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.
At the heart of the story of the Incarnation is one family, one mother, one Child. We can see this: God working through an ever-tightening circle, from All the World to > All Israel > Southern Kingdom > Tribe of Judah > Jesse’s family >Joseph and Mary > Jesus. But the target, even at the end, is All the World. God uses one particular thing. One and only one.
Christmas shares not only God’s love for us but also God’s love for each one of us, for you, for me, as individuals. See: God works through individual actions, individual choices, individual moments. God literally has to do this because he has given us this world of time, of space, where the only thing that ever exists is this moment now. Yes, God is Almighty and he can act in history but history only comes in the smallest of individual moments, one at a time. Each moment incarnating and passing away like the tiny ovum that becomes a full-grown baby and then a man who dies, but only one moment at a time.
The Root of Jesse means only one person: not all the tribe of Judah, not all of Israel, but only this one person, born of one person, born of one person, etc. God acting even in ancient times: through prostitutes and adulterers. Through gentiles and evil villains. Through kings and commoners. All these made up Jesus’ family tree! God’s final act is coming soon: a cowshed, smelling of poop and dirt, and the standard-issue human birth in blood and water. A baby.
God loves us this much. And not just us: you are loved this much. One particular birth for one particular soul. The Radix Jesse in exchange for you.
This is why kings stand silent. No human leader or head of state knows his people like Jesus knows you, even if you don’t follow him or believe he exists. Jesus knows you, was born for you, died for you. While I believe the reigning Monarchs of the world have human interactions, I’m not at all sure about the elected politicians. They seem grossly out of touch. Jesus, however, knows you.
The particular of you will be different. But for me, it dawned on me, last week that Jesus loved me, died for me, knowing of all my sexual sins, all my addictions, all my failures of pride, gluttony, sloth, and envy. Jesus loved me first despite all that and thought it was worth it to enter history, to give up heavenly glory, to humbly submit to the will of the Father, to die for me.
As the Christmas Carol says, “Who would not love him, loving us so dearly?” My brothers and sisters, not us, but me? How can I not love this God, this Man, this particular baby, this particular birth in that it shows so much love for me?
Come along: know his love for you. The rod of Jesse’s stem sprung forth for us from a withered stump, rises without delay to deliver each of us.
When my Grandfather, Kenneth Richardson, passed away in 2002 he had left a request that I sing a song at the funeral. I had sung at funerals for my late Brother and my late Grandmother. I had sung at my sister’s wedding. So, this was not a surprise. Grandpa had an odd sense of humor though. And so his request was at once both moving and also, for folks who know me, humorous as all get out. For he asked me to sing a song by Miss Patsy Cline.
(Honestly, I prefer this one by Johnny Cash.. so…)
The song was Life’s Railway to Heaven.
Life is like a mountain railway With an engineer that’s brave You must make the run successful From the cradle to the grave Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; Never falter, never quail; Keep your hand upon the throttle, And your eye upon the rail.
Blessed Savior Thou wilt guide us Til we reach that blissful shore Where the angels wait to join us In God’s praise for ever more.
The song goes on (for several other verses) to talk about troubles with tracks and storms and hairpin turns. In the end there’s a trestle across the River Jordan and the Union Depot in heaven where the Conductor, God the Father and Jesus say, weary pilgrim welcome home. And I kinda choked up there at the funeral and all Grandpa’s Baptist friends said, “Amen” and the song ended.
The problem is the song is too linear. Grandpa was rootless: born in Manitoba, moved to Michigan, lived in San Francisco, served in Panama, and was a hobo riding the rails during the Great Depression. He never really stayed in any one place very long. He didn’t even start going to church until after my Grandmother died in 1984. Knowing that, and knowing that I’m Grandpa’s spiritual son as well as blood relative. My presentation is called
Life’s Tilt-a-whirl to heaven
I was born on 29 August 1964 in Atlanta, Georgia. My name at birth was William Earl Bailey. That is, Bill Bailey. I had 35 years of people singing to me (including Patsy Cline) before I ditched the moniker in 2000. Grandpa approved of my choice saying, “He got tired of people singing tt him!” I had been named for my father, whom I never knew (he left when I was 1), and my mother’s Grandfather, who – being dead – I also never knew. Grandpa Richardson was really my father is as many ways as I can think of until my Mom married my stepfather in 1974.
If you’ll picture the states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida there are there 10 different street addresses I had before 5th grade. In my entire life there have been 48 different street addresses. I’m 53, so… the level of change is pretty consistent.
