"O Root of Jesse, You stand for an ensign of mankind; before You
kings shall keep silence, and to You all nations shall have recourse.
Come and save us and do not delay."
Isaiah prophesied the destruction of Judah and of David's kingdom.
However a stock, a root, a stump, if you will, would remain, the root
of Jesse, David's father. From that stock a sprout would burst forth
which would be more than David, Whose power and esteem would be
greater than that of the former kingdom.
Those of us living in the north can well appreciate this image.
Winter comes, long winter, and nothing visible of a perennial's
splendor remains. Hidden in the earth, the life, the promise waits in
the roots for spring. One clips the ugly remnant to the ground and
awaits the resurgence in the coming Spring. There was a long winter
of centuries for Jesse's Root, but, when its Spring came it flowered
forth Christ, the Messiah.
When Christ appears, He is, like the first sprigs of spring growth,
much smaller than the tree which had been felled, and seemingly
weaker and more vulnerable, yet His power and scope is far, far
greater than that of those who preceded Him. Just as in the
gentleness/strength contrast of ordering all things mightily and
sweetly, here the apparent weakness, smallness and vulnerability of a
new shoot is the embodiment of the greatest power imaginable. Jesus
IS God, but He comes in vesture that hardly brings to mind a power
broker. It is the topsy-turviness of the Gospel paradox.
This tender Sprig is actually an ensign for the nations, a rallying
flag for all peoples and it is so in a way that the mighty tree of a
kingdom which came first could never have hoped to be. Whatever may
have been the temporary influence and prestige of Israel's kings, it
was nothing compared to what is promised here.
What we translate as "nations" and Latin renders as "gentes" had a
very different significance for the Hebrews. By that term, they
really meant "Gentiles" everyone who was not Jewish which, of course,
included every nation- all the nations- other than themselves. Hence,
this term, easily missed as innocuous in English or Latin, is far
from it. It speaks directly to opening the promise of God's salvation
to ALL peoples, to the New Israel which is the Body of Christ, whose
membership is potentially the entire world. The tiny Branch will
break down walls and barriers.
This is the first day we add some special urgency to our daily plea
of "come!" We add: "and do not delay." The most casual glance at the
world's leaders and the state of things today will reveal that the
fullness of the Messiah's role as a rallying point for all, before
Whom all rulers shall be silent, is hardly just around the corner. We
affirm that by our urgency, by begging Him to hurry!
A final Benedictine aside, which I think plays so well with the
imagery of this antiphon may be found in a popular symbol for Monte
Cassino. The great abbey, so often destroyed in its long history, is
depicted as the stump of a huge and mighty tree, with a tender green
shoot growing from its center. The Latin motto which accompanies the
image is "Succisa Virescit" that is, "Cut down, it grows back."
"O Key of David and Scepter of the house of Israel: You open and none
may close, You close and none may open. Come and deliver from the
chains of prison those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of
The Hebrew word for key means something that opens, while the Greek and Latin
terms both refer to something which closes. Jesus is the Key and He
can open us to infinite possibilities, just as He can also close us
to shut us away from dangers. He can open our prisons and free us,
but He can also lock the city gates for our safety. When He opens,
none may close, when He closes, none may open: when Jesus makes an
election or decision for us it is irrevocable.
The key is a symbol of authority. Even today, in the blessing of an
abbot or abbess, a very important symbolic act is the handing over of
the keys to the abbey, clearly pointing to the authority enjoyed over
it by the one newly blessed. Jesus speaks of the keys of the kingdom
on heaven, and demonstrates that He Himself holds them by His ability
to hand them over to His Church. Isaiah 22:22 repeats the antiphon
almost word for word, but it is not necessarily a messianic passage.
It refers to a civil ruler whom God supports. His key of the house of
David underscores the approval God gives to all his acts. St. John
applies this passage to Jesus, and the liturgy follows suit.
Most appropriately, since today we praise the supreme divine
authority of Jesus with the symbol of a key, we ask Him to open our
prisons of darkness and unlock the chains of sin and death that bind
us still. It might be useful to remember that, as He opens, none may
close. Hence, if He frees us from sin and death, from the various
prisons of darkness we languish in, none may send us back there, save
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