From The Garden of Eden in the beginning, to Gethsemane and the garden near Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre where our Lord was crucified and buried, and to the Tree of Life in the heavenly Jerusalem in the Apocalypse, there are gardens at key moments in Sacred Scripture. Surprisingly, the Bible does not tell us what flowers where found in these gardens, yet flowers do appear in other places in Holy Writ. Sometimes flowers are used by the inspired authors to tell us something of the beauty and Providence of the Creator, sometimes to remind us of the transitory nature of our earthly life, and at other times flowers remind us of the promises of fruitfulness God grants to those who follow Him.
Flowers are things of beauty, reflecting the beauty of the Creator. Thus, in the Canticles the mystical Solomon compares his beloved bride to the “flower of the field and the lily of the valleys” (Cant 2:1).
Closely related, we see our Lord using the beauty of flowers with which God adorns the fields to teach us to trust in Divine Providence: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.” (Matthew 6:28,29)
As flowers are beautiful, it is not surprising that they should be offered back to God in some way. We often put flowers on or near the altar. In the Old Testament, carvings of flowers adorned the tabernacle, and later the Temple. In Exodus God commands Moses to adorn the Menorah, the seven branched candlestick with graven lilies. (Exodus 25:31) Later Solomon would also engrave lilies on the candlesticks for the Temple of the Lord: (3 Kings 7:49)
More often than not, however, the Holy Ghost uses flowers to represent the transitory and passing nature of this life. As flowers bloom for a short time and then wilt and fade, so also will all earthly things pass away. When Job complains that human life is short and miserable he says: “Man…Who cometh forth like a flower, and is destroyed” (14:2). This thought is repeated in Psalm 102:15: “Man’s days are as grass, as the flower of the field so shall he flourish. For the spirit [wind] shall pass in him, and he shall not be: and he shall know his place no more.” St James picks up the same idea in his epistle when he says that the rich and proud man “as the flower of the grass shall he pass away.” (James 1:11) St Peter repeats the same thought in his first epistle: “For all flesh is as grass; and all the glory thereof as the flower of grass. The grass is withered, and the flower thereof is fallen away.” (1 Peter1:24) This is especially more striking in the holy land where the desert flowers bloom for a few short weeks while the rest of the year is much duller.
As flowers are the first steps in plants producing fruit, they are sometimes used to indicate the spiritual blessings and fruits promised to those who follow God. In the book of Ecclesiasticus, Divine Wisdom says: “As the vine I have brought forth a pleasant odour: and my flowers are the fruit of honour and riches.” (Eccl 24:23) Sometimes, we must suffer first, but the Lord does look after his own. Isaiah prophesying the deliverance of Israel: “Israel shall blossom and bud, and they shall fill the face of the world with seed.” (Isaiah 27:6) and again: “The land that was desolate and impassable shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice, and shall flourish like the lily. It shall bud forth and blossom” (Is 35:1-2). If God promises to reward those who seek Him, he also wants us to be fruitful in prayer and good works. Thus in Ecclesiasticus, for example, the wise man exhorts the people of God to “Send forth flowers, as the lily, and yield a smell, and bring forth leaves in grace, and praise with canticles, and bless the Lord in his works.” (Eccl 39:19).
One of the most interesting stories of flowers in the Bible though, is Aaron’s staff. During the forty years in the desert, a group of Israelites led by Core rebelled against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. The earth opened up under the rebels feet and they went down alive into hell. (Numbers 16:30-34) Then, to put beyond the shadow of a doubt whom He had chosen as His High Priest, the Lord told Moses to have the chiefs of each tribe of Israel bring their staffs to the Tabernacle of the Lord. Overnight Aaron’s dead staff miraculously budded, blossomed and started producing fruit. In the morning they “found that the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi, was budded: and that the buds swelling it had bloomed blossoms, which spreading the leaves, were formed into almonds.” (Numbers 17:8)