Beloved Members and Friends of St. Martin’s,
One of the most interesting images in Christendom is that of the “Jesse tree,” which is derived from our reading from Isaiah 11 this weekend. Chartres Cathedral in France has a magnificent stained-glass window depicting the Jesse tree, a window that was created around 1150 CE, more than 850 years ago.I once got to gaze at it in person, and it was gorgeous. The Jesse tree, for Christians, depicts part of Jesus’s genealogy from Jesse to Jesus. The center panel of the window shows Jesse lying on his couch, and tree sprouting from him, successively showing his descendants that led to Jesus: David; then Solomon; then a couple of generic kings of Israel to emphasize Jesus’s royal lineage; then Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and finally, at the top of the tree, Jesus—the pinnacle of Jesse’s lineage, the king and descendant that David was promised who would sit on the throne of Israel forever. Thus the symbol of the Jesse tree is one of promises God makes and keeps. Hovering around Jesus are symbols for the seven gifts of the Spirit listed in the very beginning of our Isaiah reading: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe before the Lord our God, the last of which is so important that our Isaiah text mentions it twice for good measure. These were all attributes that Jesus himself embodied.
After standing gazing at that window for at least half an hour, I joined with a hundred other pilgrims from around the world and took my place to walk the labyrinth. With each step, I contemplated the ideas of promises made and kept. I thought of the twists and the turns of my own life--and in my life of faith. I prayed for the courage to cultivate and open myself to the powerful, life-disturbing gifts of the Spirit within myself: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe and wonder before the Lord. The idea of promises being fulfilled by God, even when it seems they continue unconsummated according to our understanding, is a theme that runs through scripture. Remember Abraham being promised descendants more numerous than the stars, even though he and his wife were old and she had so far had no children herself? With that promise, Abraham set out on a path he had never imagined—to a new life and a new land. What it’s often easy to forget is that years then elapsed after that promise was made to Abraham and Sarah by God, even as they scrupulously sought to fulfill their end of the bargain by packing up everything and moving to a land they’d never seen, which was itself promised to Abraham and his descendants by God. Like Abraham, we too live a life of faith that rests upon promises and pathways. We begin to really settle in to Advent this week with readings that remind us of the glorious promises which are our inheritance as people of faith. We also begin the ingathering of your promises made to support this parish and help it to flourish and to grow in its mission of being the light of Christ in the world. Nothing more, nothing less.
In the darkness and cold of winter, we are reminded of promises made and promises kept. One of the main theses of the gospel of Matthew is that God fulfills the promises he makes, in this case to David, and this reading from Isaiah helps establish proof for that claim in Matthew. Jesus is referred to as the “son of David” ten times in the gospel of Matthew, more than in any other synoptic gospel (the term does not appear in John). Promises made by God are never forgotten.
In Christ’s love,
Image: The Tree of Jesse stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral, France