O Radix Jesse: O Root of Jesse

The third O antiphon, O Radix Jesse, takes place on December 19. Here is the Latin:

O Radix Jesse,
qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos,
jam noli tardare.

A somewhat literal translation into English might say,

O Root of Jesse,
you stand as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will hold their tongues,
and you the Gentiles will seek:
come to deliver us,
and do not delay.

Applying a bit of dynamic equivalence, we might pray it this way:

O root from Jesse’s stump,
an emblem for all peoples,
in whose presence kings shut their mouths
and nations bow low in disgrace,
come and set us free.
Do not delay.

(As to the word, “stump”: at least one scholar says that after the Babylonian Exile only a stump of the Davidic dynasty would remain, but from it a new root would arise, leading to the Messiah. And “. . . bow down in disgrace” comes from the implication contained in the word depricor. It is root of the English words deprecate and depreciate.)

This translation attempts to bring out a contrast between the first four lines, which address the one to come, and the last two lines, which are the request. The former are titles of great praise. They call out to the great messianic example that will be present for all people, and whose lineage goes all the way back to King David’s father, Jesse; and nations become aware of their own shame, perhaps as Nineveh was. Even kings are brought to silence.

In contrast to this great dignity, the last two lines say, veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare. Come liberate us and do not be tardy, literally. To a non-Latin scholar such as myself, these words seem very direct, almost impudent, telling the messiah what to do. But of course I bow to those who know Latin more intimately. Nevertheless, this translation brings out the urgency of our longing for God, which I will speak of below.

The scriptural references for this antiphon are from Isaiah 11: 10-11 (“On that day, the Gentiles shall seek out the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations; his dwelling shall be glorious. On that day, the Lord shall again take it in hand to reclaim the remnant of his people.”), as well as Is. 52:15 (“So shall he startle many nations; because of him kings shall stand speechless”), and perhaps from Paul’s quotation of Isaiah in Romans 12:15 (“And again Isaiah says: “The root of Jesse shall come, raised up to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope”). Of course it might be that gentes should be translated above as “Gentiles” instead of “nations”, because of this passage, in which case the last lines might be better rendered, “let nothing keep you from coming to our aid” or something along that line.

As we know, the English words for the ever popular Advent song, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, are based on the O Antiphons, but with the last antiphon made first. Here is today’s verse, the one based on O Radix:

“O come, O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
from ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save,
And give them victr’y o’er the grave.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!”

It is, of course, only a meditation on the Radix antiphon, not a translation. As to the last two lines (which are actually the refrain) I heartily agree with those who object to “Emmanuel” being in the first phrase. There is a pause in the music after it and before “… Shall come …”. This creates the musical impression that the Rejoice words are addressed to Emmanuel, which of course does not make sense. “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel // Shall come to you, O Israel!” Far better, to me, is the alternative translation, “Rejoice! Rejoice! O Israel! // To thee shall come Emmanuel.”

The first letters of the titles, if spelled backwards, form the Latin words, “ero crass”, or, I come tomorrow”

What impresses me about the O Antiphons, so distant from popular liturgical consciousness by now, is the growing sense of desire for the Lord that is expressed in them. Even the reverse ordering of “ero crass” indicates acrostically the waiting Christians must always be doing. Not even this sentence makes sense until the last Antiphon has arrived. The Lord has come but the Lord is coming, both into our lives and into the world.

In this I think the ancients were quite accurate. Waiting is nearly the essence of human lives. Patience is one of our greatest needs. The only one that trumps it is the need, or rather, desire, for God-with-us. Love is on the way. Advent is worth its weight in waiting.

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13 comments

  1. Of course if you sing the tune without the lengthening at the end of the first line of the refrain, as is done over here by most people, there is no problem. Simply take a breath after the second “Rejoice!” and sing through to the end. No need to change the text at all then.

      1. I agree with you on this one, Fr. John!. No matter how the ensemble sings it, the congregation is still going to breathe after after “Emmanuel”, which distorts the meaning. I use the text you have suggested, which is in the People’s Mass Book.

      2. Perhaps it depends on tempo too. If the notes are eighth notes, then quarter note would be close to 60. Flowing chant style.

  2. +JMJ+

    When I’ve heard “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” sung (in Latin, I mean), it is sung with two beats each “-ni” and no rest after them, only one beat on the “-el” and no rest after it. No reason we can’t do that in English too.

    I would like a more literal translation of “nascetur pro te”, actually. Unless I’m missing something, it means “will be born for you”, which is a more emphatic statement, I think: “Rejoice, rejoice: Emmanuel shall be born for you, O Israel!”

    As for this particular antiphon, I like the contrast between the kings, who are made speechless in His presence, and the Gentiles/nations, who beseech Him. One might even put the supplication (“come to free us, and do not delay!”) in the entreating mouths of the nations, and not just of us who pray the antiphons.

  3. Could someone explain a little about the idea that “The Lord has come but the Lord is coming”. Advent is said to be about waiting, but are we only pretending to wait? – I mean, Jesus is here now. Sorry, I seem to have missed a lot in my RCIA classes. Thanks.

    1. Johann Baptist Metz said that’s the question Christians today need to ask ourselves. Are we really waiting for anything?

      The answer, of course, should be “yes,” but sometimes I’m not so sure it is.

      Rephrase it this way: is everything right with the world?

  4. Thank you Fr. John for your reflection on today’s O-antiphon. I enjoy the directness of “veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.” It puts us in touch with our Hebraic roots, which places us deeply in that covenantal relationship.There is nothing impudent about it, for I believe God wants us to speak directly in this relationship because it is honest.

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