O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer
The Jesse tree is a familiar sight to any medievalist. Liking to celebrate their own lineage, the idea of taking Isaiah’s verses about the Messiah being born of the root of the tree of Jesse appealed to the kings of this world, and so it was an image much copied. It reminds us of something central to the Christian faith – which is that the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us; he who had no beginning and was ungenerated, became a creature with a birth – a real baby, a real boy and a real man crucified in the Cross for our sins. It was not, perhaps surprising that one of the earliest heresies was a protest against such an idea. Adoptionism argued that Christ was a man who was adopted by God at the moment of the baptism in the Jordan, and that the Spirit of God left him on the Cross – a line of heresy which found its way into the Islamic take on Christ. We are so familiar with the idea of the Incarnation that we are apt to forget what a radical idea it is.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were very familiar with the idea of gods taking on human form and interfering in human affairs, and the Jews, who rejected polytheism, were familiar with the idea, discussed in yesterday’s post, of God speaking to man out of the flames. But the notion that the one God should have actually become a human being, should have had a human mother, and should have suffered and died, was an extremely radical one. For one thing, if there was only one God, who, then, was God whilst God was being a human baby? The very idea seemed to the Jews a direct challenge to their monotheism, as it does, to this day, to Muslim theologians. The dogma of the Trinity derives from the way in which Scripture talks about God as both Father, Word and Spirit. It was the Word who became flesh, not the Father or the Spirit, and yet all were God; the Trinity is the only answer to the dilemma this poses to monotheists.
Isaiah had said that the promised Messiah would be if the root of Jesse, and both Luke and Matthew reach back to this prophesy, although, of course, the lineage is via Mary rather than by his foster father; but the ancients were familiar with the idea that the foster son could be the legitimate heir of the emperor – it was a common enough phenomenon in the Roman Empire. The Evangelists were anxious to show how the Scriptures with which they were familiar – what we call the Old Testament – spoke of Jesus. The Septuagint, which they used, spoke of the Messiah being born of a Virgin. Luke has the confirmation of this prophecy in his Gospel, and from the best source available – the mother of Jesus herself. Who else could have told him of the words she had spoken in praise of God after the Annunciation? Writing, as they were, for fellow Jews, both Evangelists stressed the evidence to be found in Scripture.
Jesus himself used the image of himself as the vine, with us as the branches. He knew, as men who live in a predominantly agricultural economy do, that the soil in which the plant was rooted was of vital importance to its flourishing. So it is with us as Christians. If we are rooted in him, then we shall bear fruit, and if not, then not. Lord, let us be rooted in the reality of our life with you that, through the fruit we bear, we may bear witness to you.