Our impulse to light the night with glowing colors at Christmastime is a good one. This is the time when “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1 NIV; see also Mt. 4:16) Colors are good parts of a good creation—signposts to what is true, good, and beautiful. Paul describes Christian growth with literally colorful language. Paul prays for God to open the eyes of the Ephesians’ hearts to the colors shining in Christ’s body, the church, shown to the powerful ones as the “manifold” wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10).
“Manifold” translates “polypoikilos,” but the Greek word has a colorful connotation that is lost in translation. Paul made this word (the only time it appears in the New Testament) by taking “poikilos,” meaning “many-colored” and placing the prefix “poly-” on it, meaning “many”—so it literally means “many-many-colored.” God’s wisdom is much more than merely “many-colored.”
N. T. Wright writes that in Ephesians 3, God’s wisdom shines “like a many-faceted diamond which twinkles and sparkles in all the colours of the rainbow.”1 Diamonds sparkle because they have an incredibly high refractive index, which bends the light from its original trajectory and splits it into the true colors that were hidden within. Close study of Advent texts, such as Isaiah 9-11, brings out the true colors of the words of the prophets, opening the eyes of our hearts to God’s colorful purposes.
What Kaleidoscopic Medieval Stained Glass Reveals about Isaiah 9-11
The medieval art of stained glass is both “polypoikilos” and rewards close study. When I first walked into Chartres cathedral, the colors of its stained-glass windows were at first confusing, but with attention, they resolved into figures. It became a game: look, there’s Noah! There’s Solomon! Each set in place and robed with his own colors. The glassmakers placed contrasting, even jarring, colors close together, intensifying the first impression and making possible the later drawing of distinctions—but only with work on the part of the viewer. The more you pay attention, the more you see.
One of the oldest windows in Chartres, made in the 12th century with these jewel-like colors, is a Christmas window of a sort. It even shows a tree, although this tree is older than Christmas, referencing the Advent prophecy Isaiah 11:1–10. This tree sprouts from Jesse sleeping at the bottom, giving rise to four kings, who are under Mary, who is under Jesus.2 Fourteen prophets watch from the side, one of whom must be Isaiah, seeing the fulfillment of his words.
This window is so old it was made before tradition gave Mary a blue robe. Rather, she is clothed in purple and olive green, with a blue stripe over her heart. In terms of the Latin wordplay the Medievals loved so much, the virgo (Virgin) is the green color of a virga (sprig or shoot). Jesus is clothed in deep green, possibly from copper mixed in the glass, and blood red, possibly from iron or lead. He is the original Christmas rose e’er blooming, recreated in glass with chemistry, waiting to be filled with sunlight.
God’s Green Banner
When that window was cast, people were already singing “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” including possibly the verse that refers to the shoot from the stump of Jesse. St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle hosts a service built around the seven verses of this carol in which for each verse (or antiphon) a banner is carried up to the front.
In the third part of the service, voices chant,
O root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the peoples; before you kings shall keep silence, all nations bow in worship: Come and save us, and do not delay.
As you hear this, you see a banner that depicts a flower, with a scarlet center, surrounded by yellow and purple petals, with roots below. Isaiah 11:1–10 is read, which begins with four botanical terms, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (NRSV). The end of the passage tells why the shoot grows, so that “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples” (Isaiah 11:10 NRSV). But there’s a puzzle here: the Hebrew and Greek sources diverge on a key word.
The Hebrew text says the shoot is a “signal to” or “banner of” the peoples, like the antiphonal banners in St. Mark’s. The Greek text uses a word that maintains the basic concept of “shoot” but shifts it toward the royal meaning of “scepter,” so that the Greek text says the shoot will be “ruler over” the nations.3 Paul quotes the Greek in Romans 15:12 at the conclusion of his greatest argument: that Jesus has received the Gentiles into the family of God. Here, we can let the words overlap and reinforce, so that both meanings mix. This shoot both entices and governs.
