O Root of Jesse, Who dost stand for an ensign of the people, before Whom kings shall keep silence, and unto Whom the Gentiles shall make their supplication: come to deliver us, and tarry not.
The House of Jesse was a stump. That’s where this majestic passage from Isaiah 11 begins. God had revealed this to Isaiah, when to all outward appearances, it seemed likely to have a fairly secure future. He’s talking about the royal house, Israel’s line of kings. Jesse was the father of David, the greatest of kings, and it was David’s descendants who ruled in Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time. It will become a stump, Isaiah begins, cut off violently after so many warnings went unheeded. The patience of God would be exhausted, and it would fall like a great tree in the forest.
And great trees, generally, do not rise again. The ruin of what once was, the death of a promising future. It’s the natural lesson of this time of year, of course, when the greenery of summer is dying off. The trees have shed their leaves, and the wind whips through the branches, and the sap moves very slowly if it moves at all. It’s dark and cold, and life seems chased from the earth.
And then, God decides to do something new. That’s the story of Israel, the record played a hundred times over. Abraham was an old man with a barren wife. Joseph had been betrayed by His brother, bound in an Egyptian prison. For ten generations, the Hebrews had made bricks and drawn water in the shadows of the pyramids. David, the youngest son, was left out with the sheep, not fit to be seen by the holy prophet. The kingdom was hacked in two, the temple burnt, the walls pulled down, the people hauled off a thousand miles from their homeland, and left in the dark for a seventy-year winter. She was a virgin, a simple woman, from a modest village. But this is our God, and as one thinker put it, His promise is never quite so secure as when all hope seems to be lost.
A branch will spring from the stump. The root will live again. And that’s of course, why we will fill the Church with flowers in two weeks’ time. It’s why we marvel over the poinsettia and the Glastonbury thorn, the miracle renewed every winter, the miracle of our God’s power and love. “It came a flowret bright, amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.”
They called Him the Branch, this promised ruler. Jeremiah had spoken of His day, a new kind of king, who would fulfill the potential never quite realized in old David’s motley brood. He would summon the people back to their native land, and establish God’s rule in a new and powerful way. Under His authority there would be great justice and lasting peace. He would be the little child who leads them, young and fresh, and yet ruling with everlasting power.
Is He the rod of Jesse or the root of Jesse? You might have noticed the difference between the antiphon and the hymn. Both of them are right there in the text, a rod at the beginning of the oracle and a root at the end. It certainly didn’t bother the medieval commentators who find it one of the most fortuitous coincidences in all of sacred writing. He is the root because He was before all things, because the authority handed first to Jesse’s son was based on His purpose. But He is the rod as well, the sign of what has begun now and is yet to come. And because, in Latin, rod is virga, which is an awful lot like virgine, the Virgin, you can ring the changes again. He is root, and He is rod, and He is flower as well, the full glory of God’s purpose for human life.
But flowers are fragile of course. You’d better bundle poinsettias if you want to get them home safely these days. And in His first coming, He certainly revealed authority and glory to us. But He was fragile as well, willing to suffer for us in this cold and barren world. It’s interesting, that the antiphon speaks, as Isaiah 11 of the root as an ensign for the peoples, the standard that unites them together in a common hope. But then it speaks of Him as one “before whom kings keep silence.” And that’s a quote, not from this chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy, but from his 52rd chapter, the one we read at the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday.
“His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,” we read there, “and his form beyond that of the sons of men-- so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him… For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
The root is there again, of course, but it’s a root that was soon cut down, the kings look and are silent, because they don’t know how to answer the depth of His suffering. He is the root and the branch, but on that day, He was also the stump, hung upon the tree of death, taking onto Himself that whole long history of God’s rejected and forsaken people.
He came out of love for them, and He died for them. And yet, borrowing from Saint John, “when He came to His own they received Him not.” And so, this is the prophecy is the place where Saint Paul turns, in Romans, when He’s trying to make sense of His experience in the mission field. He goes and proclaims Christ in the synagogue, the descendant of David, the long promised branch, He has come to the help of His servant Israel. And what do they do in the synagogue, they chase him away. They want nothing to do with this crucified Savior.
And so, Saint Paul goes instead to the Gentiles, to strange foreign people with their crude and backward ways. And they, in the words of the antiphon, “they make their supplication” to Jesus. They cry to Him for mercy, they acclaim Him with faith. And again the branch rises from the stump, again the fragile promise of our steadfast God bursts into glorious flower.
This is how it will be for us. He has not left us with any illusions about this. He said if you wish to follow me, deny yourself, and take up your cross. Come live with me in rejection, come and face disappointment. But know this, when you think all is lost, when you know there can be no more life. When the future seems a closed door—“amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.” Then, I will be there, to raise a new shoot, and show you more than you ever dreamed to see.