Branches and Roots

Year A, Advent 2

Isaiah 11:1-10             DSC_0568

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 

Romans 15:4-13 

Matthew 3:1-12

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). This is such a familiar Advent image. Yet it is one of my favorites. It intrigues me. It is organic, about growing. It always reminds me of the green plants that sprout out of cracks in the sidewalk or rock walls. It reminds me of the pine trees I see growing out of rocks where there is seemingly no soil on the side of cliffs here in the Rocky Mountain west.

In preparing for this Advent, I came across a poem by Thomas Merton.  

“All of the branches

None of the roots.

All of the words –––                  DSC_0150

Freedom branches

All of the words

Happiness branches

All of the words

Equality branches

None of the roots.

All of the branches,

None of the roots.”

         Thomas Merton[1]

The poem is baffling, but intriguing. It seems to contradict Isaiah who prophesies that new growth will come for the people of Israel from the stump of Jesse, from the heritage of King David, which is long past and has fallen. This heritage is no longer alive and vital. There is only a stump left…does it have roots that are still alive? How can branches grow without the roots? Or freedom, happiness and equality from a kingdom that has fallen into corruption? There must be a spark of life in the roots for a shoot to grow. Right?

What is Merton getting at? What is the meaning of “all of the words?” We have a lot of words in our culture, in our religious rituals and traditions. We have an over-abundance of words in our world. Which ones take root and grow? Recently it seems that the words growing in our world are not words that branch into freedom, happiness or equality. Or love or compassion or justice. What are the words that foster divisiveness, mistrust, greed, bigotry, hatred rooted in? Merton says, we have “all of the words.” What are the words that grow branches of freedom, happiness or equality? These words must be rooted in something deeper than themselves for this growth to happen. Where are their roots? What are their roots?  

As followers of Jesus the Christ, we are told and we proclaim that we have been given the source of life in the Word made flesh. But have our words about the Word really taken root in the heart of our lives? So that a shoot may grow out of them? We need words rooted deeply in righteousness, words that defend against any hurt or destruction. We need words that whisper welcome in the darkness, words that proclaim healing and wholeness. As Paul wrote to the church at Rome we need words that help us hear Isaiah say again, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises…; in him shall (there be) hope” (Romans 15:12). We need words that help us hear the voice of the one crying in the wilderness, “Repent!”

What words will you use this Sunday to deepen the roots of your congregation in The Word? To help root them in the hope, righteousness, freedom, happiness and equality of God?  

I am a novice in understanding Thomas Merton. I understand that he was also a photographer as well as a poet, a spiritual hermit and monk, an essayist on the spiritual life as well as ethics, philosophy and politics. You can see some of his photographs that focus on branches at this link. You can also see a youtube video highlighting nature and the writings of Thomas Merton.

I suggest that if you are pursuing the image of the shoot from the stump of Jesse you consider stories of trees. The website, Spirit of Trees, has wonderful suggestions. There is a very poignant story from Japan, Jio-Roku-Zakura, that could be appropriate for an adult sermon. I found reference to the Spirit of Trees website and the Japanese story at which also holds a very comprehensive list of stories about, folktales and literary tales, about trees.

I led an Advent workshop this fall I asked participants to list images for our Advent texts. It took place just before the week of our national election in the US. The group that worked on the texts for the second Sunday in Advent were fascinated with the passage from Psalm 72. They found this passage a call to prayer for leaders of our country. They read the psalm, “Give the [president] your justice, O God,….May [the president] judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice” (Psalm 72:1-2). I offer this idea because no matter whether the leaders of our countries are those for whom we personally voted, they still deserve our prayers. Perhaps if we disagree with them, even vehemently, they need prayer to be just, prudent and wise leadership, leadership. And we need to learn the grace to pray for them.

Blessings on your Advent story journey,

Jane Anne

©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016 and beyond. Photos and commentary may be reprinted with permission only. Please tell the stories!




[1] Thomas Merton, “All of the Branches”, ADVENT, edited by Thomas J. O’Gorman, (Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 1988, 60.)

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