O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)

ADOTS Morning Prayer: Friday, 18 December 2020

O radix Jesse

O Root of Jesse,

which standest for an ensign of the people,

at whom kings shall shut their mouths,

to whom the Gentiles shall seek:

Come and deliver us,

and tarry not (The New English Hymnal, The Canterbury Press Norwich, 2002).

This is one of the O Antiphons that precedes and follows the Magnificat at Evening Prayer from 16 December to 23 December; it is the antiphon for this day.  You can find a complete list of the O Antiphons on page 712 in the BCP 2019.  

From at least the eighth century onward the faithful have chanted these antiphons — prophetic titles for Jesus — as a musical introduction to and summary of the Song of Mary, or, to mix metaphors, as a lens through which to read and understand the Magnificat as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies and as a preview of the coming kingdom.  These antiphons have the Advent flavor of past, present, and future:  already, not yet, coming in fullness.

Today’s antiphon — O radix Jesse, O root of Jesse — draws our attention to that great Advent prophet Isaiah son of Amoz, especially to chapter eleven of his written prophecy.

The chapter begins with a promise:

Isaiah 11:1 (ESV): 11 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, 

and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 

Because we are wont to read all Scripture through the lens of Christ, and because Jesus was, in human lineage, a son of David, son of Jesse, we might tend to identify this shoot from the stump of Jesse, this branch from his roots that shall bear fruit, as Jesus of Nazareth.  And that is, perhaps, the case.  But, I find that I’m drawn to Jerome’s interpretation instead:

But we understand the branch from the root of Jesse to be the holy Virgin Mary, who had no shoot connatural to herself. About her we read above: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son.” And the flower is the Lord our Savior, who said in the Song of Songs, “I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys” (Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah).

The Blessed Virgin Mary, the shoot, the branch, and Jesus the fruit of that branch:  it is a lovely image binding together Old and New Testaments with Mary being the bridge between the two and Jesus being the fulfillment of all that came before.

But, there is darkness in this image, too.  The branch comes not from the trunk of a great tree as we might expect, but from the stump, from the roots.  Jesse and his house, David and his dynasty have been brought low, the great tree felled until all that remains is a stump.  As Isaiah speaks these words, Ephraim, the ten northern tribes have fallen to Assyria and are no more.  The destruction of Judah and Jerusalem lies in the future, but is seen even now prophetically as a certainty.  A stump is all that remains:  a stump and a promise.

The promise is of restoration, not just of Ephraim and Judah — that is far to small a thing! — but a restoration of all creation:  a Kingdom of Righteousness to which all men, all nations, shall come, and a Righteous King and Judge, before whom all other kings will bow.

Isaiah 11:2–5 (ESV): 2  And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, 

the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, 

the Spirit of counsel and might, 

the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 

 3  And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. 

  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, 

or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 

 4  but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, 

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; 

  and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, 

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 

 5  Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, 

and faithfulness the belt of his loins. 

Can’t you just see Jesus here?  The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, Isaiah says, and Matthew writes:

Matthew 3:16–17 (ESV): 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” 

With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth, Isaiah says, and Jesus says:

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:3, 5, ESV).

This is the coming Righteous King and Judge.  And his kingdom?  Creation restored to newness of life, a return to the Garden with Jerusalem at its center:

Isaiah 11:6–9 (ESV): 6  The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, 

and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, 

  and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; 

and a little child shall lead them. 

 7  The cow and the bear shall graze; 

their young shall lie down together; 

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 

 8  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, 

and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 

 9  They shall not hurt or destroy 

in all my holy mountain; 

  for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord 

as the waters cover the sea. 

Wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, calf and lion — all the ancient enmities gone, all fear gone, all danger gone, Isaiah sees.  And who reigns as King over this renewed creation?  

6 …a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 11:6).

And St. Luke responds:

Luke 2:8–14 (ESV): 8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 

 14  “Glory to God in the highest, 

and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” 

Son of David, Savior, Christ the Lord — a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  Glory to God in the highest, is right.  It is about all there is to say.  From the moment of this baby’s birth, the earth was indeed full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea, for in this child, the whole fullness of God dwells bodily (cf Col 2:9).  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15).

Isaiah continues, and gives shape to the O Antiphon, O root of Jesse:

Isaiah 11:10 (ESV): 10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. 

And Matthew picks up the story:

Matthew 2:1–2 (ESV): 1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

The nations, in the person of these Gentile magi, have come to inquire after the king.  And when they find him, they make glorious his resting place with their gifts and their worship:

Matthew 2:9–11 (ESV):  10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

This is the first fruits of the great in-gathering when all kings and all people of all nations see the signal raised, the banner of the great King, and all God’s people come streaming to the new Jerusalem as Isaiah foresees:

Isaiah 11:11–12 (ESV): 11 In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. 

 12  He will raise a signal for the nations 

and will assemble the banished of Israel, 

  and gather the dispersed of Judah 

from the four corners of the earth. 

And here, Isaiah’s vision fails him a bit.  As grand as it is — the return of all Israel’s exiles — it is not grand enough.  That vision awaits St. John on Patmos:

Revelation 7:9–10 (ESV): 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

These are the faithful martyrs of the nations standing under the signal, under the ensign of Christ the Lamb, the king of all creation.

And so, with this great vision filling our view, with this drama told by Isaiah, Matthew, Luke, Paul, John and so many others ringing in our ears, we sing this day the great O Antiphon, O radix Jesse:

O Root of Jesse,

which standest for an ensign of the people,

at whom kings shall shut their mouths,

to whom the Gentiles shall seek:

Come and deliver us,

and tarry not.


About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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