What leaf? What thorn?
December 6, 2009 6:15 PM   Subscribe

Seven years of what?

At the Vespers advent service I attended tonight, one line in the anthem "Jesu und Maria" confused me.

The English translation was in the bulletin; the line is:
"Maria walks amid the thorn, Kyrie eleison. Maria walks amid the thorn
Which for seven years not a leaf has borne, Jesus and maria."

What seven years and what thorn is referenced here? I am pretty up on my Christmas story knowledge overall, but I cannot for the life of me recall any seven year event/period that relates to Christmas particularly. Is this just an allusion to the famine in Egypt back in Exodus? Or is it something else?
posted by fantine to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Could it be relating back to the story of Martha (sister of Mary) praying for a child for seven years and her womb "dancing" when she found out that Mary was pregnant?
posted by banannafish at 6:21 PM on December 6, 2009

banannafish, you're thinking of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who was a relative (not a sister) of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The Mary whose sister was Martha was someone completely different (they were both sisters of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead).

Agree that it's probably a reference to the Elizabeth/John the Baptist thing, because they were both descendants of the "tree of Jesse".
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:26 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Uh, that was her cousin whose womb danced-technically because she was carrying John the Baptist at the time and the Bible states he lept for joy prenatally.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:26 PM on December 6, 2009

The third verse of Maria Walks Amid the Thorn, on its face, appears to describe some sort of generic Christmas-related miracle, where roses spring up on the thorns as Mary, pregnant with Jesus, walks past.

I'm probably wrong. It's been a long time since Catholic school.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:30 PM on December 6, 2009

(Although it does go on, in the German, to talk up John the Baptist, so Sidhedevil's probably got it.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:31 PM on December 6, 2009

I don't know about this particular hymn, but my best guess is something like this:

Seven in biblical literature is one of those numbers that often represents completeness--the full set of something. You see this especially in prophetic and apocalyptic literature. Look at these "sevens" in Daniel and Revelation.

The fiery furnace is seven times hotter than usual, i.e, completely hot, as hot as possible.
Nebuchadnezzar is given the mind of an animal until "seven times pass by for him"--the full animal experience has taken place.
There will be "seventy sevens" before perfect righteousness comes--the ultimate epoch, a full 10 x 7 x 7.
Same thing in Revelation--sevens all over the place. Seven churchss (representing all churches) seven spirits before the throne of God (all spirits), Jesus opens a scroll with seven seals (completely sealed up), the dragon has seven heads and seven crowns (completely fierce and powerful)...on and on.

You get the point.

So the hymn says Maria has walked amid the thorn, which is the symbol of the punishment that befell humanity because of sin (cf. Genesis 3:17-18) for seven years. There has been a complete epoch under the curse, with no respite--no a single leaf. Leaves among other things represent the healing of pain caused by sin when God's kingdom is fully present (Rev 22:1-2, "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.")

Add to this that Jesus is often seen as the fulfillment (back to Gen 3) of the prophecy that one of Eve's descendants will crush the head of the serpent. This is commonly interpreted to mean that Jesus will defeat Satan.

I think the whole thing boils down to: Every since Adam and Eve, humans have walked among the thorns, bearing the consequences of our sins, with seeing a chance for sun itself to be undone. There's been no healing leaf, no sign of God's impending reign. But now the seven years have passed--the era of the curse is closing, because Jesus' presence has ushered in a new age.

Verse three says that "roses on the thorns appear." I can't think of a direct Biblical reference to roses, but that line reminds me a lot of Isaiah 35, about barren things blossoming.

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.

And, of course, the same rose imagery is found in hymns like "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming," which has a very similar meaning to how I interpret "Maria Walks Amid the Thorns."

Probably more that you want to know, but hymn interpretation is a big interest of mind. Hard to resist the urge to geek out.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:33 PM on December 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

with seeing a chance for sun itself to be undone

without seeing a chance for sin itself...

Argh. I'm especially typo-ful tonight.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:39 PM on December 6, 2009

Wow, this thread actually schooled me. Excellent!

Also, thinking more about it - and echoing fairytale of los angeles, I remember my mother always telling me about how when she was trying to get pregnant with me, she prayed 54 novenas and The Seven Sorrows and on the last day of her novenas, she walked outside and saw the first rose of the season blooming. Eerie.
posted by banannafish at 8:53 AM on December 7, 2009

This has many of the characteristics of a fifteenth-century German folk carol. The flowering rose is a favorite medieval image and the subject of a multitude of legends. The barren thorn-wood is an image of the fallen world (Genesis 2:9; 3:18), and the birth of Christ, with its promise of redemption, is symbolized by the return of the thorn trees to their prelapsarian condition. "Seven long years," like the Hebrew "forty days," denotes a long passage of time.

(notes and English translation from the Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols)

quoted here.

c.f. The Glastonbury Thorn (a Hawthorn) believed to have been planted by Joseph of Aramathea and considered miraculous because it also flowered at Christmastime as well as in the spring.
posted by tallus at 10:58 AM on December 7, 2009

Thanks for the ideas, y'all! Pater Aletheias, I really appreciate your in-depth analysis. From what you and tallus have said, it sounds like it's an allegorical seven years rather than a direct reference to a specific time period.

I stand enlightened!
posted by fantine at 3:14 PM on December 7, 2009

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