Forgive me if I am a little perverse in my interpretation of today’s antiphon, but during the past couple of weeks we have had an unusually high number of requests to provide information to people researching their family trees (they clearly think we are omniscient when it comes to Benedictines or even nuns in general!). It is good to be reminded of Jesus’ human origins. The shape of his nose, the set of ears, the way his hair curled or didn’t curl, these may be no more than mere accidents of genetic history, but they are his history, part of Jesus’ story. Our Saviour and Redeemer is not an abstraction, he is a man, with all the powers and vulnerabilities and little quirks of body and mind that that implies.
At first sight, the antiphon does no more than situate the coming of Christ in that long chain of being which links him to King David and asks him to be, like his ancestor, the mighty deliverer of his people:
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!
But there is something more here. Kingship is turned upside down by his coming; it is the powerful of the earth, the political elites, who stand silent before him. Now, too, for the first time, gentiles inherit the promises of the Covenant and seek the Messiah. The whole order of the world is changed, but if we root ourselves in Christ, we shall stand firm. More than that, the Saviour we await stands as an ensign to the peoples, rallying us to the cause of right, a focal point for our love and devotion. We know that his banner over us is love and that everything he does is for our good, but we can expect to have to take our share of blows and hardships in his service. Our deliverer comes to give us freedom in abundance, but it is not freedom as we usually think of it, it is the glorious liberty of the children of God. That means that we must rethink our ideas of what constitutes genuine freedom and be prepared for sacrifice. Then there is that awareness that, like Jesus, we come from a specific human family. Our genetic make-up, our strengths and flaws, are not an obstacle but part of the way in which we are to follow him.
If we root ourselves in Christ, we shall bear fruit in love and service — but it will not be without cost. The Root of Jessse was to hang from a tree and give his life for the forgiveness of sins. As we draw closer to Christmas, we too must remember that final paradox: it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born to newness of life. A hard truth, but a necessary one.