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Lilies a longtime symbol of Holy Week; The flower's meaning

shifts in Christian legends.

Byline: Bronislaus B. Kush
Legend has it that as Jesus Christ passed through the Garden of
Gethsemane, the flowers bowed down in respect.

All, that is, except one - a proud, exquisitely beautiful white


To the conceited flower's surprise, Christ stopped and looked

at the plant.

Embarrassed by her pride, she blushed.

To this day, many in the region around the Caucasus Mountains in

Eurasia believe this is how the relatively rare "red lily" got
its bloodlike hue.

The lily, a flower found in northern temperate regions, has

famously become entwined with the stories of Holy Week.

So much so that the plant, with its powerfully fragrant,

trumpet-like petals, has over the centuries come to symbolize the actual
rebirth of Christ through the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Despite the fact that lilies are sold primarily during the two-week
period preceding Easter, the lily usually ranks as the fourth most
popular potted plant in the United States.

Industry sources said at least 14 million are expected to be sold

this year.

Christianity has been replete with symbols such as the lily since
its founding 2,000 years ago.

Evidence of these signs, for example, abounds in ancient catacombs

where many of the earliest Christians buried their dead.

Scholars estimate that there are at least 60 recognizable symbols

used in Christian art, architecture and worship.

They range from the easily identifiable, such as the representation

of the dove as the Holy Spirit, to the nearly obscure, such as the
dolphin symbolizing the shepherding Christ guiding followers to heaven.
Though symbols are an integral part of Christian life and liturgy
throughout the year, they are especially potent during Easter, the most
sacred of holidays to Christians of both the Eastern and Western

"The symbols of Easter all refer to the paschal mystery - the

life, death and resurrection of Christ," explained the Rev. Robert

K. Johnson, director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of


According to Virginia C. Raguin, professor of art history at the

College of the Holy Cross, the first Christian images cropped up in the

Examples included representations of Jonah emerging from the whale,

Daniel escaping the lion's den unscathed and the Good Shepherd rescuing the lost lamb.

"The imagery, at the time, represented the resurrection,"

she said. "All were saved. The Christian God promised life. It was
a guarantee."

She said the resurrection theme dominated representations made over

the first 200 years following Christ's death and that trend
included portrayals of the cross, the central and most enduring symbol
of Christianity.

Early crosses, however, never included the body of Christ.

"There was no image of a dead Jesus on the cross, because

early Christians believed God was life-giving," said Ms. Raguin.

In fact, it wasn't until the 8th and 9th centuries, the period
of the Carolingian Renaissance, that representations of Christ's

body began to routinely appear on crosses.

However, artists at the time portrayed the human form in its

perfect state and never depicted a scarred or physically
abused Christ.

It wasn't until the time of St. Francis of Assisi, around

1230, that the "suffering Christ" took his place on the cross.

The cross became the predominant symbol of Christianity, but other

signs became closely associated with the faith.

For example, during times of persecution, the fish was used by

Christians to identify fellow believers in hiding.

The chi ro, which consists of the first two letters of Christ in
Greek (XP) superimposed on one another, became another important
identifying sign.

Ethnic groups also used symbols to unite their faith to their

cultural heritage. The Irish, for example, used the shamrock to
symbolize the Holy Trinity and the works of St. Patrick.
However, it was the symbols of Easter that academics believe helped
unify the growing church.

The meek lamb, for example, came to symbolize Christ and his
triumph over death.

Rev. Johnson said the symbol of the lamb dates back to the Old
Covenant forged between the biblical Jews and God and the traditional
Passover meal.

"Jesus becomes the new lamb sacrificed," he said, noting

there are several references to the symbol in the Book of Revelations.
"He becomes the new covenant."

The Easter candle, which is blessed at the Holy Saturday vigil and
which is subsequently used at Masses during the Easter season and at
baptisms, also is a major sign.

Church officials said the candle's light spiritually dispels

the darkness of the world. Christ is the flame.

The egg, which signifies fertility and new beginnings, also plays a
major role in Easter tradition, with its symbolism borrowed from pagan
springtime festivals.

"The breaking of the egg on Easter symbolizes the unsealing of

the tomb where Jesus lay and his ultimate resurrection," said the
Rev. Dean Paleologos, pastor of St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Cathedral in

But of all the paschal symbols, the lily seems the most endearing.

"Lilies are a sign of the newness of life. By Easter time, the

doldrums of winter are over," said Rev. Paleologos. "We go
from the old to the new, from man's brokenness to his recovery
through the Resurrection."

Lilies are allegorical to motherhood, and Roman mythology links the

plants to Juno.

While the goddess was nursing her son Hercules, excess milk fell to
the Earth, germinating lilies.

Like the Romans, Christians incorporated the lily, which comes in

about 80 varieties, into folklore.

The lily, because of its pure white color, became synonymous with
the Virgin Mary.

Thus the archangel Gabriel, who told Mary that she would be the
mother of Christ, is very often pictured with a lily.

Scholars said the plant's trumpet-like shape suggests

Gabriel's heralding call to rebirth and resurrection.

The lily, which has been cultivated for about 3,000 years, also

plays a significant role in another popular legend involving Mary and

Thomas, once of Christ's 12 apostles.

Scripture writers tell believers that Thomas had doubts about

Christ's Resurrection until the risen Lord, wounds and all,
appeared to him and the other disciples, who were in hiding.

According to the folk tale, Thomas again expressed uncertainty,

questioning the belief of his brethren that Mary had bodily ascended
into heaven.

Thomas insisted that Mary's tomb be unsealed, and when the

vault was opened, only lilies were found filling the grave.

Over time, the plant's white color also came to symbolize the
purity of Christ.

Up until the demise of the Victorian period, church caretakers

would remove the stamens and pistils, the lilies' reproductive
parts, to ensure the flowers were pure for the altar.

Through the years, lilies were also incorporated into Christian


For example, the flower is a significant symbol in Rogier van der

Weyden's 1443 "The Last Judgment."

In the altarpiece at the Musee de l'Hotel-Dieu in Beaune,

France, which served as home to an order of nuns during medieval times,
Christ is pictured by the 15th-century Flemish painter standing on a

sphere that represents the universe.

With his right hand, Christ blesses those who are saved and with
his left curses those who are damned.

The gestures are emphasized by appropriate emblems, a lily and a

blazing sword.

Rev. Johnson noted that martyrs are also often pictured with lilies
in hand.

"During Easter, the church brings out all its finery, which
usually involves spring flowers," said Rev. Johnson. "The lily
is the classical flower for the season. Its blossoms look like it is
trumpeting the Resurrection, and its almost overbearing perfume scent
represents the oils placed on Jesus' body before he was placed in
the tomb."

Albert DeLuca, the proprietor of Flor-Al's on Chandler Street

in Worcester, said the plants are beloved and are a spring staple in his

"Like the poinsettia is to Christmas, the lily is synonymous

with Easter," he said.

Contact Bronislaus B. Kush by e-mail at


CUTLINE: Al DeLuca, owner of Flor-Al's Inc. in Worcester,

tends to his supply of Madonna lilies, commonly referred to as Easter