O Radix Jesse, Healey Willan
Rev. Scott A. Haynes
Among the "O" Antiphons, one of the most beautiful is O Radix Jesse ("O Root of Jesse"). The image of the "Root of Jesse," a metaphor that figuratively stands for the Messiah, is found in Isaiah 11:10:
“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.”
Jesse was King David’s father. Jesse was the “root” of the tree of David, its progenitor. We know from Matthew 1:1–17 and Luke 3:23–38 that Christ was descended from the line of Jesse and his son David. In Isaiah 11:10, the Hebrew word used for “root” (sheresh) implies a root that remains alive and sends up a shoot or branch; thus, the root of Jesse was a root from which more descendants could come.
When Isaiah began to prophesy, there was a current hope among the people that a glorious earthly king—the Messiah—would assume the throne of David. Through the prophet Samuel, God had promised David that his offspring would establish an eternal kingdom:
“When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. . . Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12–16).
The messianic title “Son of David” traces back to this prophecy. The Prophet Isaiah’s use of "Root of Jesse" expresses the promise of a messianic king who would be born of David’s family line and focuses Judah’s expectation of survival on a sparse, leaderless remnant. The prophet uses a similar metaphor—“a shoot from the stump of Jesse”—in Isaiah 11:1 to describe their future hope.
This “stump” signifies the remnant of Jesse’s family that would barely survive. God’s judgment was coming on Judah, and the nation would be left with nothing but a seemingly lifeless “stump,” but there would be life yet. God promised to retain a remnant to carry on His work and the bloodline of King David. What seemed to be a dead, decaying stump would bring forth new life in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
O Root of Jesse, who standest for an ensign of the people,
before whom kings shall keep their silence,
to whom the nations shall offer their petitions,
come to deliver us; wait not any longer.
Translated from the Latin by Arthur Carl Piepkorn
"English by birth, Irish by extraction, Canadian by adoption, and Scotch by absorption," Healey Willan (1880-1968) was Precentor at the church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto, from 1921 until his death, and in that capacity composed a major body of liturgical works.
Written in 1957, "O Radix Jesse" is the third of the seven Great O Antiphons of Advent, so named because they all begin with the letter "O." Associated with the seven days before Christmas, each antiphon takes as its theme one of the names or attributes of Christ; their combined texts were later paraphrased in the hymn "O come, O come Emmanuel." Willan's settings, redolent of plainsong, share common musical ideas but each is subtly responsive to its individual text.
This recording was sung by Vancouver's Christ Church Cathedral Choir and directed by Rupert Lang. It can be heard on their Angels From Heaven Came album, available on iTunes at http://bit.ly/tzk1Ea