Rooted, or Are We?

One hundred days to Brexit, announce the media, with varying degrees of gladness or dismay. Meanwhile, we are preparing to sing O Radix Jesse at Vespers tonight:

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, delaying no longer!

Is this another instance of the Church working on completely different lines from the rest of society? Or do we pray in a way that encompasses the demands of Brexit and every other difficulty we face at this time? Consider that line, ‘at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek’. It is awkward in English, but it contains an important truth: God is in control and those who seek him, unlikely as it may seem, will one day find him. God wants to be found; he desires to lead us. Being a Gentile is at first sight a disadvantage, excluded as we assume we are from the Covenant and the privileges of the people of Israel; but the prophecies we have been reading throughout this period of Advent have been reminding us that the Covenant has been opened to all. Amazingly, as St Paul says, we, the wild olive, have been grafted onto the ancient tree. But there is more that is encouraging and surprising in equal measure.

Those who hold power in this world do so for only a time. They can do much good or much harm, but ultimately their power is transitory. Before God the powerful are struck dumb, because God sees with a clarity they do not possess. Only purity of heart, the purity of love and generosity, can enable anyone to see as God sees, and we all fall short of that but especially, perhaps, those whose main focus is their own advantage. It is sobering to remember that, but it is true. We need to see as God sees.

Today’s antiphon is not some form of pious escapism. It is a reminder not to lose heart, not to give up. God wills what is good for us, and no matter how contrary the circumstances in which we find ourselves, no matter how dire we think the state of the country or how irresponsible our politicians, there is hope — but it is a hope that requires more of us than mere wishing. The Root of Jesse stands as an ensign to the peoples. We must rally to his standard, and that means exposing ourselves to danger, to misunderstanding and, as this world sees it, even to failure. The victory is won, but we must still fight. 

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O Radix Jesse and Our Need of Roots 2016

A winter rose shall flower
On Jesse’s ancient stem:
The Word of God unfolding
Before the eyes of men.

That verse from the hymn we sing at Lauds captures something of the freshness and beauty of the imagery behind today’s O antiphon, the grace of growing things, of flowering and fruitfulness:

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!

We think of those beautiful medieval images of Jesse and the great tree of descendants springing from his loins — in stone at Christchurch, wood at Abergavenny and glass and stone 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. His looks, his gait, his mannerisms, all have a human origin. He is, so to say, of the earth, earthy. But there is something more. Before him, the humble Galilean, kings stand silent and gentiles come in search. He, and he alone, can set us free from all that binds us and lead us into the Promised Land where all is peace and joy.

I was thinking about this as I read through the latest grim statistics about refugees and migrants. We in Europe are experiencing the greatest mass movement of peoples since the Second World War. People are being uprooted from all that is familiar by war, economic pressures and the dream of something better existing elsewhere. We need our dreams, but we need our roots even more. For a Christian that means being rooted in Christ, growing in love, compassion and holiness throughout our lives.

We are, of course, always inclined to set limits. We don’t mind being a little stunted, a little pot-bound, it’s more comfortable that way. I’ll love other Christians, but I draw the line at loving Muslims/atheists/blacks/whites/conservatives/liberals (complete as appropriate). But if we read through the genealogies of Christ, we notice an interesting thing. This good Jewish boy, this descendant of David, had some very dodgy ancestors, including a non-Jew and some whose private lives were, to say the least, disreputable. If the Son of God was willing to take his flesh and blood from such, who are we to decide who is or is not a worthy recipient of our love and compassion? If our roots are secure in Christ, there can be no fear of the stranger. Yes, we may be hurt; yes, we may find that we lose much that is precious to us, perhaps even our lives. But we are aware that the tree of Jesse leads inexorably to the Tree of Calvary, that the winter rose has blossomed and filled the whole world with its fruit.

ADVENT O ANTIPHONS
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Roots: O Radix Jesse

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.’Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail