The Seeds of Christmas Were Planted Long Before Jesus’ Birth
I was in North London two weeks ago when my family visited the old church. I was placing flowers by my parents’ gravestone, in front of memorials to my grandparents, great-grandparents and sundry uncles and aunts. My attention was immediately drawn to the Jesse Window at the eastern end of the church, which is a twelfth century building.
“Jesse Windows”—a traditional medieval design in stained glass—display Jesus’ ancestry in the form of a spreading tree. The genealogy goes back a thousand years to King David, and then to David’s own father, Jesse of Bethlehem.
This way of telling Jesus’ story picks up a prophetic text often read at Christmas time. Isaiah Chapter 11 speaks of the coming king as “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” and “a branch [which] grows out of his roots.” The passage promises that “the root of Jesse” will be a sign of peace and hope for all the nations, filling the whole earth with “the knowledge of the Lord.”
Earlier, the prophet described this coming king as “the prince of peace” (9:6). The famous phrase is mentioned in many Christmas Carols along with Jesse. A recently popular carol speaks of “A spotless rose” which comes from “the tender root of Jesse.” Flowery language, rooted in scripture, for a horticultural theme.
Isaiah’s original oracles of peace burst in upon a world of warring nations. They were seen by the prophet as animals, who in vibrant symbols would eventually live peacefully together in a restored creation. “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).
That “little child” links back again to the infant Jesus. This picture shows animals peacefully living under Jesus’ guidance. It is easily translated into the Nativity scene. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are in a manger looking on. There are oxen, camels, sheep, and lambs all gathered around. Killjoy rationalists might object that the stories of Jesus’ birth don’t mention these animals, or that you might actually find a manger in family living quarters; but that’s not the point. The Nativity scene re-expresses Isaiah’s vision in its own symbolic way. The prince of peace, the shoot from Jesse’s stump, will bring all creation into a much-needed new harmony.
Jesse doesn’t appear much in the New Testament, but when he does it’s explosive. Saint Paul, like Isaiah, believed in creation’s coming peaceful renewal. It is easy to forget that he also sees the hope fulfilled. Jesus’ followers, Paul believed, were supposed to be the working model for creation’s hope.He urges people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities to join together for worship at the end of his letter. They are to welcome one another across traditional differences, learning to worship the one God, the father of Jesus the Messiah, “with one mind and one mouth” (15:6). Paul backs up his urgent and eloquent appeal with a string of biblical quotations, saving for the last the telling line from Isaiah 11:10: “the root of Jesse rises to rule the nations, and in him the nations will hope.”
Continue reading:Revolutionary Politics at the First Christmas
Paul is here looking through the biblical equivalent of a Jesse window, glimpsing an entire train of thought—in this case, the prophecy of Isaiah 11—in a single line. In his mind, the different ethnic and cultural groups that have come to believe in Jesus are like the different animals that, in the prophet’s vision, will now feed peacefully together, with the little child at their head, ruling through self-giving love.
This leadership will lead traditional enemies, as well as those with suspicions about each other, to find peace. It is especially important that the long-promised reunification of Jews, Gentiles, and one, united family will be realized. This should bring about hope for the whole world. While the Nativity scene is easy to mistakenly dismiss it as Christian kitsch and nonsense, it still has symbolic significance.
But here’s the problem. It was the desire of sixteenth-century Bible translators that common people worship scripture and be able read it in their languages. Isaiah’s vision and Paul’s theology ought to be within the reach of all. Fine. But in the excitement of using one’s own language, it was easy to ignore the biblical imperative to unity.Do you really want to make it more complicated?
Ethnic differences have quietly pulled us apart and sometimes picked up theological weight. The big debates of the sixteenth and subsequent centuries were in any case about “how to get to heaven,” which was never the Biblical hope. The Jesse-hope was never about humans “going to heaven.” It was always about heaven coming to earth, fulfilling Isaiah’s promise (11:9) that “the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”
It got worse. After accepting fellowships that were based on language and nationality, Western churches weren’t prepared to face secular sociology. This suggested that ethnic groups could be effectively distinct. species. It is clear where it has taken us. Paul would have been terrified. How about the wolf, and the lamb? The book of Revelation (7:9) envisages a great crowd, too big to count, of “every nation, tribe, people and language,” all worshipping together. That’s how the church is supposed to be living already, as indicated by the texts we read at Christmas. You can’t believe that God holds hope for all creation without this.
This hope has never been needed as urgently in my life. This pandemic continues to be rampant. We are being hit by floods, fires, and tornadoes from the global climate. While powerful nations sling missiles at each other, babies die and refugees drown,
Even the Christmas stories call for a new vision. Matthew’s gospel is the most obviously Jewish, but that’s where we find the story of the (obviously non-Jewish) Wise Men coming to worship Jesus. Luke’s gospel is the most obviously Gentile in orientation, but that’s where we find the (obviously Jewish) shepherds coming to find the newborn child. As the manger animals, the Christmas scene opens to all of humanity. Shame on all of us who shrink this vision to suit our prejudices. Jesus’ followers are called to model God’s hope for the world.
Isaiah 11 was a word that took on a new meaning in our household last year. Just before Christmas, our youngest grandchild was born. His parents named him Jesse, to our delight and surprise.