Thursday, December 19, 2013

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

Branch of Jesse, which stands as a standard of the people, over Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry. 

I admit that I found this antiphon a bit challenging today, partially because I'm not entirely sure what to do all this talk about  kings and Gentiles in this antiphon. Well, actually, I think I know what one could do about them. In this antiphon, the Branch of Jesse represents the signum  (the military standard) of Israel which leads it to victory over its enemies. Therein lies the source of my discomfort because that kind of imagery could lead to one of two theological moves I'd prefer not to take. First, we could imply that God's signum should be our own which we can lead against our (and thus, God's) enemies. This move would produce, in its extreme form, all the incoherence of a Crusade in which the followers of the Prince of Peace slaughter their fellow-humans with the sign of a cross. Or we could see ourselves as the persecuted Israel, surrounded by her enemies, but saved by God in some miraculous manner. Both of these images presume a violence which just isn't part of my lived experience (thanks be to God!) or the experience of anyone in, say, North America. Culture wars aside, we North Americans still have a pretty cushy deal because the most we have to face is the dismantling of some of the perks of cultural Christianity and, perhaps, at worst, a bit of obnoxious prejudice from this or that cultural despiser. Really, all this talk about standards and deliverance seems to be coming on rather too strong. 

Yet, when I start thinking about it, what I find interesting about the image in this antiphon is that, despite the military undertones implied in it, it, actually, doesn't lead to violence. There isn't a sense that this standard says 'Kill them all!" or such like. Instead, what seems to be happening is that, at the very sight of this signum, the powerful shut their mouths and the hostile outsiders which surround Israel begin to call upon God, the Branch of Jesse, for themselves. The image which remains isn't that of a battle for supremacy or even for survival, but rather a conversion of one's enemies. The observer is awestruck and silent and soon begins to invoke the God he has so unexpectedly encountered. Hostility is transformed into friendship, danger into deliverance. And all of this is achieved without violence or fighting. 

Of course, life isn't so simple that all we have to do is unfurl our standards and the whole world will convert to what we believe. We will always find people who find our faith nonsensical and our beliefs absurd. Yet, this antiphon shows us something about what it can mean to come to God in these days. For myself, my early encounter with God shocked me pretty profoundly to the point that I didn't really know what to say about it. Only in retrospect, do I realize that it sparked years of searching out who this Jesus person was and why he was butting into my life in such an unexpected way. And, only in retrospect, do I see those moments when I invoked that mysterious God I barely knew anything about as I, painfully and almost spasmodically, sought to learn more about Him. All this was and is messy, but it produce the hope of deliverance from my character defects and my faults, even if that deliverance doesn't happen on my timetable or according to my plan. Perhaps that is why this antiphon ends with a plea not to delay, since it sometimes feels that this hope has already been delayed enough. Perhaps it is only in following this signum that we find that hope realized. 


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