Generic Protestant (1964 – 1978)
My spiritual journey was just as crazy. When we were growing up Mom always took us to the closest (protestant) Church. My first religious memory is singing “Jesus loves me” in the Presbyterian Church in Fort Gaines, GA. This would be about 1967 or so. My second one is in Warner Robbins, GA, listening to a TV preacher on Saturday Morning in that devotional moment that used to come on the air right after the national anthem. And he was telling me (age 6) I’d go to hell if I didn’t pray this prayer… so… I did. I remember that deeply and profoundly, asking Jesus into my life, more out of fear than anything else, but still, sincerely doing so. My third religious memory is a Sunday school class where we were building a model of Solomon’s Temple out of sugar cubes and royal icing. I wanted to eat the thing when we were done. We did everything from Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Church of God, to Free Will Baptist, non-Denominational, etc
After I stopped needing Mom to drive me to sunday school, my religious life became a little bit more predictable, but only just.
Methodist (1978 – 1981)
I was baptized in the Methodist Church in 1978 by Pastor Jim Lowery. My stepfather was my Godfather. (He and Mom have been married nearly 45 years now…) Pastor Jim and I began to explore ideas of ministry and, like a lot of pastors dealing with a young man in that projected line of work” the question was “do you want to work with the youth group/”
Episcopalian (1981 – 2002)
I discovered the Episcopal Church in High School, 1981. It was pretty. And it was glorious. I discovered monasteries, Mass, Mary and all the things that High Church Anglicans have that Catholics (at that point) seemed to be giving up.
My first year in College I went to a non-denominational Christian college. Here my increasingly Catholic-minded faith was often attacked. Day One involved the RA asking why I had a crucifix over the door… the result of this attack was that I become rather far more “high church” that I might otherwise have become. This was furthered by the local Episcopal priest giving me a key to the church to come in and hang out any time with my friends: I did study halls, and that turned into Bible Classes, and hymn sings… it was an odd Freshman year.
There was some discussion of ministry here, and I ended up working with the Youth Group again, in the parish and on the diocesan level, finally on the provincial and even national level. I did diocesan Summer camp every year for nearly 10 years: two weeks out of every summer working with kids caught between childhood and a faith crisis. There were romances and educational moments, death, illnesses, and all the drama you can imagine. It was also wonderful to run down the hill every morning and ring the Angelus to call folks to Morning Prayer. I spent most of those years as default sacristan and church geek as well.
I had a falling out with the Episcopal Church in College so I ran away. I did so over sex and “not really believing any of this”. And I became a Newagey Pagan. When I came back to church about 10 years later, I was rather shocked to find out no one else believed any of this either and we are all just Newagey Pagans together, albeit more liturgical and we did talk about Jesus more than your average pagans. This was hard on me, coming back to Faith as an adult, to find out I was the odd guy for actually believing things like Resurrection and Incarnation.
Orthodox (2002 – 2016)
A lot of more-conservative Episcopalians, deciding we needed to go be really Christian somewhere, left and became Orthodox. A lot of folks were doing so: Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, etc. When I left the Episcopal Parish on Potrero Hill in 2002 and went to the Orthodox Parish on Russian Hill, I honestly didn’t look at the Catholic Church. I would have seen that many of the things that “Catholics seemed to be giving up” after Vatican 2 were actually very present. I missed that cue, though, and became Orthodox.
(I also ran away from the Orthodox Church a little while over sex. And then came back. Because “you have the words of life… where else can I go?”)
Two things happened to me in Orthodoxy. I began to take my faith very seriously: discovering that this guy, Jesus, wants the whole shebang. He doesn’t want a pious hellion who can go to church, teach bible, and then go home. He wants everything: my politics, my sex life, my diet, my prayer life, my work life, my social life, my social media (this became a thing by this point). Somehow, in all of that take-over, I ended up serving on the Parish Council and then being President of the Parish… an honor I was in nowise worthy of. And discovering that I could pray by singing (in the choir) and that I was ok as a layman.
The second thing that happened was I went to a monastery. In January of 2016, after 6 years at a job I was laid off and, discovering that I was debt free and had no obligations (other than my cat), I went to an Orthodox, Benedictine monastery in Colorado.
That didn’t last, and, although I like to say I “discerned out” the real issue was I needed to be serving people and hiding in a monastery praying the office, as wonderful as it was, was not the answer. I mayhap have been able to deal with the internecine incivilities of monastery life if I had been also serving folks, but we were brutally, starkly alone, at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level. And cold. So I came back into the world.
One of the novices last year (Br John) commented on the Benedictine Vow of Stability, which I would have had to take: a Benedictine Monk is expected to die in the monastery where he takes his vows. Dominicans, to the contrary, are rooted in the brotherhood and very mobile. Although it was a good-natured jab from a Dominican Novice to a former Benedictine Novice, I nearly started to cry remembering the terror that made me feel in Colorado.
