Sunday, December 17, 2017

2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16: Building or Growing

David wants to build a house for God. After all, God's people are settled in their land. God - who tabernacled with the people in the wilderness - should get to settle down, too. That's where we find ourselves in the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 3B (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16). The "Who's on First" nature of the conversation reveals two different approaches to establishing a house.

David intends to build God a house. A grand temple. A cathedral. Ultimately his son will be the one to do that, but David has the intention. Bricks, mortar, stone, doors, doorposts, a roof. David wants to construct a building appropriate for the God of creation. It's how humans think.

God has a different thought. God will create the house of David through growth - children, grandchildren, and, ultimately, a baby born to Mary and her husband Joseph (who was of the house and lineage of David).

The ultimately-constructed house for God is a visual for another day. The house of David that is grown by God finds familiar form in the Advent season: the Jesse Tree. Jesse, the father of David is usually depicted at the root of the tree (see Isaiah 11:1...A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots). On the Jesse Tree are images or symbols of the descendants of David, who are also the ancestors of Jesus: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk. The Jesse Tree also looks back to earlier Biblical characters: Moses, Ruth, Gideon, Noah, Rahab.

Shown here are two different artistic visions of the Tree of Jesse. The top image is a 12th-century stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral in France. Jesse is at the root with a series of humans sit on the trunk of the tree (like Zacchaeus, maybe?), proceeding in an orderly fashion up to Jesus who sits at the top of the tree with a dove descending on his head. The tree shape is reminiscent of a pine or palm or other tree with a straight trunk and less emphasis on branches. No doubt the design was influenced by the space available in the lancet window of the Gothic cathedral.

The bottom image is a Netherlandish one attributed to the circle of artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans dated c. 1500. Jesus' ancestors are perched on tree branches in a variety of poses: kneeling, standing, ankles crossed, with a falcon on one arm. The figures are dressed in striped hose and embroidered tunics that probably have more in common with the kings of Geertgen's day than with those of Jesus' or David's day. The top of Geertgen's tree is crowned with a blond Mary holding a blond baby Jesus on her lap.

"I will make you a house," David says to God.
"No," God says, "I will make you a house."
David would have built.
God chose to grow.

For Chartres Cathedral, click here. For the circle of Geertgen Tree of Jesse (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum), click here.

For another architectural element that links the ideas of buildings and David and the infant Christ, see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. 

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Advent 3B (Luke 1:26-38), click here.

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