Jesse tree, St Quentin Basilica
Remember Isaiah from last time? He wrote one of the longest books in the Bible, urging people to put their trust and hope in God, during a time of terrible war. Israel was so badly beaten, scattered, in fact almost completely destroyed, that it was like an almost-dead tree or vine, one that looks like it has no more life in it. But Isaiah, knowing that God still loved God’s people and would never abandon them, wrote that ‘a shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’ (Isaiah 11:1) – a little bit of green growing out of a dead-looking plant.
Jesse was the father of David, who was the greatest King of Israel (he lived maybe 300 years before Isaiah). Much, much later, the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesse was the great-great...(25 greats in all!)...grandfather of Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph, meaning that Jesus was the ‘shoot’ or ‘branch’ growing out of ‘root of Jesse’: a sign of hope for God’s people. Many old books and churches have paintings of Jesus’s family tree springing from Jesse like the one above.
The source of the phrase Key of David is once again the prophet Isaiah (22:22). The original meaning of the phrase doesn’t have to do directly with Jesus or with this hymn, but the verse from Isaiah is used again in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, where St John writes that Christ has, or is, the ‘Key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens’. Both heaven and hell, though they are not places in the physical sense, are often described as having gates: hell is like a prison, and heaven is like a garden (the word ‘paradise’, which is another word we use for heaven, originally meant ‘a walled garden’) or a city with gates. We believe that because Christ overcame death by living and dying completely unselfishly – by living in perfect harmony with God and other people – he has the power to lock the gate of hell and open the gate of heaven. In the picture above, Christ is shown holding the Cross that is also a giant key, and rescuing people from hell. And so we pray that we may live a heavenly life with Him.
The sun over a lake by JMW Turner
Dayspring is just a poetic way of saying ‘dawn’ or ‘sunrise’. What does it mean here? In the daytime we can see, for example, and so we feel safer, while at night, we can’t see the people or animals or objects around us that might surprise or even hurt us, and so we might feel afraid sometimes. So we often use day and night to talk about other good and bad things (you’ll see this all through the Bible, Prayer Book, and Hymnal as you use, read, and study them more and more). ‘Day’ might stand for warmth, health, safety, happiness, home, friends, family, even life itself, while ‘night’ might remind us of cold, sickness, fear, sadness, loneliness, or even death. This hymn, and the Bible verses it’s based on, tells us that Christ is like the sunrise: when we let Him come near to us by following His teachings, showing love to everyone (and being loved by others), receiving His Body and Blood in the Communion, then it’s like we light up inside, and we can spread that light to a world that can often seem very dark. God doesn’t necessarily make evil disappear, but the Light of Christ helps us see the bad things around us (and even those of our own thoughts and wishes that aren’t very nice) and helps us to overcome the things we can and to survive the things we can’t, knowing that God is always right there with us.