Today’s O antiphon is
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, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!
In the Middle Ages, Jesse was almost always depicted lying on his side, with a great tree of descendants spreading out from his body, ending, of course, with the person of Jesus. As a child I used often to look at the beautiful stone reredos in Christchurch Priory, where Jesse continues to dream of the salvation that would come from his line. Now, whenever I go to Abergavenny, I make time to look at its lovely Jesse figure, carved from a single piece of oak. Both artefacts remind us of what we have lost: an abundance of religious imagery carved in wood and stone. Sometimes, I think we have lost more than that. We are no longer easy in the world of sign and symbol the medieval sculptor inhabited. We are often only half-familiar with the story he tells and go clumpingly and uncertainly where he trod with assurance. We ‘spiritualize’ where he was happy to accept the human and imperfect.
The antiphon we sing tonight at Vespers forces us to confront the importance of roots, of knowing where Jesus comes from. We too must acknowledge the human ancestry of the Son of God, the play of genes in his make-up, the quirks of character and physiognomy that marked him as an individual. The Saviour we await did not come into the world fully-developed like Pallas-Athene sprung from the head of Zeus. He came as a baby, fragile, with a long and flawed human history behind him. Yet he was to be the Man before whom kings would fall silent, and whom the gentiles would seek. He is the guarantor of our freedom; and if we would be truly free, we must throw away our complicated ideas about what God should do and simply marvel at what he has done — and give our consent to his continuing that work in us. ‘He that is mighty has done great things: holy is his name.’