by David Stechholz
O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the people, before Whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage: Come quickly to deliver us. – Antiphon for December 19
While the secular world is wearying of its version of Christmas madness, the Church of our blessed Lord, Jesus Christ, is using the Advent season of repentance, hope and anticipation in preparation for the Christmas celebration of the incarnation of our Lord.
The ancient “O Antiphons” are little “praylets” of the Church, drawn from Old Testament names and titles for the Promised Messiah and Savior of the world. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Messiah, Savior and Redeemer, is the “Root of Jesse.” These names are used in the beloved Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (LSB 357). Happily you will see the seven O antiphons listed after the hymn. On the days between December 17 and 25, why not use the appropriate hymn stanza and antiphons as part of your family dinner table devotions? You will be blessed in using these short prayers!
I suspect that you all know that King David was the eighth son of Jesse. The prophet-priest Samuel passed over seven older sons of Jesse to anoint the eighth son, David, the shepherd boy. After slaying the Philistine giant Goliath, David eventually becomes the king of Judah and Israel, succeeding Saul. David becomes the ancestor of our Lord, Jesus Christ, a thousand years prior to our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, the city of David.
Jesus Christ is the root or stem of Jesse.
Isaiah the prophet (approximately 740–700 B.C.) records: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Is. 11:1). Blessed St. Matthew recognizes the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words in Jesus, who would be called a Nazarene (Matt. 2:23). The Hebrew name Nazareth means “root.”
Fast forward about 800 years to Paul and Barnabas on a mission trip in Antioch of Pisidia (modern day Turkey). The apostle Paul harkens back to Isaiah’s words. Luke records Paul saying to the people of Antioch: “When He (God) had removed him (Saul), He raised up David to be their king, of whom He testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man of my heart, who will do all My will.’ Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as He promised” (Acts 13:22–23). Jesus is that Root of Jesse.
This O antiphon acclaims the Root of Jesse (Christ Jesus) as an ensign before the people. What is an ensign? An ensign is a standard, a sign, a symbol or a banner. The Roman armies of antiquity carried an ensign in their marching formations with the letters SPQR. That stood for Senatus Populusque Romana, the Senate and the People of Rome. Jesus is our ensign, and we often represent Him, His atoning and sacrificial work on the cross and His Church with the symbols of a cross and a fish. We use these symbols not to advertise ourselves but to proclaim Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world.
When the Son of God, the Root of Jesse, Jesus, died on the cross, the world was stunned, including the kings of the world (Is. 52:13–15). Dr. Paul Maier’s book Pontius Pilate brings out in biographical novel form the pathos of a ruler who recognized an injustice and seemed helpless to prevent Christ’s crucifixion. Yet at the cross, Jesus was our “strong Deliverer,” rescuing us from our sins through His innocent suffering and death. He has delivered you from the darkness of hell through His shed blood.
Even now the world is stunned on Good Friday as Christians commemorate the death of God the Son, the Root of Jesse, for our salvation. We believers point our neighbors, classmates, co-workers and family members to our Ensign, the sinless Lamb of God at the cross.
Our world is very evil.
But a new calendar year will soon be upon us. Even as we ask for the Lord Christ’s deliverance of each of us from every evil of body and soul, we look ahead with joy and gladness, living in hope in Christ. We know our Ensign goes before us, opens heaven to us, yet even now gives us boldness of faith and witness and merciful care to tell the world of Him. That is my challenge for you in 2014 in the name of the Root of Jesse, the Messiah, Jesus. Beloved army of the laity, arise and follow our Ensign in word and deed!
The Rev. David P. Stechholz is the former bishop and president of the LCMS English District.
**This article was originally published in the December 2013 The Lutheran Witness