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Contemplating the stump of Jesse, an Advent tradition


Fr. Dan Daly, S.J. - published on 11/29/16

In the weeks before Christmas we remember the history that preceded the birth of the Messiah

Jesse was out in the barn checking on the draft animals when the king’s messenger arrived. He announced that King Saul wanted Jesse’s son David to come and play the harp for him. David had certainly become very popular, Jesse thought to himself.

Just a short time earlier the prophet Samuel had appeared in Bethlehem seeking to anoint one of Jesse’s sons for special service to God. Samuel had been somewhat vague as to what that special service might entail, but Jesse happily and proudly presented his sons to the prophet. To everyone’s surprise, Samuel identified David as the one chosen by God and anointed him right on the spot. Samuel explained that David’s services would not be needed right away and that he would be in touch. Then he left.

Now the king was summoning David to play the harp. Surely this was not the special service that Samuel had in mind. A person did not need to be anointed to play the harp! Jesse had more questions than answers. Why did King Saul need a harp player? And how did the king decide that David was the right man for the job? Jesse could not help but think that, with all these distractions, David would lose track of the sheep he was tending and all the animals would wander away.

Jesse summoned his young son and informed him of his new musical engagement. As David was getting cleaned up, Jesse prepared gifts to present to the king: loaves of bread, a skin of wine, and a lively little goat. As he entrusted his son and the gifts to the care of the royal messenger, Jesse wondered what God might have planned next.

Two hundred and seventy years later, the prophet Isaiah foretold that a shoot would sprout from the stump of Jesse, to become a strong, wise and just leader for the people. As Christians, we recognize in Jesus the leader the prophet anticipated.

Isaiah pays Jesse quite a compliment in describing him as the stump from which the shoot would sprout. Many generations had followed Jesse, David and Solomon, like branches from the trunk of a tree, but those generations were not always as good and faithful as Jesse. Some had wandered away from God and made terrible mistakes. Many lacked the full measure of God’s spirit that their ancestors had enjoyed. So Isaiah imagines a new shoot springing straight from the stump of Jesse, to be the holy, faithful, spirit-filled leader that God needed.

Jesse is not a prominent character in the Old Testament. He appears in only a few episodes in the Bible. Ordinarily, he does not take center stage, but remains quietly in the background, providing assistance and support. Jesse was a good man. He was loyal to the king and faithful to God. His children took after him. Long before David arrived with his slingshot, three other sons of Jesse were already serving in the king’s army in battle against the Philistines. David’s own courage and faithfulness were gifts he inherited from his father.

Even though Jesus did not spring directly from the stump of Jesse, as Isaiah imagined, he still shared in Jesse’s spirit 28 generations later. During this season of Advent, we remember the history that preceded the birth of the Messiah and the holy people who were part of that history. We ask for the grace to follow their examples.

For the Mass readings for November 29, click here. To learn more about the painting of the anointing of David, click here.

Author’s note:  St. Ignatius Loyola encouraged us to use our imagination in contemplating Scripture passages so that we might draw greater fruit from them. In reflecting on the stories of Jesse in 1 Samuel 16, I use my imagination to fill in some of the details.

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