Our Advent journey begins with a meditation on a stump. Hopefully you’ve seen a stump before – hopefully, even if it was long ago when you were still little – you took time to study the stump. Maybe you counted the rings that represented the years of life that tree had. Perhaps you tried to pull it out of the ground only to discover how securely the roots hold it in place. I hope that you might have seen at least once – certainly not on every stump – but at least occasionally a small new branch starting from the stump. A stump seems pretty dead, and it certainly won’t ever look like the splendid tree that once grew in its place. The new little branch that occasionally sprouts from a stump, however, is a sign of the amazing power of life that is mysteriously present in the roots.
This stump of Jesse represents the unfortunate state of the people of God. All their glory has been cut down and they appear to be dead – nothing more than a stump. But this prophecy tells us about a sprout that comes forth from the stump of Jesse – the word for the shoot that sprouts is “virga,” and it immediately makes us think of the English word “virgin.” The prophecy tells us about some kind of miraculous new life that begins to sprout from the stump of Jesse – it is a virgin, and her name is Mary. The shoot brings forth a flower that gets its life and power from the roots of the stump. The word for blossom that the prophecy uses is “nazareus,” and that makes us think of the word Nazareth – or Nazarene. That pure blossom, a lily, is Jesus the Nazarene. This whole prophecy is telling us about the amazing new life that is coming in Jesus. Just when you thought the tree was dead, there is something incredible to hope for: a virgin shoot will produce from the root of Jesse a pure white lily who will save the people of God from destruction.
The one who is to be born of the virgin is filled with all the extraordinary graces of the spirit: all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, counsel, piety, strength, knowledge, the fear of the Lord. Jesus remembers and gives thanks to His Father for having filled Him from the time He was little. “I give thanks to you Father for having given these gifts to mere children!” Jesus knows that the secret to greatness and fullness of life comes from a hidden place, just like the roots are filled with life but hidden underground. He knows that the secret to life is to be filled with it by His Father – that’s why He wants us to know and become children of our heavenly Father.
The Jews interpreted the branch and the flower from the root of Jesse to be the Lord himself because the power of his governance is demonstrated in the branch and his beauty in the flower. But we understand the branch from the root of Jesse to be the holy Virgin Mary, who had no shoot connatural to herself. About her we read above: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son.” And the flower is the Lord our Savior, who said in the Song of Songs, “I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys.”1
GREGORY OF ELVIRA:
That Isaiah refers to a “rod” [virga] and to a “flower” from the rod suggests that the flower which is Christ would be born from a virgin [virgine].2
The prophet Isaiah bears witness that our Redeemer had to be conceived in Nazareth when he says, “A nazareus will ascend from his root.” The term nazareus has the meaning of “flower” or “clean.” The Son of God made incarnate for us can properly be named by this term, both because he adopted the nature of a human being clean from all vices and because in him the font and origin of spiritual fruits came forth for all believers, since to them he both pointed out examples and granted the fruits of living properly and blessedly.3
- COMMENTARY ON ISAIAH 4.11.1–3. McKinion, S. A. (Ed.). (2004). Isaiah 1-39 (p. 94). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ORIGEN’S TRACTATE ON THE BOOKS OF HOLY SCRIPTURE 6.35–36. McKinion, S. A. (Ed.). (2004). Isaiah 1-39 (p. 95). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON THE GOSPELS 1.6. McKinion, S. A. (Ed.). (2004). Isaiah 1-39 (p. 97). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.