Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Tree of Jesse

We have recently mentioned, once again, the importance and relevance of familiarity with the Old Testament. Accordingly, I thought it would be worthwhile to draw attention to two readings for the Second Sunday of Advent. First, the Epistle in the usus antiquior Romanus, taken from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, chapter 15, verses 4-13; second, the first reading in Lectionary year "A" from the modern Roman liturgy, which is taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 11, verses 1-10. In both of these instances we see reference to Jesse and a root or shoot of Jesse:

"...Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles, and magnify Him, all ye people. And again, Isaias saith: There shall be a root of Jesse; and He that shall rise up to rule the Gentiles, in Him the Gentiles shall hope." (Romans 15: 11-13)

"On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him; a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength; a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land's afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness the belt upon his hips. Then the wolf shall best a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf the young shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbours, together their young shall rest... There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea. On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious." (Isaiah 11: 1-10)

This reference will again arise for the third of the "O Antiphons", O Radix Jesse, O Root of Jesse, which antiphons are sung with the Magnificat during Vespers from December 17th to the 23rd:

O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry. O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

Who then is Jesse and how does this relate to Christ? Jesse was the father of King David, and the prophecy concerning the Messiah was that he would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city of Bethlehem. "And Thou, Bethlehem Ephrata, art a little one among the thousands of Juda: out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel: and his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity." (Micah 5:2) The Tree of Jesse relates then to the genealogy of Jesus Christ in relation to the house of David and to the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies in Him.

Speaking of the words of Isaiah, Dom Gueranger had this to say in his Liturgical Year:
How much is contained in these magnificent words of the prophet! The branch; the flower that is to come from it; the Spirit which rests on this flower; the seven gifts of this Spirit; peace and confidence established on the earth; and, throughout the world, one brotherhood in the kingdom of the Messias! St. Jerome, whose words are read by the Church in the lessons of the second nocturn of this Sunday, says that the branch which cometh forth from the root of Jesse, is the blessed Virgin Mary, who had contact with no shrub or plant; and that the flower is the Lord Jesus, who says in the Canticle of canticles: `I am the flower of the field, and the lily of the valley.'

The Tree of Jesse is something we have often seen depicted within our sacred art. It shows Christ and the Virgin at the top of this tree (or in some instances, the Virgin holding the Christ-child) with Jesse reclining at the bottom and trunk proceeding forth from his side; proceeding upward to Christ are various Old Testament figures, including King David and often King Solomon.

While this imagery appears in various forms, from stained glass, manuscripts, icons, murals, to sculptured carvings, one of the most spectacular and grandiose depictions of this must surely be that from the 13th century, painted on the ceiling of Michaeliskirche in Hildesheim.

(Click to enlarge)

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