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December 19: O Root of Jesse

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O flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in Worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid (Christian Prayer, 124).

Our third “O Antiphon” echoes Isaiah 1:1 and 11:10, identifying Christ the Savior with King David. “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom… On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the peoples– Him the nations will seek out, his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isaiah 1:1; 11:10). We recall that the “O Antiphons” provide us with a snapshot of the identity of the Christ Child we will joyfully celebrate in six days: He is the long-awaited Messiah as foretold by the prophet Isaiah. And how will we know this is the Savior we have been waiting for? Isaiah tells us that He is the son of David, i.e., “the root of Jesse” and a King of kings, i.e., “Him the nations will seek out.”

To demonstrate that Jesus is the anticipated Savior, St. Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. He writes, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). In Jesus of Nazareth: Infancy Narratives, Joseph Ratzinger points out the significance of identifying Jesus with Abraham and David. First, God establishes His covenantal relationship with Abraham (cf., “Between you and me I will establish my covenant, and I will multiply you exceedingly…” Gen 17:1-27). Ratzinger writes that this promise extends beyond the descendants of Abraham to all nations, as found in Genesis chapter 18, “all nations shall find blessing in him” (Genesis 18:18). Ratzinger continues, “Thus the whole history, beginning with Abraham and leading to Jesus, is open toward universality– through Abraham, blessing comes to all” (Jesus of Nazareth, 5).

It is interesting to note as well that Matthew does not immediately begin his Gospel identifying Jesus as “son of Abraham,” which would make the most chronological sense, but rather he emphasizes that Jesus is “the son of David.” This detail highlights the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be of “the root of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:10), and leads us to Ratzinger’s second insight. He writes that Matthew’s genealogy is “largely structured around the figure of David, the king to whom the promise of an eternal kingdom had been given: ‘Your throne shall be established for ever’ (2 Sam 7:16)” (Jesus of Nazareth, 5). We recall here that David was chosen by God because he was a man after the Lord’s own heart: “[God] raised up David as their king; of him he testified, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish’” (Acts 13:22; cf., 1 Sam 13:14; Ps 89:20-21).

Matthew continues the genealogy of Jesus by identifying the father of those in His lineage, “Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah…” (1:2). But, at the end of the genealogy, the Gospel writer turns the formula upside down and ends with the mother not the father of Jesus: “…Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah” (1:16). This dramatic shift spotlighting Mary rather than the legal fatherhood of Joseph marks a new beginning for the human family, in a fashion similar to what was discussed in our December 17th post on the first “O Antiphon” of Advent. Ratzinger writes, “…the final sentence turns the whole genealogy around… [Mary’s] child does not originate from any man, but is a new creation, conceived through the Holy Spirit” (Jesus of Nazareth, 7). Then it comes as no surprise that Jesus’ kingship does not resemble the earthly and regal kingship of David. As Ratzinger writes, “…this unique kingdom is not built on worldly power, but is founded on faith and love alone” (Jesus of Nazareth, 32). Jesus confounds His fellow countrymen, “‘Is not this the carpenter, the Son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). His persecutors also question His identity along similar lines, “The Jews murmured about him… and they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother?” (John 6:41-42). And in the stinging dialogue with His judge, Pontius Pilate, He is asked: “‘Are you king of the Jews?’… Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here’” (John 18:33; 36).

In His response to Pilate, Jesus affirms His kingship and, in an indirect way by virtue of His relation to David, He fulfills the Davidic promise, “Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:16), and the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the peoples” (Isaiah 11:10). As a “signal for the peoples” that “nations seek out,” God Incarnate, Son of David and at once the Father of David, taking on human likeness, we discover that Jesus’ eternal kingdom is not limited to a particular nationality, but rather encompasses the whole human family. Ratzinger further explains, “Jesus takes upon himself the whole of humanity, the whole history of man, and he gives it a decisive re-orientation toward a new manner of human existence” (Jesus of Nazareth, 5).

As Christians, we are part of a new creation, we belong to the genealogy of Jesus, the family of God, and His eternal Kingdom. “Just as the genealogies break off at the end, because Jesus was not begotten by Joseph, but was truly born of the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, so it can now be said of us that our true ‘genealogy’ is faith in Jesus, who gives us a new origin, who brings us to birth ‘from God’” (Jesus of Nazareth, 12-13). Our belonging to the family of God necessarily demands a new manner of existence. We are not merely invited, but it is incumbent upon us to “put away the old self and [our] former way of life… and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Ephesians 4:22-24). When we imitate Christ’s virtues and thereby act live as Christians, we are manifesting to the world the love of God and His Kingdom. Then, as members of the family of Christ, we can pray with all sincerity His prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10).

Your Sister in Christ,