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Looking Through the Stained Glass

The Tree of Jesse imagery used by Isaiah in his prophecy of the coming Messiah has been the source of artistic inspiration for some of the most gifted artists and artisans throughout the history of Christendom. An interesting aspect of this prophecy is the word “stump” with its implication that the original tree has been cut down. Mr. Healey digs into why this is.

The Second Sunday of Advent

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17

Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 15:4-9

Gospel: According to St. Matthew 3:1-12

One of my clearest memories of art class with Sr. Mary Rose at Incarnate Word Academy was the Advent tradition of creating a Jesse Tree.  The Tree of Jesse imagery used by Isaiah in his prophecy of the coming Messiah has been the source of artistic inspiration not only for the budding Rembrants in Parma Heights in the early 1970s but for some of the most gifted artists and artisans throughout the history of Christendom.

The oldest complete stained glass rendering of the Jesse Tree is above the left door of the entrance to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres. This French church is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a contender for ‘greatest medieval cathedral’ on essentially every such Top 10 list.  Among the cathedral’s literally thousands of individual stained glass panels is the triple depiction above the west entrance that tells the story of The Tree of Jesse, the Infancy of Christ, and the Passion.

This weekend’s reading from Isaiah begins with the statement, “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.”  An interesting aspect of this prophecy is the word “stump” with its implication that the original tree has been cut down.

John the Baptist picks up on this theme in our story from Matthew’s Gospel when he tells the crowd gathered at the Jordan River: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”  He says this as a warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to investigate his ministry, men to whom he said, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

What mattered to Isaiah and to John weren’t your DNA or your blood-line, but your repentance and your good works.  God’s call to turn back to the right path is not a call to perfect results, but it is a call to serve the Perfect through our effort.  When John says, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” the good fruit is the effort to serve the Perfect, a service that is the only important sign of true repentance.

In his timeless and ever-relevant social commentary What’s Wrong with the World, G. K. Chesterton once said, “If something is worth doing it is worth doing badly.”  He was not speaking of the failures of Pharisees and Sadducees, but of the proper role of the amateur in activities like playing the organ and writing love letters, and – I dare say – grade school art projects.

As I gaze upon the incredible beauty and intricacy of the Jesse Tree window of the Chartres Cathedral while calling to mind my own feeble grade school attempts I can’t help but be grateful for the insights of Chesterton.  Even more so am I grateful when I think of God’s love for us in our honest and heartfelt attempts at repentance, attempts that in God’s eyes look infinitely more beautiful than any window at Chartres.

A.M.D.G.

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