Second Sunday of Advent
In the spring that followed the flooding of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, sunflowers popped up and bloomed all over the city, offering a sign of hope and saying without words ‘there is life in this soil, there is life’. It is thought that the flowers may have come from birdseed that had been freely washed around the city. The sight of the flowers helped raise the pall of depression and helplessness that had come to rest upon the heart.
Today, Isaiah offers an image of hope to a downtrodden people, a people whose political and religious leaders have failed them yet again. There will be a new shoot from a stump, a new branch from a root. If a shoot can sprout from the stump, or a branch from the root, then there is life in the tree. This new shoot is sprouting from the stump of Jesse, who precedes David. While it is a new shoot, it is coming from the foundation. This may suggest that it will not be business as usual. This new life coming from the stump of Jesse signals a new hope and is a new beginning, a fresh start, a re-founding. The characteristics displayed in this new branch, this person of whom Isaiah speaks, indicate that he will be filled with the Spirit of God, and will operate from the Spirit of God, judging not according to the evidence gathered by the senses, but with the righteousness known by the heart. His will be an era of justice.
In Matthew, John the Baptist appears on the scene. He too is something of a new shoot from the old stump of his aging parents, who had given up hope of a child. While he might have been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, he appears to have been set aside from the beginning to be something new or different. Perhaps, he was a disappointment to the family, a mystery to his aging parents, a new being with a new mission. He points to Jesus as the new one coming, another new shoot not just from the stump of the tradition, but from the very root of God.
These new shoots, spoken of by Isaiah and John, are predicated to act differently. John even suggests that the old tree will be cut at the root. Perhaps it is necessary for that to happen in order that a new shoot can come forth, filled with and operating from the Spirit of God. There is no sense here of a chip off the old block, but a brand new shoot from the root that will grow into a new tree. The one of whom John speaks will offer that same mode of operating by baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire. All those who accept this baptism consequently will participate in the creation of the reign of justice for all people.
Neither Isaiah nor John is speaking of patching the present systems. Nor, are they even speaking of an extreme makeover. They are talking of new growth from the old root. This is not like a B-12 injection to boost the life within, but allowing the life that is within to burst forth in a new way.
The temptation in our lives is towards rescue and resuscitation. The challenge for us is to let the stump of life rest, so that the new shoot can spring forth, firmly planted in and sustained by the old root. Dominic could do this, and so, there sprouted into life the Order of Preachers, firmly affixed in and nurtured by the root of the Gospel of Jesus.
John calls for this change of outlook through a ritual cleansing with water but alerts us that Jesus will call for it through a cleansing in the Spirit.
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP