The Nightingale and the Rose


In “The Nightingale and the Rose,” Oscar Wilde depicts devotion and sacrifice, in the form of a fairytale. A university student, looking out the window over the garden of his apartment, laments that a woman whom he likes has agreed to go to the ball with him, but only if he will bring her a red rose. Where, he asks himself, shall he find such a rose in the dead of winter?

A nightingale in a nearby tree hears his plea and takes it to heart, reasoning that there is nothing nobler than Love. She first asks one rosebush for a red rose, but the bush replies that its roses are all milk-white. A request of a second rosebush gets the response that its roses are yellow. The nightingale flies to the last rosebush in the garden, now empty of roses, to ask for a red rose.

The bush tells the nightingale that its roses are indeed of a deep crimson, but alas! there are none in the winter-time. There is, however, one terrible way in which a red rose can be made to bloom: if the nightingale comes to the bush by moonlight and sings while pressing her breast against a thorn, then the rose will appear. “All night long you must sing to me,” the bush tells her, “and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.”

That very night, in the full moonlight, the nightingale returns to the rosebush. Pressing her breast against a long, sharp thorn, she begins to sing about Love, and petals slowly emerge on the topmost stem of the bush, yet they remain pale. She presses more deeply against the thorn as it stabs into her, now very near her heart, and as she sings about the consuming passion of Love, the petals begin to gain a delicate flush of pink.

She presses herself harder against the thorn, and, her heart now pierced, she sings wildly of the sacrifice of Love, of Love that lasts beyond death, of Love that gives all that it has. Her heart’s blood flows into the rose, and the heart of the rose itself takes on a deep crimson hue as it opens to the rising sun and the cool morning air, while the nightingale lies now dead in the long grass, her heart pierced through by the thorn.

Upon awakening that morning, the student is delighted to see such a glorious red rose. He plucks it and rushes to bring it to his beloved. “I am afraid it will not go with my dress,” she frowns, “and besides, the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.” Walking away in disappointment, the student says, “What a silly thing Love is,” and he flings the red rose into the street, where it is run over by the wheel of a passing cart.

It is a very touching story. Is there some relevance to us as Christians?

I think there is, from the standpoint of those of us who are seeking to serve the Lord and to serve people. There will be times when we have given of ourselves, perhaps given deeply of ourselves, and yet we see little or no response. We may finally get up the nerve to talk with a close friend about the way of salvation, after having invested considerable labor in prayer, only to be brushed off with a breezy “No, thanks, not for me!” Or we may have gone to great lengths to prepare a sermon or a teaching lesson, agonizing over it and pouring our very heart into it, only to find people more eager afterwards to talk about football or a movie than the ways and the Person of the Almighty God.

What shall we do then? Shall we give up? Shall we get resentful? Shall we “take our ball and go home”? Obviously not; but this is where we have to absorb the perspective and teaching of Scripture (i.e., we must walk by faith and not by sight). We must remind ourselves that God does see our efforts, and He knows fully the sacrifices we have made for Him (Matt. 6:4, 6:6). We must be hugely wary of our inclination to grumble, because Scripture is very clear that the Lord does not appreciate His people complaining to one another—if you need to complain, do so, but bring it to Him (Ps. 55:17). We must be watchful for our own self-righteousness and sanctimony, lest in our resentment we become like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12. Let us not forget what Paul says about true Love in 1 Cor. 13, that it is patient and that it bears all things, and this perspective must be ours also in our service.

Above all, of course, let us look to our Lord Jesus. Only He can sustain our hearts as we are floundering in perplexity and disappointment, and He more than anyone else knows and knows deeply the true heartache of a sacrifice of Love that far too often is ignored or scorned. Put yourself in His shoes: To give of yourself so deeply that you bear the wrath of God in their stead, to love so much that you suffer the horrors of the Cross for people who will casually dismiss you (as George Herbert put it, to die for people “who would not at a feast leave one poor apple for Thy love”)—who can even imagine the grief, and sorrow, and righteous indignation that comes of this?

In the Oscar Wilde story, the true lover, of course, was not the student, nor his beloved, but the nightingale. Out of Love, she gave herself willingly, even to having her heart pierced through. Her song of Love resounded through creation: “The white Moon heard it, and she forgot the dawn, and lingered on in the sky. The red rose heard it, and it trembled all over with ecstasy, and opened its petals to the cold morning air. Echo bore it to her purple cavern in the hills, and woke the sleeping shepherds from their dreams. It floated through the reeds of the river, and they carried its message to the sea.”

Our deeds of Love don’t merely pass on to the sea. Instead, they are borne to the heart of our loving Father, and are received by Him with joy and delight. And really, can there be anything more glorious than for us to bring joy and delight to the heart of God?

Image copyright PJ Lynch. This article is slightly modified from one that ran in the newsletter of the Evangelical Free Church of Oakland, in Oakland, California.

Kevin Peet provides administrative support at a national scientific laboratory, and is a member of a medium-sized church near Berkeley.

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