Monday, December 19, 2011

O Root of Jesse

The Root or Tree of Jesse depicts the ancestors of Christ, shown in a tree which rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, father of King David. Originally, the family tree was a schematic representation of a genealogy. The theme is taken from Isaiah 11:1-9 and Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38, which describes metaphorically the descent of the Messiah, whom Christians believe to be Jesus of Nazareth. The subject is often seen in Christian art, particularly in that of the Medieval period, the earliest example dating from the 11th century.

The passage in Isaiah, 11:1 reads: "A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots..." The Latin Vulgate Bible used in the Middle Ages says: "et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet " or ".. a rod shall come forth out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up...". Flos is Latin for flower. Virga is a green twig, rod or broom, as well as a convenient near-pun with Virgo or Virgin, which undoubtedly influenced the development of the image. Thus Jesus is the Virga Jesse, the shoot of Jesse.

In the New Testament the lineage of Jesus is traced by two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke. Luke describes the generations of Christ, beginning with Jesus himself and tracing backwards through his earthly father Joseph all the way to Adam. Luke notes: "[Jesus] was the son (as was thought) of Joseph...Matthew's Gospel opens with the words: "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham." This is Matthew's way of making clear Jesus' whole lineage: He is of God's chosen people, by his descent from Abraham, and he is the "root of Jesse" by his descent from Jesse's son, King David.

Isaiah's prophecy arises from his own realization that Judah and David's kingdom would be destroyed. Yet, there would remain a holy root. From the stump of Jesse, David's father, a shoot would spring forth growing into a sort of banner for all nations. All kings and nations would fall silent and adoring before the Messiah. In fact, David's royal line was dethroned with the Exile and remained forgotten for a long time, Jesse's stump. With Jesus a new branch buds out of the old root and once again David's throne is occupied: "The angel said to [Mary]: '...the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.'" (Luke 1:30; 32-33)

Today's "O" Antiphon notes two aspects of the Messiah's work: 1) his origins will be humble and unimpressive; 2) but his kingdom will encompass the whole earth, drawing everyone into it and placing those of high station and low under his reign. The antiphon pleads: "Come, save us, and do not delay!" How true today the Scriptures still ring: "Why are the nations in an uproar; why do the peoples mutter empty threats? Why do the mighty of the earth rise up in revolt against God and against God's Anointed?..." Millions are unable to recognize the ensign which is  Christ as the true Messiah: politicians, dictators, the powerful, the rich. Even we ourselves aren't exempt from frequently failing to recognize the reign of God in Christ in the depths of our own hearts and lives. "Come, O Root of Jesse! You stand for an ensign for humankind. Before you kings shall keep silent, and to you all nations shall have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay!"

No comments: