THIS icon shows Jesus at the heart of the family tree of the house of David. On each branch sits one of the heroes of Israel, gazing at Jesus, who is at the centre of the tree, pointing to the scriptures that witness to him. This is what the whole story has been about.
This Advent proclamation of the character of Jesus comes from one of Isaiah’s most lyrical descriptions of the world put right by God. In Isaiah 11, the prophet speaks of the “shoot” that will come from the “stump of Jesse”. The tree that looks dead, looks as though its story is at an end, will blossom again, and with it the new age will dawn.
Isaiah describes the coming one as wise, strong, and just. Nothing deceives God’s Messiah, because he does not judge by human standards but by divine, and so the world can at last be at peace. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11.6-7).
THE icon evokes the mood of joyful peace, with its symmetry and the haloing circle of leaves against the vivid, royal gold background. Jesus, the judge, sits comfortably at the heart of the curves and lines of the painting, drawing it together, giving it focus. This is the judgement that Isaiah is talking about, where everything finds its proper meaning and symmetry. This judgement is not primarily terrifying, but restorative: at last, the lovely truth of the universe is visible.
Paul uses this image of the “root of Jesse” in Romans 15. Although this may look like someone else’s family tree, with no room for the rest of us, Paul picks up what Isaiah, too, affirms. This story of the house of David is a story for the whole world. “The nations shall inquire of” this root of Jesse, Isaiah says (Isaiah 11.10), and Paul says that “in him the Gentiles shall hope” (Romans 15.12).
The icon shows Jesus not as one of the branches of the tree, but as the continuation of the trunk, and the Advent acclamation calls Jesus “the root” of the tree; he is not just its product but also its source.
ONE of the resurrection stories that Luke gives us is of a couple walking in deep dejection on the road to Emmaus, mourning the death of Jesus and of all their hopes in him. They meet a stranger, who takes them back through scripture to show them that God has not made a mistake in what has happened to Jesus.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus draws people back to scripture, asking them to hear it and interpret it more carefully. He displays the kind of familiarity and mastery of scripture that the icon helps us to see. Here is Jesus, the word of God, helping us to re-read the words of scripture in his light.
Although the icon is peaceful and speaks of completion, it expects us to pick up on the symbolism of the tree. This is the tree that represents that tree in the Garden of Eden, whose fruit Adam and Eve chose in preference to their obedience to God; each branch holds a part of the story of human selfishness and disobedience that leads to the tree of the cross on which Jesus dies.
The prophecies of Isaiah speak of the suffering servant, as well as of the wise and invincible judge. God will hold the two together in the great act of salvation. As we trace this “family tree”, it is an exploration of the faithfulness of God, through all things. God created the world to hold it close in love and vitality, and whatever we choose, we cannot make God change. This is the nature of God, as Jesus shows us, pointing to the scripture.
IT IS easy to read this family tree — any family tree — whether with pride or pain, as something that shapes us, explains us; and that is true, up to a point. But what it can easily leave out is the action of God.
The tree of Jesse is the tree from which all life springs, and it has its source and its fulfilment in God. Any and every family tree can bear unexpected fruit, even when it seems defunct or deadly, because its life comes from the life of God.
For reflection or discussion:
Is your family tree a source of pride or fear to you?
How can we learn to read scripture more faithfully?
Come, Holy Spirit, and open the scriptures to us, so that our story may find its truth in Jesus Christ, the Son who draws all families home to the Father. Amen.
The text is from The Art of Advent: A painting a day from Advent to Epiphany (SPCK Publishing, 2018, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)).