“… the most important tree in the desert is the tree of genealogy. Every tribe is a tree, and man in the desert defines himself as a branch of the tree. … The branch cannot have life without the tree nor the tree without roots or the stable foundation in time. … Man is therefore man only by reason of his genealogy.” (Professor Wael Farouq – professor of Arabic at the American University in Cairo – quoted by Archbishop Migliori, “Catholicism and Islam: Points of Convergence and Divergence”, Origins, Vol. 37, No. 26)
Behind Mary stands a tree. I do not think that this tree is just for decoration nor is it there just to fill up space and balance the icon.
If we affirm that Jesus Christ is fully human then we must allow for all the constitutive elements of what it means to be “human” – one of these being genealogy. “Man is therefore man only by reason of his genealogy.”
The tree witnesses to the genealogy of Jesus – a genealogy which Matthew in the first chapter of his gospel takes great pains to lay out and to present. Jesus is both son of David (in the particularity of God’s covenant with Israel) and son of Abraham (in the universality of God’s Kingdom). Because of this “both”, the life of the Christian is a life lived in the dynamic tension between both the particular and the universal dimensions of God’s Kingdom.
What is also of importance to note in Matthew’s tracing of Jesus’ family tree is how intimately God is involved from the beginning. Throughout the centuries, God both nourishes and prunes this tree and in either circumstance God is there, God is involved.
Before demanding obedience to His will, before the dynamic interplay of faith and reason – God seeks relationship with us. This seems to be the primary move on God’s part. God enters into human history. God does not seem to be content to be just creator at the beginning and judge at the end. God enters into the very scene itself and, again and again, plays a dynamic role. This is true in the history of our world and in the history of our lives. God moves in our lives – often in ways unseen and unnoticed but true nonetheless – both nourishing and pruning.
The icon reminds us that God prepares the tree for its fullest flowering – the very Word made flesh.
From the stump of Jesse a shoot will come forth;
from his roots a branch will grow and bear fruit.