that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant…
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide their feet into the way of peace.
- Luke 1:70-72, 78-79
The story of our salvation is a story of trees.
Beginning in the Garden of Eden, God placed a tree from which Adam and Eve were forbidden to take the fruit (cf. Genesis 2:16-17). This tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, became the great sign of humankind's fall from original grace. But, this original sin wasn't that our first parents ate the fruit of this tree; the sin was their disobedience: "In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God... Constituted in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully 'divinized' by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to 'be like God,' but 'without God, before God, and not in accordance with God'" Catechism of the Catholic Church, 398; quoting St. Maximus the Confessor).
In the fullness of time, however, a new tree would become the great means and sign of our salvation: the Cross. Through his obedience and death on the Cross, Jesus undid the sin of our first parents. As St. Paul observed, "Just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one the many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:18-20). Here we are given an insight into the true meaning of Christmas and the Incarnation: the salvation and renewal of fallen humanity.
But, standing between these two trees--the tree of the Garden and the tree of the Cross--is the powerful symbol of the Tree of Jesse.
|The Tree of Jesse|
from "The Capuchin's Bible" (ca. 1180)
in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
A medieval image, the Tree of Jesse depicts the generations of the ancestors of Jesus, with the great prophets and kings of Israel who looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. These ancestors of Jesus are also our spiritual ancestors and we owe them a debt of thanks. Pope Francis reminded us of this in one of his General Audiences this past summer:
If we believe, if we know how to pray, if we acknowledge the Lord and can listen to his Word, if we feel him close to us and recognize him in our brothers and sisters, it is because others, before us, lived the faith and then transmitted it to us. We have received faith from our fathers and mothers, from our ancestors, and they have instructed us in it.As I conclude this series of Advent reflections, in which we've journeyed through Advent with the saints, it only seemed fitting to end by looking back at those who looked forward. And so, in these final hours of Advent, as we anticipate sunset on Christmas Eve and the beginning of the Christmas Feast, let the powerful symbol of the "Jesse Tree" remind you of the countless generations of faithful women and men who hoped and watched for the coming of Mary's Child. Ask them to help you persevere in your faith and obedience every day of the year.
A Prayer for December 24 +
Come quickly, we pray, Lord Jesus,
and do not delay,
that those who trust in your compassion
may find solace and relief in your coming.
Who live and reign with God the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal, Mass for the morning of December 24)