O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
O Antiphon, December 19
Reflection – The O Antiphons really take us on a tour of Old Testament expectation of God’s action and intent. From cosmic Wisdom setting all things right, to YHWH manifesting himself to his people to free them from slavery and give them the path of life, the Law, now we have the great theme of the Messiah, the Son of David. It is the genius of the O antiphons (and indeed of our whole Christian faith) that these realities which are wholly separate in the Old Testament converge on the person of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, the carpenter.
‘Root’ is an interesting image choice here. A root is something buried, something hidden, embedded in the dark heavy clay of the earth. Something that doesn’t look like much, really. Something that could well be a dead thing, and yet there is this power of life within it. It puts forth shoots of new life against all expectation. From a root can come a mighty tree, or food for the body, or a lovely flower. And yet the whole life of the root system is a hidden mysterious life, drawing all the powers and energies of the soil and the moisture of the earth to itself and producing the living, life-giving creature out of them.
For a ‘root’ to make the kings of the earth shut their mouths (a happy thought to those of us disenchanted with politicians and their ways!), and cause all nations of the earth to open their mouths in prayers of supplication deepens the mystery yet. What kind of root is this? What is the plant growing from it? What is this strange life that comes from such a hidden humble source that holds such power?
It is easy and trite to say, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus in answer to those questions. True, too, but perhaps not terribly enlightening. Jesus has not exactly stopped the kings of the earth from having their say, endlessly, and while people of all nations do cry out to him in prayer, and this is a great marvel and joy, so many do not, yet and perhaps ever.
What is this root, and what is the tree that grows from it? It seems to me that this whole business of root of Jesse and the messianic hope of Israel is precisely about the mission of the anointed one to gather a people, to form and establish a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people set apart, to worship to Lord and to be the vanguard, the first beginnings, of the kingdom of God on earth.
In other words, in Christian terms this O Antiphon leads us to contemplate the Church. This is the messianic community, the people who gather around the offspring of Jesse and who proclaim his future coming when his universal kingship will be established and ‘every knee shall bow and every tongue proclaim his as Lord.’ We begin this by our bowing and our proclamation now.
And so we have the Church (which is Christ’s body) seen as included in the ‘root of Jesse’. It fits, you know. Because the Church isn’t much to look at, either, often. It’s vitality is hidden. It is buried deep in the soil of the earth, and often quite encrusted with the mud and muck of fallen humanity, its members and (alas!) often its leaders. And yet a root must be buried in the earth to give life. The Church must be fully immersed in the human clay, even if at times this makes it ugly, for it to draw from this clay all the genius and beauty, the powers and energies of God’s created humanity, taken up into this mysterious graced humanity of Christ’s body, and producing this most mysterious fruit, this tree ‘on which the birds of heaven can find shelter in its branches.’
Oh, there are mysteries upon mysteries in this contemplation of the root of Jesse, of Christ, and the people He has made his own. And yet, the Church does have a way of making the rulers of the earth shut their mouths. ‘Qui mange le pape, meurt’, goes an old French proverb. The nations and earthly kingdoms who have most fiercely attacked the Church have tended to perish rather abruptly. Whoever eats the Pope, dies.
There is a power within the Church that, in spite of all our weakness and folly and sin, stands as a great sign of contradiction to the earthly kings and their power and their vanity. Christ the King is proclaimed in the Church, even in spite of our best efforts at times to compromise that proclamation. And his kingdom puts an end to all the kings of the earth and their spurious temporary claims to glory.
And all the peoples of the earth, long suffering under the yoke of the kings, cry out in prayer: jam noli tardare—tarry no longer, but deliver us, Jesus.