Monday, December 19, 2011

Oh come, oh Rod of Jesse's stem.

An antiphon is a short sentence sung or chanted before the psalm or canticle in certain liturgical traditions. The seven "O Antiphons" date back to the ancient Church and are used to celebrate the final seven days of Advent, the last week before Christmas. Each O Antiphon is a name of Christ or one of his attributes described in Scripture. You probably recognize them as from the verses of the popular Christmas hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

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, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

Isaiah had prophesied:

"A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." Isaiah 11:1

"On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious." Isaiah 11:10

"And again, Isaiah says, 'The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in him.'" -- Romans 15:12

Jesse was the father of King David, and Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be of the house and lineage of David and be born in David’s city, Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).


I had to think for awhile to come up with anything to say about this antiphon. I mean, we get it: Jesus descended from Jesse and David and was born in David's city, Bethlehem. I'm not sure what else to say.

So two notes:

First, Matthew and Luke both record Jesus' human geneology. Luke, especially, emphasizes that this is Mary's son as much as God's; Jesus was a real live human baby, the real live human descendent of a real live king of Israel.

One of my favorite hymns, usually sung during Lent, is "Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted." I have always loved a certain line from this hymn: "’Tis the long expected prophet,/David’s Son, yet David’s Lord."

That's one of the great mysteries of the faith, that someone could be both David's son, his physical human descendent, yet also David's Lord, fully and eternally God. That's pretty crazy. It doesn't make sense.

But remember that Lord of might, all-powerful God from yesterday's antiphon? Well, is He powerful enough to do something crazy and impossible like that, or not?

I believe He is.

Second, this antiphon hints at the change that comes with Jesus' birth, not just from Law to Gospel, but from Chosen Nation to all nations, from the people Israel to all people. The New Covenant, we call it.

Jesus was a Jew. He came from a royal Jewish house, though by the time of the birth that doesn't seem to mean too much--his step-father (also of Davidean descent) is just a simple carpenter. David did have an awful lot of kids, after all--a weakness for women ran in the family.

Yet Jesus didn't come to save the Jewish race. I mean, he did, insofar as he came to save everybody, but he didn't come to save the Jews the way the Jews wanted to be saved, with triumphant processions and white horses and their enemies in chains bowing before them.

He came to save everybody, all people, Jews and Gentiles and Samaritans and prostitutes and adulterers and tax collectors and fishermen and everybody. Not from any terrible earthly fate, but from a far more horrible eternal one. God made a covenant with Abraham for the Jewish people, but its fulfillment opened God's salvation to everyone, not just Abraham's (and Jesse's) descendants.

To me, the Root of Jesse antiphon represents Christ's dual natures: the Man who was God, the Jew who saved the Gentiles.

Jesus was rooted in the Judaism just as he was rooted in humanity. The soil of the Judaic tradition and the soil of his physical earthly family nourished him as he grew "in wisdom and stature," through all the real little boy stages through adolescence to adulthood.
The branch that grew from that root was greater than it. The Tree of Life grew to save all people. And only God, however also human he might have been, could do that.

Oh, come, O Rod of Jesse's stem,
From ev'ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow'r to save;
Bring them in vict'ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

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