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Christ the Lily of Humanity

By Mark Clavier

There’s an old tradition of finding Easter in nature. This can be seen especially in Christian poetry, perhaps most famously in Venantius Honorius Fortunatus’ 6th-century Easter hymn, “Hail Thee, Festival Day”:

Lo, the fair beauty of the earth, from the death of the winter arising,

Every good gift of the year, now with its Master returns.

Daily the loveliness grows, adorned with the glory of blossom;

Green is the woodland with leaves, bright are the meadows with flowers.

He who was nailed to the cross is Lord and the ruler of all things;

All things created on earth worship the Maker of all.

Images like this remind us that Easter is about not just the redemption of humanity but also the renewal of all creation. Thus, for Christians, every spring declares that life triumphs over death, that winter eventually gives way to freshness and new life.

The medieval tradition gloried in this fact. You can see it charmingly in many saints’ lives: the otters who kept Cuthbert warm as he bathed in the frigid North Sea, or the stags that sought St. Godric’s protection and the snakes that warmed themselves by his fire. According to another legend, the cross burst into flowers after Christ’s death, which gave rise (perhaps) to that other great hymn of Fortunatus (I once heard him described as the rock star of the 6th century):

Faithful cross, above all other,

     one and only noble tree!

None in foliage, none in blossom,

     none in fruit thy peer may be.

It can also be found in the expectation that when the monarch, as God’s anointed, was good and faithful, the land would flourish and be bountiful. And think of all the flowers that evoked the Blessed Virgin: the rose without thorns, Our Lady’s Mantle, Lady’s Slipper, and the lily. So, for example, St. Bernard praised the Virgin Mary as “the violet of humility, the lily of chastity, the rose of charity, the Balm of Gilead, and the golden gillyflower of heaven.” All these suggested that after Easter and as part of the new creation, sanctity and the natural world connected — old creation now responds to new creation and blossoms with new life.

One of my favorite songs about Easter within this tradition is by a little-known medieval Franciscan troubadour, Jacapone da Todi. He came out of the same milieu as Bianco da Siena, the composer of the well-known hymn, “Come Down, O Love Divine.” It’s much too long to quote in full (and the English butchers the medieval Italian), but here is a taste of his imagery of Christ, “the lily of humanity”:

Christ has flowered in the pure flesh:

now let human nature rejoice.

Human nature, you were so darkened

that you had become like burnt hay!

But your Bridegroom has renewed you:

do not be ungrateful for such a lover.

Such a lover is the flower of purity

born in the field of virginity.

He is the lily of humankind,

of sweetness, and of perfect fragrance.

Divine fragrance he has brought us from heaven,

from the garden where He was planted:

This God was sent to us from the blessed Father

a twining of flowers…

The natural color of beauty he had took,

on dire lividness when he was reviled:

He bore bitterness sweetly,

and let his great worth be humiliated.

Mighty worth was brought low,

that breathing flower was trampled underfoot,

surrounded by piercing thorns,

and its great splendor covered.

Splendor that lightens any shade

was darkened by painful grief,

and his light was quite obscured,

in a sepulchre in the flower-garden.

The Flower placed there lay and slept,

it soon came to life again and arose,

blessed body and pure reflowering,

and appeared with great brightness.

A kindly brightness appeared to Magdalen

in the garden who lamented him as dead,

and comforted her in her great weeping,

so that her loving heart was rapt.

Her heart comforted the brethren,

and raised up many new flowers,

and stayed in the garden with them

with those lambs singing for love.

My garden outside the old stone walls of my home begins to blossom into life. The wood anemone, daffodils, crocuses, and bluebells erupt from their winter’s tomb and the warmth of the April sun shout “Χριστός ἀνέστη!” (Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!) as loudly as any ceremony. Our glad Creator is also our glad Redeemer — nature seems to know this far better than we do.

As you sit in your self-isolation, perhaps with time on your hands, how about looking out your windows, wandering around your garden, or trawling through your memories of walks and holidays. What do you see or hear or smell that evokes Easter for you?

The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon, or priest in residence, of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.


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