

  13. I've never heard most of these, so this post was wonderfully enlightening for me. I think the pomegranate is my favorite... and the dogwood story!
    Very cool, Susie!

  14. What a lovely and fragrant post! I sure hope I can bloom into the flower God intended. I may not like all the pruning, but it's sure worth it in the end. GREAT post.

  15. Hello there Susie,
    I love flowers. I love the Dogwood in front of our house that is almost ready to burst its buds. :)
    I also loved what you said: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.

    "Spiritual blossoms of hope." I just love that!

  16. Susie, great post! I haven't heard of Dogwood (the flower doesn't look familiar, although I'm no expert on botany) and the history behind the symbolism of flowers is fascinating :-)

  17. Hmm, Anita. You're right.

    Sounds like there are a few dogwood fans out there. I don't have any near my house either, Narelle. (You lucky, Jill! Take a pic for us!) The marks are interesting, though, aren't they?

    Thanks for stopping by, T Anne! I do not like the pruning either. Ugh. Praying that we all bear lovely blossoms of Jesus' presence in our lives this spring.


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