Isaiah 11:1-3 / Matthew 1:1-17
Well, I managed to get through that long Gospel reading! Why on earth did Matthew start his Gospel with a long, tedious list of names? Because for Matthew the gospel, (the Good News he was proclaiming), was entirely dependent on who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus is everything. And central to his identity is that he is a branch, stemming from the root of Jesse. O root, O radix Jesse, as today’s Advent antiphon puts it.
Identity is central to the whole prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. That tradition became more and more focused on the hope that one day, God would save his people by sending them a Savior – an anointed one—a Messiah. But who would he be? How will we know who it is? People were always asking “who are you?” “Where are you from?” Well, Isaiah tells us in our reading today: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him….” He will be the one. We will recognize the Messiah when he comes, because he will come from the root of Jesse.
Well, the long genealogical list at the beginning of Matthew is pretty dreary – but the image of a tree, a family tree, is much more appealing to the imagination. And that was certainly true for the medieval imagination. So over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ genealogical identity. They are called Jesse Trees. We see them in stained glass windows. (The oldest piece of stained glass in England is the Jesse Tree at York Minster.) We see them in stone casings (like the wonderful Jesse Tree greeting pilgrims at the entrance to the cathedral of St. James Santiago de Compostela.) And we see them in illuminated manuscripts, such as the one you have before you. It is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter from the 12th century.
At the very bottom, larger than the other figures, lies Jesse, sleeping, rather like Adam when his rib was taken to make Eve. Coming out from Jesse’s navel springs the trunk of a tree. As it ascends we see the figure of his son David, wearing a royal crown. This is important, stressing the royal descent of Jesus. Then the tree ascends vertically to Mary, and then to Jesus himself.
On either side there are prophets holding scrolls, which open out and fall, imitating the branches of the trees. With their other hand they proclaim the word of prophecy. And above the whole tree, there is the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.
The Jesse Tree is proclaiming pictorially, what Matthew proclaims in his genealogy. As you look at this Jesse Tree, what else do you see? What draws you spiritually? See the figures of David, Mary, Jesus staring at us. Drawing us in.
When those medieval pilgrims stared at this tree, when they lit candles before it, and prayed in awe, they were not simply responding to a piece of teaching about Jesus’ identity. What drew them and what can draw us in, is the sudden, stunning realization that this is not just Jesus’ family tree – but it is also ours.
“I am the true vine – and you are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.” Words of Jesus from John 15. The Gospel, the good news being proclaimed, is that when Jesus died and rose again, he gave to those who believed in him power to become children of God. At our baptism, we were adopted into the family of God. We were grafted, as John has it, grafted into the family tree of Jesus.
So as you look at that Jesse Tree – those are our ancestors looking at us. You are part of that family. As you pray with it, you might imagine a branch somewhere with your name on it.
And yet we don’t always live as if they are our family. This is our family tree – this is our true home. Yet we so often look for meaning and identity elsewhere. We forget who we are, whose we are. Like the Prodigal, we take off for a far country: seeking meaning, wealth, or power, or status. We cut ourselves off from the true vine, from the tree of life, from our true home.
But God longs for us to come home. Rather like the Prodigal’s father, he looks for us. “Adam, where are you?” He longs for us, he yearns for us. He sends Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to look for us. And that divine seeking creates a response in us. And it is one of the great themes of Advent. We experience longing, desire, restlessness, thirst, yearning. It is the longing and desiring which is reflected in all the Advent Antiphons. O come, Emanuel, O come and deliver us. O Desire of all the nations, come and rescue us.
God calls us home by planting longing and restlessness in our souls. We try, of course, to fill that yearning, by filling ourselves with every pleasure, by stocking our homes with riches and possessions, trying to sate our appetites for more and more – yet nothing fills the void. The world becomes ‘weary, stale, flat and unprofitable’. I am still hungry for more. But I am looking in the wrong place. The only one who can heal our restless heart is God alone. As Augustine put it, “Our souls are restless till they find their rest in you.”
To bring us home, to graft us back into our true family tree, God plants yearnings, desire, longing and restlessness in us. The great Anglican priest and poet George Herbert put it better than I can in his lovely poem, The Pulley.
When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.
“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.
“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”
Of course the advertisers know only too well, that we are restless, and full of longings and desire – especially during this season. If you buy this product, it will answer your heart’s desire: your longing will be satisfied. A bigger home, another car. A younger face. And it lasts a while – but then we long for more. The restless heart cannot be so easily satisfied. “Let him be rich and weary,” says Herbert.
This longing, this restless desire, which are so central to the season of Advent, they are planted in us by God, they are divine homing-instincts.
So if you are right now feeling restless, have a desire for you’re not sure what, don’t try to fill it with something. See it rather as my inner response to God seeking me, drawing me home.
The great Benedictine scholar Sebastian Moore wrote this:
“Desire is not an emptiness longing to be filled
Desire is a fullness, longing to be in relationship
Desire is love trying to happen.”
We will know longing and restlessness and yearning all of our lives, as God continually calls us and guides us home.
So today – give thanks to God, who through Jesus Christ, has engrafted us into the root of Jesse, our true family and home.
Today, acknowledge with sorrow, the times when we have followed our lesser desires, which have taken us to a far country, far from home.
Today – and during this Adventide, give thanks for the gift of restlessness and desire, which, God willing, will finally guide us to that heavenly home where we shall live with God forever.
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