As I read this scripture I am struck by Isaiah's blending of the past, present, and future. He begins with a reflection on the past when he says: "A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse." Jesse was a key figure in the Old Testament. He was the father of the great king David and the grandfather of Solomon. The name of Jesse was a familiar one to the people of Israel. Isaiah and the other prophets constantly reminded the people of Jesse and of the good times of Israel during the reign of his son and grandson. The people recalled a time of prosperity and good fortune for Israel.
Isaiah lived about 250 years after the time of David and Solomon. He did his prophetic work in and around Jerusalem. By the time of Isaiah conditions in Israel had greatly changed. The descendants of David and Solomon succeeded them as rulers of Israel, but a number of them led wicked lives and displeased God. The Kingdom of Israel fell on hard times. This was also the time when great kingdoms arose to the East of Israel. Assyria and Babylon were powerful empires whose desire for conquest eventually led them to drag the people of Israel into captivity and exile. This is the background for the prophecy of Isaiah today. He recalls for the people the good times of David and Solomon. He contrasts those with the conditions of the present. And then he turns to the future.
Isaiah issues his prophecies for the far future. (Biblical experts think that Isaiah lived about 750 years before the time of Christ.) He speaks to the people of an heir to the house of Jesse for whom he, Isaiah, looked with ardent longing. He uses the image of a shoot sprouting from a tree stump from which a large tree will grow and blossom. The tree stump is a reference to the sad state of affairs in Israel in the time of Isaiah. The shoot sprouting from the tree stump is Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Isaiah still had hope that God could do something with such an unpromising subject as the stump of Jesse. He believes that in the future there will arise a kingdom of peace ruled by this descendant of Jesse. Isaiah believes this with all his heart. His prophetic mission is to convince the people of Israel to have the same holy longing and ardent expectation of a messiah that he had himself. All of his prophetic utterances are made with that goal in mind.
This prophecy of Isaiah is a very good introduction to our Advent journey. By asking us to read from the prophecies of Isaiah at the beginning of Advent Masses the Church is encouraging us to really listen to the words of Isaiah so that we may have a longing for and expectation of the coming of the Christ child just as he did. During this time of Advent may we follow the words of Isaiah and the other messianic prophets. May their words inspire in us a longing and expectation for the coming of the Savior and may they help us to prepare worthily and well to celebrate the birth of our Savior on Christmas day.
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