Jesse Who?

How much attention do you pay to the hymns you sing? Who is Jesse, exactly, and what does he have to do with Christmas?
by Kathryn M. Cunningham, MAPS | Source:

         Here we are, mid-advent and we have been singing those comforting, familiar tunes that we hear only once a year.  At choir practice the other day an incident happened that set me thinking about Advent tunes and Advent language.  A younger choir member expressed curiosity about a line that we have heard and sung a million times and it made me wonder how many people have the same curiosity; “O come o rod of Jesse’s stem; From every foe deliver them.” seemed curious and almost silly.  Isn’t that “old language” just a pain in the neck, what’s a rod anyway, and what’s it doing in a holiday tune?  More than that, who is Jesse and what does he have to do with Christmas?  The information about this simple line, which so many people sing without thinking, is literally, monumental in meaning and a summation of the most important occurrence in Christianity! 

          John Paul II taught us that the Bible is a unity with neither portion being more important that the other, the new contributing an illumination of the old and vice versa. The “Rod of Jesse” could not be a clearer illustration of this teaching.  Christmas is the seminal event in the Christian calendar, as everyone knows.  However, celebrating Christmas just for Christmas sake is really cheating one’s self out of a view that places this event into the history of mankind in general and includes our personal role in that continuum, in particular.  Christmas was set in motion long before Jesus was born and it is undeniably linked to “the chosen people” for hundreds of years before shepherds marveled and angels sang. The salvation story goes far beyond the history of the Jewish people and branches eventually to the entire human race.   Its beginnings, however, started with a group of people who defined everything about their existence by their heritage, their genealogy.  Genealogy was validation and tied the whole picture together. It was a mark of fulfilled prophecies which were the completion of God’s word coming true in the flesh and blood of the people. This was proof of the real relationship with the living God of the universe. 

          The Old Testament is basically the story of the Israelites and their relationship with God as His own “chosen people”.  In the Old Testament, the prophets are the “go betweens”.  They are the people appointed by God to pass on His wishes, speak His laws, shepherd the flock and keep their relationship with Him on track.  From the beginning this relationship was stormy as the Israelites were continuously distracted by things that were perceived by the senses rather than their relationship with the unseen, living God; i.e. their request for an earthly, flesh and blood king,  not liking the food during the Exodus, the creation of a golden calf, etc.   In the middle of this stormy relationship (around 750 B.C.E.) the prophet Isaiah was chosen to inform the people of the Kingdom of Judah that they would receive due punishment for their ongoing unfaithfulness, Israel would fall to Assyrian invaders.  A hard message for any prophet to deliver, but God never gives up hope for the healing of the rift and gives Isaiah an additional message to deliver to his still beloved, albeit unfaithful people: “A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse, a scion thrusts from his roots: on him the spirit of Yahweh rests, a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and power, a spirit of knowledge of the fear of Yahweh.  (The fear of Yahweh is his breath.)  (Is. 11:1-2, Jer. Bible).   By the word of the Prophet we have come back to “Jesse”.  Why is he so important?  In the history of the Israelites, their first King was David.  The people insisted on a King because all of the other tribes around had one.  God had no desire to impose kingship on the population along with its legalities and power structures, but for love of the people he gave them the king that they clamored for and disaster ensued.  Jesse was David’s father!  So, in Isaiah’s word was the promise that despite their waywardness the Israelites would once again have a King chosen by God who would be in line with God’s will, justice and love. That person would rise out of the “line of David” that Jesse had begun.  As a matter of fact, one of the only ways that the Israelites would know that this new and final king was truly God’s selection was his genealogy.   

          This is the reason that in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke you will find an extensive and complete genealogy of Jesus which proves that Joseph was of the House of David. Despite the fact that Joseph is not Jesus’ natural father we also have genealogical proof that Mary is also of the house of David and a descendent of Nathan who was a son of King David.  In ancient text the term “stem” as used in the Isaiah prophecy, literally meant “dead stump”.  So from the simplest of lines “O come O rod of Jesse’s stem”, we see the clear meaning that despite the fact that the people that the Lord loved were dead in sin, the Lord still gives them a new life and savior (Jesus) who is directly tied to the generation that rejected God.  Once again God creates new life from death nor does he disgard the old. This new “king” is still willing to communicate God’s love and salvation despite a long time of separation and struggle and the peoples’ disregard for God’s care and affection.  Jesus appears, the new growth or rod (shoot) bringing the ever present promise and offer of God’s renewal.  In addition to being a fulfillment and validation of an ancient prophecy, the birth of Jesus is a link.  His birth is affirmation that God is good for his word.  It is also a visible sign that the Old and New Testaments go “hand in glove” with each other.  Jesus’ genealogy and the obvious love of God that He demonstrates show us that.  Isaiah was the foreshadow and Jesus was the completion.  There are countless examples in Old and New Testaments that illustrate this pattern.  God is always trying to send us “additional information”.  All we have to do is pay attention.  The simple but elegant line from a humble Advent Carol that we began this essay with is a great illustration of this very thing.  What other clues have you missed by just dismissing them as “old fashioned” or just too odd for modern society?  Makes you think doesn’t it? 

                                                                          Copyright© Christmas 2009, Kathryn M. Cunningham, All Rights Reserved 


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