Re-thinking the root.
Whenever we hear or read stories out of the Bible, we do so with the default settings of our own experiences layered over on them. Chances are, if we listen to the opening chapter of Genesis we probably envision the earth in the story as being round, floating in the cosmos because that’s our frame of reference thanks to the advances in Astronomy and Astrophysics that have helped shape our understanding of the universe. Our images of sheep may be influenced by the green hills of Ireland, dotted with little white sheep safely grazing on the lush grass. Today’s image of a root growing out of the stump of Jesse may have us think of a tree that has been cut down with a saw, with a clean stump where you can count the rings, and a small little green twig growing out of it where the tree itself is growing again. While these images aren’t wrong, sometimes it’s helpful to think about how the writer of any particular part of the Bible might have envisioned it.
For example, we know from the landscape that shepherds took sheep out in search of grass they could feed on. The hills were not green, as the climate was much more arid than anything one can find on the British Isles. We know that the ancient understanding of what the world looked like: it wasn’t flat, but resembled more a snow globe. So also, today’s image of a root growing out of a stump may also not be quite what we think it to be… and it could actually be that much more powerful.
I think that’s worth a closer look.
While it has been some time since we were there last, one of my favourite places to visit on Vancouver Island is Cathedral Grove. It’s about a forty-minute drive away from where my in-laws live, and never fails to disappoint. As an enclave of an Old Growth forest, it is a riot of life. I have often remarked that when we go there, it is as if we go through a shrink ray, and suddenly all of the trees, plants, and all kinds of stuff are abnormally large. Even the slugs that you can see there are this long, called banana slugs, appropriately enough.
On both sides of the highway, one can take a built path on an easy stroll around the base of trees that stretch hundreds of feet skyward. Most of the big trees are Douglas Fir, but there are also western Hemlock, Big Leaf Maple, and Western Red Cedar. These are all enormous trees, and it is natural to look skyward, to the sheer height of these ancient giants… but that is not the whole story. There is another story when one looks at the forest floor. There is a riot of growth around the base of these trees, ferns, moss, lichen, and saplings of the big trees. As much as this is an Old Growth forest, one sees the renewal and new life springing up among the toes of giants, and yet there is something more, something even more profound when one looks closer.
No matter what direction I look whenever I am there, the forest floor is also littered with the massive trunks of fallen trees. The reality is, as big and as old as these trees are, when left in their natural state, they will eventually fall over. Their time comes and goes, and whether it is wind, saturated ground, or both, the roots can no longer hold and down they come. But their story does not end there. As nature takes its way, the seeds of trees and other plants take root in the bark and trunk, and new life takes hold. The saplings begin to grow, spurred on by the nutrients and protection of the fallen tree. Scientists call these “nurse logs” where new life is literally growing out of the old, where we might only see a dead tree. A new shoot, new life, grows out from the remains of the old tree. Eventually as the old tree’s time has passed, and it returns to its elements, it has helped nurture new life.
That’s something worth paying attention to.
Isaiah lived in a region and a time where massive cedar trees still dominated the forested landscape. While most of that forest is now gone, reduced to smaller regions in Lebanon, Isaiah would have been familiar with this kind of old-growth forest. It is quite probable that he could have observed saplings growing out of the fallen trunks as nurse logs, rather than a sawed-off stump.
For Isaiah, this was an image of new life emerging where everyone else was seeing death and uncertainty. However, Isaiah was not downplaying the reality of the world around them. A fallen tree is still a fallen tree, it does mean the end of something, and yet by pointing to the sapling, the shoot, growing out of a fallen tree, he observed and proclaimed that in God, new life springs out of where other only saw things coming to an end.
Advent, by its nature, is a season of wait, of anticipation, but also of lengthening shadows. It shares a lot with its sister season of Lent ahead of Good Friday. It comes at a time of year when nights are getting longer and the days are getting colder. Advent is a season of darkness and uncertainty, where waiting and anticipating is an effort, and lighting a candle is a defiant proclamation of hope even if we are unsure about it ourselves. Think of it, here it is in early December, and amid ice and snow, we are listening to a story whose primary image is the green leaves of a sapling emerging out of a fallen tree.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe in the middle of all the darkness and uncertainty, God is calling us to see the wider view and light a candle. Maybe, just for a moment, we pause from the busy and the hustle to hush… to listen to that quiet, peaceful voice. Maybe, this Advent, we can come to understand and see God in the new life growing out from a fallen tree.