O Radix Jesse | 19 December 2020

Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

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!

Who does not love those beautiful medieval images of Jesse and the great tree of descendants springing from his loins — in stone at Christchurch, wood at Abergavenny (as shown above) and glass and stone in the window at Dorchester — and the genealogies of the gospels which all end with the birth of Christ? Jesus has a human ancestry as flawed and imperfect as our own. The way he looked, the way he spoke, the way he walked were a very human mixture of genes and upbringing. He is, so to say, of the earth, earthy, and among his ancestors are some very dodgy figures, including some non-Jews. Yet before him, the humble Galilean, kings stand silent and gentiles come in search. He, and he alone, can set us free from everything that binds us and lead us into the Promised Land where all is peace and joy. That, surely, is Jesse’s dream, a long, long dream down the centuries. I hope it is not too fanciful to see a connection between our modern word ‘dream’ and the Old English ‘drëam’, meaning ‘joy’ or ‘music’. The serenity of Jesse’s features suggest, to me at least, a man who gazed into the future and rejoiced at what he saw: a graceful flowering of all that he held most precious, a fruitfulness far beyond the ordinary.

Tempting though it is to linger among such images, we know it will not do. We cannot ask for freedom if we are not prepared to work at it, sacrifice for it, share it with others. Most of us are probably a little afraid of the chains that bind us, the sins we don’t quite see as sin, the comfortable accommodations with secular values that are a little selfish, a little self-indulgent maybe, but not really bad. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking can be dangerous. Without falling prey to scrupulosity, we need to recognize that, as Christians, our way of acting should be different from that of others. If we are truly rooted in Christ, we must grow to be like him; and that is always going to be demanding. We are, of course, inclined to set limits. We don’t mind being a little stunted, a little pot-bound, it’s more comfortable that way. So, for instance, I’ll love other Christians, but I draw the line at loving those outside my comfort zone, Muslims/atheists/blacks/whites/conservatives/liberals (complete as appropriate). Hmn. I’m not sure about that, are you?

There are several scriptural texts we could ponder today (e.g. Isaiah 11.1; Isaiah 11.10; Jeremiah 23. 5-6: Micah 5.1; Romans 15. 8-13; Revelation 5.1-5; Revelation 22.16) but I am constantly drawn back to that silent, dreamy image of Jesse. Silence is characteristic of the men involved in the Infancy narratives, and I have often wondered why. Today, for example, Zachariah is struck dumb (Luke 1.5-25); Joseph will remain silent when instructed by the angel. We, by contrast, tend to rush into making observations or sharing our opinions with others. Perhaps we need to make some silence for ourselves today, so that we can reflect on the use we make of our own freedom — and the limits we impose on the freedom of others by the way we talk and act. Then we can make the prayer of the antiphon our own.

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Broken Dreams

The people of Thailand awoke this morning to find that they are under martial law, although the Army has denied anything as definite as a military coup. The situation in Ukraine seems ever more desperate; and if we look at the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, the ‘Arab Spring’ that so excited Western journalists has turned, by and large, to a bleak and unpromising winter. Not so long ago, the economic ‘growth miracles’ being hailed in Europe and the U.S.A. proved they were no such thing and ushered in a long and dreary period of financial failure and business collapse. Yet still we dream of a better tomorrow. The shape our dream takes is determined by our own ambitions, fears, desires, but the common element is always that the future will be an improvement on the present.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it can make us complacent or unappreciative of the present. Christians are not immune. As we look forward with hope to eternal life, we can ignore or pay too little attention to what is happening here and now. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ is one we must all learn to celebrate. We cannot live in the past nor in the future: now is all we have, so we must make sure it is a good ‘now’ — not in any self-indulgent, vapid way, but as the time given us for a reason and a purpose.

St Benedict, as you might expect, has quite a lot to say on this subject. Today, for example, in RB 4. 22–43, he lists among the tools of good works several that concern inner and outer truthfulness and control over one’s appetites. We cannot put off doing good till tomorrow: our salvation must be worked out today. There is an urgency about his insistence on living virtuously because it affects not just us but everyone with whom we come into contact. His prayer towards the end of the Rule is that we may all be brought to everlasting life (RB 72.12). All, without exception. That is a big dream to have, and one that, please God, will not end as broken.

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Dying to Self and Unassuming Holiness

Most of us will have heard, at some time or other, uplifting little talks about the importance of dying to self in order to follow Christ. Today the Church celebrates someone who did just that, and so completely that he remains a somewhat shadowy figure: St Joseph, husband of Mary, adoptive father of Jesus, patron of the dying and pattern of unassuming holiness. In the Middle Ages he was often treated as a figure of fun, but from the seventeenth century onwards his greatness has been more generally recognized. Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph was a man of dreams and singular purity of life whose mission was to hear and obey the word of God and to protect the family entrusted to his care. His kind of holiness is one we can all aspire to. It is the holiness of everyday life, of family and work, and lets us see being a ‘background person’ for what it truly is: a way of allowing Christ to take centre stage so that he may be all in all.

I think there is a close connection between Joseph’s role as a father and his role as patron of the dying. Fatherhood isn’t easy, nor is dying. Joseph had to lay aside all his own dreams of happiness when he accepted the role God had marked out for him. He taught Jesus how to be a man; how to conduct himself in the company of others; how to be tender towards women and children; how to stand up for what was right in the face of opposition; and ultimately, how to die. When Jesus hung upon the Cross and turned to his heavenly Father, it was with the honesty and trust he had learned from Joseph. He did not hide his pain, nor did he seek a way out. He surrendered his life as, many years earlier, Joseph had surrendered his, that the Father’s will might be done. We have much to thank Joseph for, and much to learn from him, too.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail