Time. This time of year, we’re obsessed with it, because there’s never enough of it. Counting down the days, opening the doors of the Advent calendar, frantically checking the last-date-for-Christmas-delivery schedule. Weaving holiday parties and extra baking and penitential services and the kids’ concerts and the trips to the airport into the already tightly stretched fabric of our daily schedules. Trying to squeeze a little peaceful anticipation from the 24/7 carols and jingling and very special TV episodes, only to turn a corner and run smack into a Valentines display.
We barely have the energy to wax wroth (even if we want to) about the war on Christmas (even if there were one), or to weigh in on whether it’s racist to say Santa is white. Here’s my quick take, btw: Santa Spirit of Christmas (who wears a Dutch suit, and whom my son swears was invented by Coca-Cola) is any and every race or color or whatever makes you happy. St Nicholas the Historical is a Christian from Turkey, which makes him pretty much guaranteed to irk universally. So stop it, already.
To add insult to our Advent injury, we Christians are supposed to be living simultaneously in three temporal dimensions this season: not just this crowded and chaotic present, but also the yearning past and the apocalyptic future. No wonder there’s spillage, no wonder it’s messy, no wonder we lose patience.
Tonight’s O Antiphon is all about time, and it’s about time. We invoke the Messiah by the prophetic title that links all the generations of salvation’s family tree. And like children on tiptoes at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning, we shout at our God (who seems to be sleeping in after assembling the universe according to Barbie Dream House instructions and making a 2 a.m. run to Walgreen’s for batteries), WE CAN’T WAIT!
For December 19:
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.
Root of Jesse. Radix, in Latin, the origin of both radish and radical. The reference comes from the prophet Isaiah, who says that the Messiah will come from the royal family of David, youngest son of Jesse. It’s an amazing vision, these words from our yearning past, and the source of some of our most striking images of a future forever transformed:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 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. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 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. In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10)
The Jesse tree—a depiction of Jesus’ family tree, a picture book of our ancestors in faith—is a popular subject for stained glass windows. When I was in Catholic elementary school, we counted off the days of Advent with a Jesse Tree, a wind-polished bonelike branch of manzanita decked with ornaments depicting Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Noah, Joseph and his coat of many colors (how disappointing is the modern, and accurate, translation “a coat with sleeves”!), David and Solomon and all the rest, topped with a rose for Mary.
The yearning is in our bones. “How long, O Lord?” is our Advent song, even now, knowing how the story ends. Tonight, as we sing the third O Antiphon, let us make it a moment outside the whirl of time, and enter into what Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”
Come, O Root of Jesse, and teach us a patience that is not passive, but radically active, spicy as a radish. Show us how to be gardeners, tending tenderly the roots of the kingdom to come, not forcing the blooms, pruning where needed, until the bushel baskets overflow with grace like a bumper tomato crop.
Help us acknowledge our long loneliness for you, and live in anticipation of knowing you as we are known, with a deep peace that covers us like waters cover the earth.
Give us a sense of the faithful ones who went before us and walk with us, all along the way, as long as it lasts, to the glorious dwelling prefigured in the dusty stable and the kids’ Christmas pageant.
Be a sign that shuts all our mouths, a tall tree to whom all of us turn. Be the Child that leads us home. O Radix Jesse!