In his exposition of the first verse of the eleventh chapter of the book of Isaiah, (a short homily which is featured in the Roman Breviary as one of the lessons for the Second Sunday of Advent) Saint Jerome details in what way Isaiah’s prophecy – that ‘there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’ – should be related to what has been revealed in the New Covenant. In his exegesis, Jerome draws attention to what the Church has traditionally believed to be the identity of the ‘shoot’ or ‘rod’ that emanates forth from the ‘root’ of David’s father. Clearly this prophecy is related overall to Our Lord, as the heir of the House of David, but some of the finer details of Isaiah’s text can also be related to Our Lady:
‘A Rod shall rise out of Jesse. Up to the beginning of the vision, which Isaias the son of Amos saw, and which was of the burden of Babylon, all this prophecy relates to Christ; the which we propose to explain, part by part, so that the subject treated of, and the discussions upon them, may not confuse the mind of the reader. The Jews interpret the Shoot and the Flower of Jesse as the Lord Himself; namely, that by the Rod is signified His Royal Power, and by the Flower His Beauty.
We however believe that the Holy Virgin Mary is the Rod from the Root of Jesse, to which no encroaching plant hath cleaved, and of whom we earlier read: Behold a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a son. And the Flower is the Lord Our Saviour, Who says in the Canticle of Canticles: I am the Flower of the field, and the lily of the valleys.
Upon this Flower then which of a sudden will rise up from the stock and the root of Jesse, through the Virgin Mary, the Spirit of the Lord will rest: because in Him it hath pleased all the fullness of the Godhead to dwell corporeally: and not in part, as in others who were sanctified; but as the Nazarenes read in their Gospel, written in the Hebrew tongue: The whole fountain of the Holy Spirit shall come down upon Him. Now the Lord is a spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’
taken from The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: 1. From the First Sunday of Advent to Quinquagesima (1960), p.37, Longmans.
Saint Jerome makes clear, by his use of the phrase ‘we however believe’ that what he is describing is something commonly known and held to within the Church – by contrasting it to what is believed by the Jews, the ‘we’ must be the common belief of all Christians. Here then we have testimony to the belief that Isaiah prophesied not only the coming of Our Lord, the heir to the House of David, but also that the Shoot which comes forth from the Root of Jesse, which in turn produces the Flower, Jesus, is in fact the Blessed Virgin Mary. Aside from the way in which Jerome presents this as a widely held tradition within the Church, it is also sound exegesis in and of itself – for it is indeed Our Blessed Mother from whom Our Lord comes into the world; who else but her could be the shoot that produces the flower of our salvation?
This interpretation sheds some important light on what is believed about the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, as it draws our attention to the deeply organic connection between Mary and Jesus. It is from her that He receives His sacred humanity, including His human soul, and it is at the heart of the dogma in question that, because the whole Christ was and is without sin, the one from whom He received that humanity must also have been without the stain of Original Sin. In terms of Isaiah’s prophecy, if the shoot/rod were in any way marked by the weakness of our inherited nature, it would inevitably lead to what emanates from that shoot being tainted as well. We can see the truth of this in the way in which Saint Jerome, after having established the belief that Our Lady is the Shoot, immediately goes on to exalt the Flower which springs forth from her.
Many years later, in a much longer homily given during Advent, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux discusses the six ‘circumstances’ of the Coming of Our Lord – His Person, whence He comes from, whither He goes to, the cause of His Coming, the time of it, and the way by which He came. After covering each of these in turn, Saint Bernard then gives some extra attention to the final circumstance – the way in which Our Lord came to us – and in doing so arrives at the same question Saint Jerome had tackled centuries earlier. He gives the same answer (namely that it is the Blessed Virgin who is the Rod of Jesse) but provides a much more exhaustive illustration of why this is the case, supplementing it with some of the exalted language for which the Mellifluous Doctor is known:
‘Behold He cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. In place of mountains and hills understand patriarchs and prophets, and as He came leaping and skipping, read in the book of the generation of Jesus: Abraham begot Isaac: and Isaac begot Jacob and so on. From these mountains came forth, as you will find, the Root of Jesse, whence, according to the prophet, there came forth a Rod, and thence a flower shall rise up, upon which the sevenfold Spirit of the Lord shall rest (Is. xi. 1). And revealing this more plainly in another place, the same prophet says: Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (Mt. i. 23). For He whom he first refers to as a flower, the same he here calls Emmanuel; and that which he before calls a rod, (virga) he here speaks of as the Virgin.
