O Radix Jesse
'O shoot of Jesse, who stand as an ensign for the peoples, before whom kings shall shut their mouths, whom the gentiles shall seek after: come to deliver us. Delay now no longer.'
"The geneology of Jesus is part of the good news of the gospel, solemnly chanted at Christmas and at Epiphany. To sing somebody's family tree in public is hardly an obvious thing to do: most families have a few skeletons in their cupboard... somewhere in a family there is usually a scandal, a few generations back if not a few years. Yet on Christmas night and on the night of the Epiphany the family tree of Jesus is sung by the Church to a marvellous chant that lingers over each syllable of the names of the ancestors, to the accompaniment of full ceremonial, lights, incense and vestments, 'The Book of the Genesis of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham'. The Church celebrates Jesus as so much one of us that we can take delight in spelling out the generation after generation that produced him, singing of all those men and women with their failures and downright wickedness who make up the family tree of Jesus. For Jesus does not come of a particularly good family. His family is in fact particularly ungood for much of its past. In the Te Deum we sing to Christ 'non horruisti virginis uterum': 'You did not scorn the Virgin's womb.' At first sight that seems rather strange language to use about the Virgin in the Catholic tradition where she is honoured as Mary Immaculate. But surely it is Mary's questionable parentage which is in debate here. The hymn celebrates the extraordinary condescension of Jesus in being prepared to take not the flesh of Adam before the Fall but the flesh of all those generations stretching from Adam through Abraham and David down to Mary... Because he does have such a genealogy we can pray to him with confidence.
So we pray to him: 'O Root of Jesse'. This means praying to him as Son of David, as son of all those kings after David, people like Solomon and Asa and Manasseh and Jeconiah. If he was prepared to come to an Israel and a world that had prepared people like that, then we can fairly expect that he will be prepared to come to our world and our hearts with all their accumulated weight of wickedness. We can be confident that he will come to us as we are, coming through our past and making it his own. In this way he will reach us where we are and transform our past so that when we tell the story of our lives we will be able to include gladly in that story all the mistakes we have made and all the bling alleys we have explored. Not that we cease to regret. Not that we excuse ourselves for our mistakes and our wrong turnings. Not that we become complacent about our evil deeds and thoughts and words. It is not as though what was once bad has now become good... But if and when Messiah comes to us, then we can sing the story of our lives as the story of the path Messiah took to come to us, leaping upon the mountains and bounding over the hills as the Fathers say in quotation from the Song of Songs. When Messiah comes we can tell the story of our past all over again, as nations retell their history after a change in their fortunes, as Israel learned to tell the story of her past as the story of God's graciousness. It is a mistake to brood over our past. It is a misunderstanding of what Messiah means for us to worry about our past. That past which has slipped away from us, out of our power to control, is only the raw materials of a story. What matters is how we tell the story using those raw materials. If Messiah has indeed come, then the story can be solemnly and gladly sung, to the accompaniment of all that makes for rejoicing.
The 'Radix' of the Latin antiphon is both root and shoot. This 'shoot' is the novelty that springs up from the past, the newness that the tradition produces... If we are ever going to be radicals in the way in which the Root of Jesse is radical, productive of new and unexpected growth, shooting up with fresh life and vigour, then we must be rooted in our tradition... If we want to renew our lives together then at least some of us must be thoroughly steeped in our tradition with an intimate and interior acquaintance.
The tree of Adam can become the tree of Christ's cross... There is no reason why it should not shoot and be green again in us."
- Geoffrey Preston, OP, 'Hallowing the Time'
The icon above of the Tree of Jesse dates from the 17th century.