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Advent 2013: 'O Radix Iesse'

Thursday, December 19, 2013
O Radix Iesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, set up as a sign for the peoples, before whom kings will stop their mouths, to whom the nations will pray: Come to set us free, delay no more.

What kind of Christian are you, or would you like to be? Would you call yourself a radical Christian?

Just as political radicals call for 'root-and-branch' reform, the radical Christian is a witness to the root-and-branch transformation of life by the power of Christ's love. According to its Latin derivation, to be 'radical' means to be rooted, to go to the roots, to be thorough and profound. It's no good being a half-hearted Christian. Of course, we are all sinners. But unless our heart is truly, deeply in the right place, then all the goodness of life itself – let alone the celebration of Christmas – might somehow pass us by. The Bible contains a stern warning against half-heartedness: 'So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth' (Rev. 3:16). And the only way to avoid being a lukewarm Christian, is to be a radical Christian.
The Root of Jesse in the former Dominican priory at Hawkesyard, Staffs.
So, in today's antiphon, O Radix Jesse, we hear the prophecy of Isaiah about the 'Root of Jesse' who will be a sign for the reconciliation of all the nations (cf. Is. 11:10). Jesse of Bethlehem was the father of King David, and so the 'root' refers to one of the Davidic descendants. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is identified as that 'Root of Jesse' by St Paul (Rom. 15:12) and the 'Root of David' by St John (Rev. 5:5). In the same chapter of Isaiah (11:1-3), the one who comes from Jesse will have the 'Spirit of the Lord' resting upon him – and this happened visibly, in history, at Jesus' baptism (e.g. Mt. 3:16).

And how can we be radical Christians in the 21st century? One essential ingredient will be prayer. Prayer is the most radical thing you can do, because prayer is communion with God, and God is (so to speak) 'at the root' of everything. We must always remember that apart from God, the Almighty Creator, we are nothing. Like the Root of Jesse, a new image is offered by Our Lord himself: Jesus is the Vine and we are the branches (Jn. 15). We must be grafted onto Jesus if we wish to share his divine life. We have absolutely no life in us without him. Without Jesus, we are no better than withered branches for the fire (Jn. 15:6). The path of life is certainly not easy and the world may hate us for it (see Jn. 15:18-25), just as Jesus the Vine was nailed to the Tree of the Cross. In the end, however, that tree has become the Tree of Life for us.
St Catherine of Siena, OP

Our nothingness without Jesus is imaginatively described by St Catherine of Siena, the Dominican mystic, in a discourse about the 'cell of self-knowledge':

This cell is a well in which there is earth as well as water. In the earth we recognise our own poverty: we see that we are not. For we are not. We see that our being is from God. O ineffable blazing charity! I see next that as we discover the earth we get to the living water, the very core of the knowledge of God's true and gentle will which desires nothing else but that we be made holy. So let us enter into the depths of this well. For if we dwell there, we will necessarily come to know both ourselves and God's goodness. (L T41, The Letters of Catherine of Siena, trans. Noffke, I, 7-8)

The mysteries of divine Providence, drawing trees out of roots, water out of muddy earth, life out of death – these are at the root of the radical Christian life.


O Root of Jesse, come to set us free from our lukewarm attitudes, set us on fire with your blazing charity, and do not delay!

Matthew Jarvis OP

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