Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
They toil not, neither do they spin:
Yet I say unto you,
That not even Solomon in all his glory
was arrayed like one of these.
Historians believe the biblical mention of “lilies of the field” actually refers to the many wildflowers that grow in Israel, in particular to the crown anemone. The flower we know as the Easter lily can easily fit the biblical description of a splendidly dressed flower. The genus lilium contains about 80 varieties of these glorious plants used primarily for decoration and cultivated for over 3000 years. Surprisingly, the lily’s family tree includes such relatives as asparagus, yams, aloe, garlic, leeks, and onions.
Easter season brings forth several legends and folklore about the lily and its religious significance. The popular lily we use today to celebrate Easter is not the Madonna lily of old. An American tourist brought the lilium harrisii to the United States in 1875 from Japan. It was named for the florist who made it popular.
The growth cycle of the lily symbolizes the Resurrection story: the seemingly lifeless and ugly bulb is buried in the ground, later to be reborn as a glorious white trumpet-like flower. Its white color symbolizes the purity of Christ and the joy of the resurrection while its trumpet shape suggests the angel Gabriel’s trumpet call to rebirth and resurrection
Folklore stories allege that many plants received their special identities and characteristics because of their association with Christ or the Virgin Mary. The Roman Catholic Church adopted the Madonna lily to represent and honor the Virgin Mary because its pure white exterior symbolized her purity while its gold-sprinkled interior represented her supreme value and worth. The stamens and pistils, the reproductive organs of the plant, were often removed to make the plant truly pure for the church altars.
One legend claims that lilies were originally yellow. One day, as the Virgin Mary was walking to the temple to worship, she bent down to pick one of the blossoms. At her touch, the flower changed to the pure white we recognize to day in her honor. Joseph, who was walking with her, was also touched by this miracle for his staff began to grow a bouquet of the white lilies.
Another legend tells of the disciple Thomas who was away at the time of Mary’s death. Consistent with his reputation as one who had to see in order to believe, he demanded that her tomb be opened so that he could view her body as proof that she had really died. Reluctantly, the other disciples obeyed his request. To everyone’s amazement, they found her tomb filled with lilies and roses, the flowers traditionally dedicated to her. As they stood in wonder, a Madonna lily appeared at Thomas’ feet. When he looked up, he saw Mary floating above him.
A less common lily, the red lily from Caucasus has the tendency to droop its head. It was originally believed to be white. As Christ walked through the Garden of Gethsemane on his way to pray, all the flowers bowed in reverence. The lily knew she was exquisitely beautiful with a powerful fragrance. She wanted to be noticed by Christ as he walked through the garden. She did not bow as He passed her. To her surprise and embarrassment, He stopped and gazed directly at her. She suddenly became ashamed of her pride and conceit and blushed a deep red and lowered her head. To this day, this is how the red lily presents itself.
With such amazing transformations and miracles, the lily became a charm to ward off evil and to counter the devil’s acts of mischief, which were believed to be especially prevalent and potent during the superstitious Middle Ages. It was a common belief that just by inhaling the perfume of the flower, one could overcome and undo the deeds of evil forces.