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.
Until now I have simply used the English translation of the O Antiphons found in several editions of the Liturgy of the Hours; however, I much prefer the accuracy and the flow of this translation, especially at the very beginning! The Latin text begins, “O Radix Jesse” and many English translations have translated this as “Flower of Jesse”. In this case I favor the more literal “root” because it signals clearly the Mystery being invoked in this prayer.
I have also been introduced recently to the work of Malcolm Guite, a poet, singer-songwriter, professor and member of the clergy at Cambridge. Here’s his sonnet on this antiphon, for which I am most grateful:
All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.
The point of the ancient antiphon is to identify the coming Messiah as the very root and foundation of creation and covenant. Our connection to Christ and to the world is not a superficial grafting onto a minor branch of the family tree, but to the very root itself. We are grounded, connected and vitally linked to Christ.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis turns to some particular challenges facing today’s world, echoing yet again the Second Vatican Council’s work in Gaudium et Spes, which provided five “problems of special urgency” which they saw facing the world in 1965. The pope observes, “In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields” (#52) He praises developments in health care, education and communication, while reminding us that
the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day. . . . a number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation. . . the joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live. . . . We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.
Clearly what the Pope is concerned about is exclusion and inequality, people who are cut off from society and church. It is within this context that he makes his now-famous statements about the economy. However, when looking at his comments as a whole and within their proper context, what he is saying is nothing but traditional catholic social teaching based solidly on the Gospel. He condemns ANY “economy of exclusion and inequality. How can it be that it is not a news item when as elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock mart loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrwon away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality” (#53).
Much ink and cyberspace has been spilled and filled with analyses of the pope’s subsequent remarks on “trickle-down” theories. To me, all of that hyperbolic posturing has missed the pope’s point. Following those sections, the pope writes, “Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting [and] al those lives stunted for opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us” (#54). Any economic system which cuts people off, ignores them, or marginalizes them in any way, needs to be reformed. This is the moral concern expressed in all of Catholic social teaching, and highlighted at the Second Vatican Council, subsequent official teaching, and now by Pope Francis. We are to be a people of INCLUSION AND EQUALITY, not exclusion and inequality.
Financial systems are to serve, not to rule. The Pope writes of those types of systems which are grounded in a “rejection of ethics and a rejection of God” (#57). Ethics is derided, he says, because “it is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. . . . Ethics [however] leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.” Once again, the value of the human person in modern economic systems has been a concern even before Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum.
The pope’s message is quite clear and, when considered as part of our Advent reflection on “O Root of Jesse”, particularly on point. As Christians we thrive when we are grafted to the Messiah, the source of life. The whole theme of today’s antiphon is the importance of this life-giving connection in our daily lives, and the importance for all people to be part of our “family tree”. A focus on economic theory that does not take this underlying principle into account will miss the whole message being proclaimed and, I dare say, the entire message of the Gospel itself!
In my own life and ministry, do I keep the fundamental truth of the “Root of Jesse” in mind? Do I seek to find ways to include all persons equally in the life of the church? What structures and attitudes exist which are exclusionary and unequal and need to be changed? In Guite’s words, do we run the risk of being cut off from the Root and find ourselves blowing, disconnected, across and increasingly arid and lifeless landscape?