Rootedness: O Radix Jesse 2015

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.


Witnessing to Truth: the Example of St Mary Magdalene

Pedro de Mena, Magdalena penitente, 1664
Pedro de Mena, Penitent Magdalene, 1664: Rubén Ojeda, Wikimedia Commons, Licencia CC-BY-SA 4.0

A quick search in the sidebar will show you that St Mary Magdalene is a favourite subject of mine. Can I have anything left to say about her? Only this. The ‘apostle to the apostles’ was called to witness to Truth in a unique way and to bear ever after the opprobrium of a bad reputation in history. She saw the Risen Lord, but was not believed. She was one of the small group of women who accompanied Jesus and the disciples and provided for them out of their own resources, but she has been identified as the sinner from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, and that has tended to colour the whole picture*. The best that might be said of her is that she is the type of repentant sinner.

There is, in fact, no incompatibility between these three ideas. St Mary Magdalene was indeed a privileged proclaimer of the Resurrection, and there are a number of medieval legends showing her active in leadership of the early Church. Leadership, in Christian terms, is always about service, and how dreadful it is when institutions or individuals forget that! That she has to bear a false reputation is not surprising. If they said of the Master ‘Beelzebub is in him’, is it strange that one of his closest disciples should be accused, too? And finally, shouldn’t every Christian be a repentant sinner — one who knows God”s forgiveness and never ceases to be amazed at his mercy?

Of course, some will argue that St Mary Magdalene has been demonised by a male patriarchy; that she is a feminist icon, a champion of women’s rights in the Church. No one can deny that the Church has tended to view her through male eyes, and some of the changing ideas about her role are a necessary historical corrective, but — and it is an important ‘but’ — in destroying one set of wrong assumptions, we may be in danger of creating another. St Mary Magdalene is important because she was a disciple of Christ and because she was singled out by him to witness to the truth of the Resurrection. Unless I am very much mistaken, that is what all Christians, male or female, are called to be and do; and that glimpse of Mary searching in the garden and seeing the Lord through a mist of tears is surely a reminder that love, and love alone, is the measure by which our witness to Truth will be judged.

* the seven demons cast out of her were commonly said to be demons of lust.