O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry.
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
On December 19, five nights before Christmas Eve, the third of the great O Antiphons, Radix Jesse, is traditionally sung at the Magnificat during Vespers in the Western tradition of the Church. This antiphon is slightly more enigmatic than the the first two, but only until you’re familiar with the Scripture quotations from which it is almost entirely composed.
The title by which Christ is addressed here, “Root of Jesse” or Radix Jesse in Latin, is used first in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah (Isa 11:1, 10), then by St. Paul quoting Isaiah in his letter to the Romans (Rom 15:12), and a similar title is also used of Christ in St. John’s Revelation (Rev 5:5, 22:16). Who is Jesse? Jesse is the father of King David, the greatest king Israel had known and “a man after God’s own heart.” And, importantly for this topic, David was the receiver of a promise that one of his descendants would be established by God as a king forever. So the “house”, or the lineage, of David became an important feature in the prophetic tradition of Israel and Judah. And Jesse, as the father of David, the one who brought forth the king, as it were, is the one Isaiah names in this botanical metaphor regarding a coming future king.
This ultimate family tree has been regularly portrayed in Christian art as the “Tree of Jesse”, usually with Jesse pictured reclining at the bottom of the image serving as the source of the tree, often (somewhat strangely) with the trunk growing right out of his side, and with his numerous descendants pictured among the branches of the tree. The Jesse Tree always culminates in Christ, who is, of course, the fulfillment of the promise to David, the final King whose throne would last forever. In the pictorial representations of the Jesse Tree, however, Christ is almost always shown as an infant in the arms of his mother Mary. This is because Christ is here understood as the flower that blossoms, as Isaiah said, and Mary is the rod or the stem from which the flower comes: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root” (Isa 11:1). This is also, I think, the intended meaning of the song Lo, How A Rose E’re Blooming:
Lo, how a Rose e’re blooming
From tender stem hath sprung
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As men of old have sung…
Many of the Church fathers also interpreted Mary as the rod and Jesus as the flower. Commenting on Isaiah 11:1, St. Ambrose lays it out clearly: “The root is the household of the Jews, the rod is Mary, the Flower of Mary is Christ.” But if Christ is the flower of the Tree of Jesse, why does this antiphon address him as the “Root of Jesse”? Didn’t Ambrose just say that the root is the household of the Jews? If we continue in Isaiah’s prophecy, he says in 11:10, “In that day the root of Jesse, who standeth for an ensign of the people, him the Gentiles shall beseech, and his sepulchre shall be glorious.” In other words, this future figure who will stand as a banner to draw all people to himself, who all the foreign peoples of the world will turn toward and seek, and whose tomb will be not dismal but glorious — this figure will turn out to be the root, or the source, of Jesse. It’s this verse that Paul quotes to the Romans, emphasizing Christ as the one who confirms “the promises given to the patriarchs” (Rom 15:8-12).
So from the seeming ambiguity that arises from verses 1 and 10 in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, it would seem that Christ is both the root and the fruit of Jesse’s family tree. If there was any doubt that this was the right interpretation in the first generation of the Church, it was soon settled when St. John’s revelation was penned, in which Christ the King himself, seated in glory, reveals, “I am the root and the descendant of David…” (Rev 22:16). This paradox is expressed even more potently in the three separate proclamations throughout Revelation that Christ is “Alpha and Omega”, the very first and the very last, the beginning and the end. Even Ambrose’s interpretation that the root of Jesse in Isa 11:1 is the “household of the Jews” can be understood rightly if it’s acknowledged that the source and sustenance of that household is still Christ. He is the root and the fruit, the source and the End.
This concept resonates with the first O Antiphon which confesses Christ to proceed from the Most High and reach “from one end [of creation] to another”, and so be the beginning and end of all things. [Incidentally, this antiphon is also resonant with the second O Antiphon (which links Christ to the story of the house of Israel, with O Adonai highlighting the Mosaic covenant and O Radix Jesse highlighting the Davidic) and, as we’ll see, with later O Antiphons (in their mutual emphasis on Christ’s kingship over the Gentiles)]. He who is the root and the fruit is really the life of the whole tree. “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me” (John 15:4). Maybe this is why icons of the Jesse Tree often bear such a striking resemblance to icons of Christ the True Vine. Christ, in his incarnational participation in the family tree of Jesse, has sanctified all family trees and has made it possible for all humanity to abide now in him. Christ, who planted the original tree of life in the beginning, has himself hung as fruit on the new tree of life when, as he said, “It is Ended” (τετέλεσται, lit. It is accomplished).
All of this is important to remember in order to synthesize those two verses in chapter 11 of Isaiah and to make sense of what Christ declares of himself in Revelation. But I think for the purpose of this antiphon, the title is used primarily to recall Christ’s ancestry, to emphasize his Incarnation and his connectedness to the story. The other elements of this antiphon, all deriving directly from Isa 11:10 and Paul’s creative quotation of that verse in Rom 15:12, look outward to the Gentiles, the nations. Within these verses, as well as this antiphon, there’s a built-in juxtaposition of the Root of Jesse with the Gentiles, because Jews and Gentiles historically didn’t mix. But now it’s been revealed that all the peoples of the earth, both Jews and Gentiles, are to be united under one banner — one ensign — who is Jesus Christ (Χριστός meaning King, Messiah, or Anointed One).
And once again, in this antiphon like the others, Christ is implored to come to us. And this time, “…do not tarry,” is added for emphasis, as the plea grows in earnest the nearer we come to Christmas.