Tuesday of the First Week of Advent
On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom (Isaiah 11:1).
The “stump of Jesse” has stumped many for two millennia who cannot get past the genealogical hurdle to the rest of Isaiah’s prophecy and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Genealogies in the Hebrew tradition are patriarchal, and Matthew and Luke trace the lineage of Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, to the house of David (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). Mary’s descent from the line of David is not clearly established, though some claim that Luke’s genealogy is not Joseph’s but Mary’s. Yet the text opens the genealogy with Joseph: “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli” (Luke 3:23).
Disputes about Jesus’ identity as the “Son of David” began in the early Church and moved St. Augustine to write a complex treatise on the conundrum.1 In his view, Jesus can be called “Son of David” in the same way he is called “Son of Joseph,” by adoption. However, since St. Paul writes that the Christ is “descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), St. Augustine allows, without supplying specific data, that “Mary herself also was descended in some way, according to the laws of blood, from the lineage of David.”2
Patristic and modern commentators offer various explanations of Mary’s lineage from the house of David.3 St. John of Damascus takes as his starting point the Jewish law that required marriage within one’s ancestral tribe (Numbers 36:6-12). In that case, Joseph’s genealogy sufficiently establishes Mary’s Davidic descent.4
In the final analysis, no matter how Mary’s descent from the line of David may be established historically, the Virgin birth remains the theological crux. For the new “Son of David” is not a son “according to the flesh” in the same way that Solomon was David’s son.
The Virgin birth defies the laws of biology. The phrase, “according to the flesh,” in the case of Christ, cannot be reconciled with biological descent. It can only mean that he received his humanity from the Virgin Mary alone. The new Eve and the new Adam are both virgins in the image of the Trinity. The historical David and his sons, however, are children of Adam and Eve according to the flesh. The new Son of David is the son of the original Virgin Adam (out of whom Eve was taken) prior to the division of the sexes.
St. John of Damascus writes of the new Eve: ”She ministered to the Creator in that He was created, to the Fashioner in that He was fashioned, and to the Son of God and God in that He was made flesh and became man from her pure and immaculate flesh and blood, satisfying the debt of the first mother. For just as the latter was formed from Adam without connection, so also did the former bring forth the new Adam, who was brought forth in accordance with the laws of parturition and above the nature of generation.”5
St. Gregory of Nyssa speculates that paradisal Adam would have engendered human persons in an angelic manner without passion.6 He and St. Maximus the Confessor hold the largely unexplored theological position that the division of the sexes was permitted as a temporary provision during humanity’s probation. For “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Jesus’ response to the Sadducees’ question about marriage in the afterlife fueled this patristic speculation: “But those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise” (Luke 20:35-36; Matthew 22:23-32).
Since all genealogies ultimately return to the source, Adam, the Incarnate Christ is more than a Jewish “Son of David.” Luke, who was writing for a predominantly Gentile audience, makes this point explicit by tracing the ancestry of Jesus to Adam (Luke 3:23-38). The Messianic title “Son of David,” which is tied to national and cultural boundaries, is transcended by the Virgin birth. Jesus is the Son of God for all nations. The scandalous prophecy of Isaiah that the enemy Egyptians and Assyrians would have an equal share in the Lord’s blessing came to pass (Isaiah 19:19-25).
The Incarnation ultimately descends from the Holy Trinity through the Blessed Virgin Mary. Begotten of the Virgin Father in eternity and the Virgin Mother in time, the Word who “was in the beginning with God” (John 1:2) entered into the history of Israel as priest, prophet, and king. The Trinity, Incarnation, and Virgin birth hang together as truths of the faith beyond reason and logic requiring the light of divine grace to receive.
The “stump of Jesse” is not a stumper for the faith tradition which celebrates the glorious fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies in Jesus and Mary.
“The root is the family of the Jews, the rod is Mary, and the flower is her Christ. It is right, therefore, that the rod which is of royal lineage from the house of David, whose flower is Christ, who vanquished the foul odor of worldly filth, poured forth the fragrance of eternal life.”St. Ambrose, On the Patriarchs 4.19-20
1 St. Augustine, De Consensu evangelistarum, Book II.
2 Ibid., II, II, 4.
3 An excellent summary of the problem can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia article by A. J. Maas, Genealogy of Christ.
4 St. John of Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, chapter 14.
6 St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVII, 2.