O Radix Jesse: hope that does not disappoint

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!

Some scripture texts worth pondering as we listen to the antiphon are Isaiah 11.1; Isaiah 11.10; Jeremiah 23. 5-6: Micah 5.1; Romans 15. 8-13; Revelation 5.1-5; Revelation 22.16

 

We all have a tendency to believe in D.I.Y. salvation or, if not that, to put our hope in political/economic solutions. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ opened up the hope of greater freedom and self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East, but the latest news from Syria and Egypt, as well as disturbing reports from Libya, suggest that we may have been over-optimistic. The death yesterday of Kim Jong-il, while welcomed by some as removing a tyrant, has raised the spectre of an unstable nuclear power. Add to that the fragility of the Eurozone, the British economy in the doldrums and the prospect of a rather bleak New Year, and one can see why some fear the emergence of new dictatorships in place of the old. It is in this context that we sing O Radix Jesse. It reminds us that Christian values are never the world’s values; that the promise we rely on is one that will transform the world; that our hope and trust are in a Saviour who will be given to us, not in anything we can do ourselves*.

The symbolism of the antiphon is beautiful. We think of Jesus as the flower that blossoms on Jesse’s ancient stem and fills the whole world with its scent. Paul helps to articulate the theology underpinning it, especially in Romans 15. 8-13. He says Christ became a servant of the Jewish people to maintain God’s faithfulness by making good God’s promises to the patriarchs and by giving the gentiles cause to glorify God for his mercy. He quotes Isaiah also, for Christ is that scion of Jesse who will rule over the gentiles and in whom they will place their hope. The promise to Israel, the mercy shown to the gentiles, the hope we all share is freedom from sin and death and the enjoyment of eternal life made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. The Messiah for whom Israel has prayed and longed is become the Saviour of the World. All the jangling discordances of humanity are quieted, the divine harmony restored; but here on earth we have yet to experience the fullness of redemption. So we pray, ‘Come and free us; delay no longer!’

* That does not mean we need do nothing. On the contrary we must do all we can to bring about the Kingdom.

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Christ the King

The last Sunday of the liturgical year is marked by the comparatively modern feast of Christ the King. It began as a response to the challenges of the 1920s (perceived by Pius XI to be nationalism and secularism) but was developed under Paul VI as an expression of the Church’s eschatological hope (he changed the title to Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and gave the feast a new date and status, that of a solemnity). We who celebrate the feast today can surely find reason to pray for the Lordship of Christ to extend through the whole of creation. As so often, the Preface gives us the theology of the feast in a little. Christ’s kingship is that of the eternal high priest, redeemer of the human race, and his kingdom one in which justice, love and peace flourish. Could there be a more hopeful end to the year?

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Hopelessness

We’ve all experienced it: moments when hope dies and we are faced with something too big and bleak for comprehension. It may have been the death of someone we love, a diagnosis of terminal disease, the collapse of a business or some other dream of a better, brighter future. Hope is always a cinderella virtue, neglected until needed, and given at best a grudging welcome even then. As Christians, we don’t want to acknowledge, even to ourselves, how hopeless we feel.

It is at times like these that I find Catholicism a great help. I don’t have to pretend to a hope I don’t have. I can rage and rail and call on the aid of the saints, just as I call on the prayers of my friends on earth. Saints Simon and Jude, whose feast is today, are a case in point. St Jude is popularly known as the patron saint of hopeless causes. He is the saint whose aid we invoke when the going gets tough. It seems fitting that he is the patron saint of the Chicago Police Department, some obscure football clubs and many hospitals. He is a good friend to have in heaven.

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A Leson in Dignity

Hokusai Kanagawa: The Great WaveNo looting, no shouting, no angry scenes: the dignity and self-restraint of the Japanese as they suffer the unimaginable horrors of earthquake and tsunami, and now the looming menace of nuclear disaster, is chastening. We in Britain sometimes seem to make a virtue of anger and complaint: proof that we are not to be done down or deprived of our rights. Unfortunately, that can easily lead to a culture of blame and a kind of organized selfishness. We invoke the spirit of the Blitz but our response to difficulty or disaster sometimes lacks the substance.

World War II is no longer a living memory except for the elderly. For those of us with no first-hand experience of it, talk of Japanese Prisoner-of-War camps or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is remote, something that belongs to the past. Looking at the images of devastation in Japan, I couldn’t help feeling that it was very like a re-run of the destruction wreaked by war, but with this difference: here it was the power of nature at work, rather than the power of man. Hokusai’s depiction of a tsunami is powerfully evocative of the terror nature can inspire, yet it is, paradoxically, a calm terror. We see the magnificence of the Great Wave, we know it will destroy, yet there is also tranquillity, acceptance.

According to a Shinto understanding of the world, we inhabit the earth by gracious permission of the gods. They are not particularly interested in us or in what happens to us. Is that the secret of Japanese stoicism, our unimportance to the gods? I don’t know. A Christian understanding of God, one who has numbered every hair of our head, who regards us as the apple of his eye, doesn’t make the terror or the tragedy any less, but it does give hope that death is not the end of the story. As we continue to pray for the Japanese, for those caught up in the strife in Libya, we may need to draw on that hope more and more.

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