Today’s first reading from Isaiah is a reminder of the Jesse Tree, a symbol sometimes used in Advent. The real Jesse tree is the genealogical family tree of Jesus. Now during Advent families will sometimes decorate a tree with ornaments depicting Jesus’ ancestors. An ornament each day is place on the tree until the 25th of December and on that day a Jesus ornament is placed at the very top.
In the history of art the usual depiction of the Jesse Tree shows Jesse, the father of King David, asleep with a tree growing from his side (reminding us of Adam and the rib that was taken from his side). Various people from scripture particularly those listed in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke are then shown in the branches leading from the base of the tree until finally we find Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at the top. At St. Catherine’s in Portage you can see a Jesse painted on the wall behind the statues of the Holy Family. The tree’s roots are made up of the Tribes of Israel. The Star of David is at the center of the tree. And Jesus the King is at the top.
Our reading from Isaiah today is one of the most beautiful passages in scripture. It describes a leader sent from God, a leader who will bring peace to the world. To the people of Judah listening this was an intensely important message of hope. At the time of this prophesy the kingdom of Judah had had a succession of kings where every king was worse than the one before him. At the time of this prophecy, King Ahaz is on the throne. He inherited the kingdom from his father King Jotham. He inherited a kingdom that was surrounded by powerful enemies and at the same time he inherited a kingdom that was weakened by internal division. Ahaz’s people could not work together, they didn’t trust each other.
Eventually Ahaz found himself under siege by both the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the kingdom of Syria to the south. Isaiah’s message to King Ahaz was very simple. Isaiah told Ahaz, “If you remain faithful to God and keep your people faithful, then Judah will triumph.” But King Ahaz didn’t trust God. Instead, to save his throne, he entered into an alliance with Assyria. The country of Assyria was feared by everyone in the Middle East, Israel and Syria included. But this alliance came with a cost.
With this alliance Ahaz had to give up the worship of Yahweh, and in place of this right worship he had to worship the false gods of Assyria. And to worship these pagan gods Ahaz had to practice child sacrifice. Because he did not trust God, Ahaz sacrificed his own son to the idols of Assyria. With this act the royal line of Judah couldn’t have moved any further away from Yahweh. With the kingdom losing its soul Isaiah turned his attention to the people to offer them hope. The stump of Jesse, meaning the royal line, was being cut down, however, he assured the people, and that the line of Jesse would not end. As we heard, “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.”
Now in the Gospel we hear from John the Baptist and his message, by contrast, is hard and relentless. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” “Every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down.” However his message too offers hope; because like Isaiah he too speaks of this tender shoot from the stump of Jesse, the messiah is coming, get ready, and his message of repentance affected hearts. The people flocked to him repenting of sin and changing their ways. What of us? Is there anything in our lives that needs reforming? Is there anything we want to change? Now is the time, during this season of hope, now is the time. with each passing week our Advent wreath gets brighter and brighter with the light of Christ. Our Lord is coming and we are closer to that moment right now, than we were yesterday. We’re closer to Christmas and we’re closer to the end of time, is there anything we want to change in our lives?
We are part of the Tree of Jesse. Through baptism into Christ we have become part of the royal House of David, this is our inheritance. King Ahaz lost his inheritance because of his self-interest. He was more focused on preserving his throne than in preserving his faith and the faith of his country. Has our self-interest caused us to choose ourselves over the Kingdom of God?
Jesus, the tender shoot of Jesse is our hope and our promise. Let us prepare for his coming.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley