Sermon Ideas For Micah 5:2-5a Part 3
In this final Sunday of the preparatory season of Advent, the lectionary readings make even more explicit the connection between Prophet and Gospel. An image with its origins in the ancient Near East has continued to serve Judaism and Christianity. The "sacred tree" has found its way into Judaism as a Tree of Life and into its cultic rites as the menorah. In Christianity it is found in the Tree of Jesse, a variant on the Tree of Life. Alongside the religious and cultic uses of tree imagery is the more personal imagery identified with the human body. Much of this information is made available to us in Jo Milgrom's essay, "The Tree of Light Springs from the Threshold."1
Milgrom reports that planting and tree imagery applied to Israel in Hebrew scriptures finds a corollary in the restoration of the Davidic throne. In the synagogue at Dura-Europos, the first known messianic tree imagery is found. From the Torah niche springs a tree which is topped with a "seated messianic king (a mythic composite of Jacob, Judah, and David) flanked by his eleven sons, the two sons of Joseph, and the two scribes."2 While it is about eight hundred years before the earliest Christian Tree of Jesse is found, the linkage is clear. In Isaiah 11:1, is recorded, "And there shall come forth a shoot from the stock of Jesse and a branch shall flourish from his roots." In the Psalter of Henry of Blois, a miniature of just such a Tree is evident. Rather than the Torah, Jesse is the "soil" from which the tree springs, and the first branches support David. The "crown" of the Tree is Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
At Chartres and Amiens, Jesse Trees are seen on the arches of doorways. Many stained glass representations are also found. One can find them at St. Denis, Chartres and Sainte-Chapelle. On the south facade of Chartres cathedral is another form of the Bethlehem lineage. The eighteen kings depicted there follow a statue of King David, just below whom is shown Jesse and the branches of a tree. The eighteen kings of Judah lead to the "one who is to be ruler in Israel whose origin is from of old, from ancient days." A similar treatment is found on the facade of Paris' Notre Dame. In this instance we see the twenty-eight ancestors of Jesus according to the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew, beginning with Jesse and concluding with Joseph.3
While tree imagery is not directly present in the appointed readings for this Sunday, the text in Micah refers to the messianic link to Bethlehem, and for Christians that becomes personified in the Davidic line, clearly presented in the lineage of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. The notion of the Jesse Tree has found a place in many congregations in a decorative and educational form. On the branches of a fir tree are hung symbols of Jesus' ancestors. It is a playful and instructive variant on the Chrismon Tree which focuses on the symbols of Christ.
One modern artist has appropriated the tree imagery for a more personal history. In his "Tree of My Life," Joseph Stella captures the mythic element of the tree as indication of transformation. John I. H. Baur quotes Stella:
...a new light broke over me; metamorphosing aspects and visions of things. Unexpectedly, from the sudden unfolding of the blue distances of my youth in Italy, a great clarity announced PEACE--proclaimed the luminous dawn of a NEW ERA.
Upon the recomposed calm of my soul a radiant promise quivered and a vision--indistinct but familiar--began to appear. The clarity became more and more intense, turning into rose. The vision spread all the largeness of Her wings, and with the velocity of the first rays of the arising Sun, rushed toward me as a rainbow of trembling smiles of resurrected friendship.
And one clear morning of April I found myself in the midst of joyous singing and delicious scent--the singing and the scent of birds and flowers already enjeweling the tender foliage of the new-born tree of my hopes--`the Tree of My Life.'4
A personalized vision to be sure, but the sense of new hope born and hopes fulfilled in a new and peaceful paradise--these are precisely the sensibilities Christians found in the prophetic literature and which they saw fulfilled in the Christ-event. How appropriate for this the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
An enhanced illustration of the Torah niche in the synagogue at Dura can be found in Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period by Erwin R. Goodenough, abridged edition edited by Jacob Neusner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). Roger Cook's book, Tree of Life: Symbol of the Centre (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), has a reproduction of the Tree of Jesse from the Psalter of Henry Blois. The Tree of Jesse window in Chartres Cathedral can be seen in The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, by Emile Male, translated by Dora Nusey (New York: Harper and Row, 1958). Joseph Stella's "Tree of My Life" is reproduced in Perceptions of the Spirit in Twentieth Century American Art, by Jane and John Dillenberger (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1977).
1. Josephine Milgrom, "The Tree of Life Springs from the Threshold," Art As Religious Studies, Doug Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, eds. (New York: Crossroad, 1987), p. 58-69. 2. Ibid., p. 67. 3. This information is found in Emile Male, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, trans. Dora Nussey (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), pp. 165-170. 4. The quotation is from John I. H. Baur, Joseph Stella (New York: Praeger Publications, 1971), p. 46, and is found in Perceptions of the Spirit in Twentieth Century American Art (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1977), Jane and John Dillenberger, p. 52.