From this I believe it to be evident who is the Rod coming forth from the Root of Jesse, and Who is the Flower upon which the Holy Spirit rests: that the Mother of God is this Rod, and her Son Jesus the Flower. A Flower accordingly is the Son of the Virgin; a flower white and ruddy, chosen out of thousands (Cant. v. 10); a flower upon which the angels desire to look (I Pet. i. 12); a Flower whose fragrance restores the dead to life; and as He Himself has said, a Flower of the field, and not of the garden. For the field flowers without human help, it is by no man sown, unbroken to the spade, nor made rich with soil. So truly has flowered the Womb of the Virgin; so has the inviolate, the unstained, the pure flesh and blood of Mary, as a field, brought forth this flower of eternal beauty; Whose perfection shall see no corruption, Whose glory shall be forever unfading…
…You have already comprehended, if I am not mistaken, that the Royal Virgin is Herself the Way through which the Saviour comes, coming forth from her womb as a bride-groom coming forth out of his bridechamber. Holding fast then to this way, let us strive, Beloved, to ascend through Her to Him, Who through Her has come down to us; to reach by Her aid to His divine forgiveness, Who came by way of Her to take away our woe. Through thee have we access to Thy Son, O Blessed Discoverer of Grace, Mother of Life, Mother of Salvation! May he through Thee forgive us, Who by Thee was given unto us. May thy blameless integrity plead with Him, that He look not upon our corruption; and let thy humility that so pleases God, obtain the pardon of our pride…
Our Lady, Our Mediatrix, present us to Thy Son. Speak for us to Thy Son. Grant, O Most Blessed, through the graces thou hast earned, through the privileges thou hast merited, through the mercy thou hast received, that He Who deigned by means of Thee, to become a Sharer of our infirmity and sorrow, may through thy intercession make us sharers of His Glory and of His Joy, Jesus Christ Thy Son Our Lord, Who is above all God the Blessed for ever and ever. Amen.’
Again, despite the exalted ways in which Saint Bernard speaks of the Blessed Virgin, it is always with references to Our Lord Jesus – she is so highly thought of and praised precisely because it is through her that He comes to us. She is spoken of as ‘Mediatrix’ and ‘Mother of Salvation’ because, properly understood, this is exactly what she is – she is the Shoot from which springs the Flower; it is through her that the fullness of grace poured out by God to effect the Incarnation is channelled. She is immaculate in her humanity, because she is the very way by which Our Lord takes humanity unto Himself. One can argue that God does not need the cooperation of human beings to effect what he wills, but it is plain from salvation history that it is His pleasure to do just that, and Our Lady is the pre-eminent example of such.
Finally, with respect to the issue of the exalted language with which Saint Bernard praises Our Blessed Mother – whilst he speaks of her in much more lofty terms, the point he is making is essentially the same one we find in Saint Jerome, who as we saw, was tapping into a well-established tradition himself. Thus, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, whilst not formally promulgated until 1854, can be seen as the merely formal statement of a belief about Our Lady’s role in the work of salvation that is deeply patristic at root.
When Pope Pius IX defined the dogma, he was also appealing to a rich and venerable history of popular devotion to Mary over the ages, as well as any theological discussions that had taken place through the years. It is strange then that so many non-Catholic Christians should take offence at a teaching that represents so well the fertile interplay between faith and worship, which has such deep roots in antiquity, and which exists solely to make clearer what is most central to the Christian Faith – namely, the Incarnation. Mariology is always a corollary or refinement of Christology, and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is the perfect example of this; no wonder then that Saint Bernard also said that we should not imagine we obscure the glory of the Son by praising His Mother, but rather the more she is honoured, the greater is His glory.