The Greek text is clearly political, but as Peter Quinn-Miscall points out, nowhere does the Hebrew text specify that the shoot is a king. Quinn-Miscall interprets the text literally, concluding, “I do not speak of the shoot as a king, real or ideal.”4 This literalism lets the word shine with its own color, next to the regal purple of the Greek word “ruler.”
This shoot is indeed a king, but a different kind of king, one in which the very concept of leadership and lordship has been transformed, one who burns up the garments rolled in red blood. In Jesus, God changed what it means to be a king into something with shades of green like Isaiah’s shoot. After all, green is the color of the life-giving power of the Spirit, according to Hildegard of Bingen,5 and this same Spirit rests on the shoot (Isaiah 11:2).
The Red Judgement
But not all of Isaiah is green. Some passages are different colors, like Isaiah 10, which explains why there is a stump in the first place. Reading backward from Isaiah 11, we see that Isaiah 10 is colored red, telling of red iron axes felling trees and chopping branches. The axe that chopped down Israel’s trees is the king of Assyria (10:15) who was a tool wielded by YHWH. YHWH also lopped off boughs in Lebanon (10:34). Reading backward more, the latter half of Chapter 9 (also not a typical Advent reading) tells of an Israel with head and tail cut off (9:14), tribe against tribe (9:21), where “no man shall spare his brother” (9:19).
This feels like a betrayal at first. How could the oft-read message of Advent hope be reconciled with this seldom-read message of judgment? The two colors cannot be mixed without losing one or the other. But they can be examined closely and juxtaposed like adjacent pieces of stained glass.
As I wrestle with these red words, I see that the judgment is not just top-down: from the bottom up, we humans participate in contagious, destructive wrath. For every verse in which God is actively wielding tools, there are also verses where people are actively attacking, even consuming, each other. The text juxtaposes these images like it juxtaposes the felling of trees in Chapter 10 with the growing of trees in Chapter 11.
Just as there are multiple facets to judgment in Isaiah 9 and 10, there are multiple facets to salvation in Isaiah 11. To understand Isaiah 11, we have to read its green words in its original setting, immediately following the red words of Isaiah 9 and 10. We gain wisdom not by looking at the surface, but by letting each color shine with its own intensity as we work toward the heart of their shifting colors and tones.
God’s Recoloring of Our World
In Isaiah 11, the judgment is finished, and Jesse’s family is a stump cut off—when something new and green appears, beckoning us to look closer. This is the “banner” (Hebrew) and “prince” (Greek) of Isaiah 11:10. The shoot is not a king who coerces uniformity like the Assyrian Empire, but a Lord who rules when he himself is lifted up, drawing all to himself. When we see Jesus for Who he is, we are drawn to his beauty like moths to a glowing flame or like humans to glowing colors.
To both Isaiah and Paul, God’s wisdom is luminescent, transformational light in which we are purified, infused with color, and each set in place, like bits of stained glass, to be illuminated with sunlight in the fullness of time. God works through these texts to transform our ideas of king and kingdom, to recolor our souls, making his church into a many-many-colored bouquet. His beauty is not an ornament tacked on, but a deep goodness and truth, so deep it can seem hidden.
Both root and shoot are one in the eyes of God. Jesus said he was both when he said, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16 NRSV). If He is both alpha and omega, both hidden root and colorful rose and if he is present in our midst, then we know he is at work to purify us and grow us into the image of Himself, arranging our many colors into something more than we can see.
- N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 36.
- Malcolm Miller, Chartres Cathedral, 2nd ed. (Andover, UK: Pitkin Unichrome, 1996), 31.
- Both of these are differently shaded interpretations of the concept of a staff, which can be used as a scepter or as a signpost. Gregory K. Beale and Donald Arthur Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (Ada, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 690.
- Peter D. Quinn-Miscall, Reading Isaiah: Poetry and Vision (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 180.
- “St. Hildegard of Bingen develops this idea of the greening power of the Holy Spirit, calling it viriditas.” Terry Ehrman, “Do We Love Creation Like God Does?” Church Life Journal, June 17, 2022. https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/do-we-love-creation-with-the-same-love-god-has-for-it/