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.
It may be that today’s O Antiphon reveals an unfamiliar title for Christ: Radix Jesse, or Root of Jesse. Who is Jesse? Why is Christ the root of this man? In 1 Samuel we learn that Jesse, the son of Obed and the grandson of Ruth, had eight sons, and the youngest was David. During the reign of King Saul, the Prophet Samuel was sent by God the Bethlehem to anoint the next king of Israel. David was summoned from the flocks he was tending, and was anointed by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:13). After slaying Goliath, and later surviving King Saul’s attacks, David became the great King of Israel.
Still, why is Christ called the root of Jesse? Well, because of another prophecy, this time from the prophet Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem … from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic. 5:2). Micah foretold that the Messiah would come from the town of Bethlehem, and this is the same verse to which the scribes and priests referred when King Herod sought the birthplace of the king who was to be visited by the Magi (cf. Mt. 2:6).
In recent years, genealogies have become very popular. This information about who we are and who are ancestors were is central to our identity. It was all the more true for the Israelites. In fact, this is precisely how the Gospel of Matthew begins, with a genealogy of Christ: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” (Mt. 1:1). And he continues, “And Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king” (Mt. 1:5-6). And the family tree concludes: “And Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt. 1:16).
The Old Testament prophets foretold that the Savior would come from Bethlehem, from the root or family of Jesse, most especially, from the King David’s line. And it is from the prophet Isaiah that today’s antiphon is received: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” (11:1), and “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” (11:10).
Christ’s relationship to Jesse and King David reminds us that Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16). This tiny child is not simply a king of some earthly nation, he is king of heaven and earth. On Christmas day in 443, St. Leo the Great proclaimed:
Certainly, in this branch of the Blessed Virgin Mary was foretold, who spring from the stock of Jesse and David, made fruitful by the Holy Spirit, bringing forth a new flower of human flesh, from a mother’s womb indeed, but through a virgin birth.
In his humanity, he descends from a line of kings chosen by God. But, as we well know, Christ is not simply man, but true God and true man. He is the true King: the King who conquers Satan and death; the King who loves so perfectly that he is willing to lay down his life to save ours; the King who’s tenderness and mercy comes to us in the form of a little baby. Come and save us, O Root of Jesse!