When I left the Monastery in August 2016, I knew where I had to go. And I was in a Catholic Parish (in Columbus, GA, near my Parents) before the month was out. The sermon that Sunday was about praying a daily rosary and going to daily mass.
According to the Catholic Church, the Orthodox are a strange species of Catholic, just not in communion with the Pope. So I could have taken communion quietly and gone to confession as needed, and never had an issue. But I needed a commitment to a community so, after I found a job (back here, thank God), I was standing at St Dominic’s within 24 hours of getting off the airplane. Tim says, that three days later I had moved in.
The tilt-a-whirl finally stopped, I pray. And I got off. My confessor knows I’m prone to a mental spin every now and again, but all in all, though stuff spins from time to time, the cross stands still and, by God’s Grace, I always reach out and hold on.
And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, you know the rest of the story.
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare. O Root of Jesse, that stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: come, to deliver us, and tarry not.
Blood, the old saying goes, is thicker than water. It’s an old slam against Christians – who are just as human as anyone else: the water in question is found in the Baptismal Font. But often, when in a tight space, a Christian, just as much as anyone else, will “stick to his own kind, one of his own kind”. If you’re at all familiar with Christians on the internet, you see it all the time: we’ll stand with “our own kind” over Brother Christians almost any day.
And our own kind – our blood – is measured in race, or sexuality, in nationality, although sometimes we dress it up as “religion”: A “Christian Civilization” as against “Arabs” or Muslims. We ignore that there are Christians there too – because religion is just one of our things to cover the blood issue. Blood is thicker than water, after all. In extremes, this turns in to White Supremacists (who even steal an image of the Crucifixion for their propaganda about “White Man Crucified”), but we do it all the time: any time there is an “us” versus a “them”, an “in group” versus an “out group”, we’re saying blood is thicker than water. Gangs, fraternities, alma maters with historic grudge matches, Yankees and Confederates, Communists and Capitalists, race, nationality, even sex becomes a division in the body of Christ.
Before I go any further, this is not an appeal to moral relativism: it is possible to be right or wrong. Nor is it an appeal to a false Ecumenism: Jesus, himself, said, “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ are mine”. Rather it is an appeal to recognize Jesus’ supremacy over all the powers of our world. It is possible to be either inside or outside of Jesus’ posse: but the response to finding someone outside the posse is evangelism, not hatred.
All the powers – the bloods – of humanity are in one of two toggled positions: either bringing people together under Christ, or else bringing people together apart from Christ. That coming together apart from Christ can look so very much like Christians that we get side tracked into not seeing the bad stuff. How many Christian groups get all interfaith warm and cuddly without trying to preach the Gospel?
One of the Great Miracles of Christmas is how God arranged the world. The Fathers of the Church, and also our liturgy, praise the Pax Romana, the peace enjoyed by so much of the known world at that time because of Rome’s political and military hegemony. It was all for Rome’s own purposes, of course: draining the world of resources and making Rome wealthy; but it held the world in peace so that the Gospel could be spread. There was a common language, a common cultural understanding – even among different races and tribes – that made it so easy for the early Church to grow. Compare this to other modern political “unifications” that only force people together without any sense of peace, that often play both ends against the middle to keep all the people arguing and allow an elite group to remain in power, as often the British did in their empire and colonies. (And African Proverb runs, “If you pass a pond and two fish are fighting, you know the British have been there.”) We are still cleaning up those messes in Africa, the Middle East, and Ireland. Rome was a pagan empire used by God. England not hardly at all – though it was Christian in name. The same is true of any other “empire” in your life.
Have you ever seen an Empire on parade like on Gay Pride Day? Or have you seen the blood feuds of Europe carried over into American meeting halls and St Patrick’s Day Parades? It is recorded that when the Saxons first came to England, the Celts refused to send them clergy to teach them the Gospel simply because they were Saxons. Red gangs versus Blue gangs, Nortenos vs Surenos, the list goes on and on.
At several points in my life I wanted to “bring my colors” into Church. Have you heard about the people who try to wear rainbow sashes to communion? Once upon a time that was me – although we didn’t do sashes back in the day. It’s not enough to stand before God at his Altar: I needed to bring my own kingdom with me. I wanted a church that was “Gay Friendly” without ever asking if I was being Christ Friendly.
I’m not alone there, bringing my flag. I know about controversies over General Lee’s battle flag being flown at his own parish in Virginia, but what about all those churches with US flags in them – no less a symbol of division and hate to many? Or Grace Cathedral (Episcopal) here in San Francisco, which is decked out in so very many Union Jacks and Royal Standards as to make one think one is in Londonderry just after Marching Season.
And I don’t need to point out that the Monarchs of England (and other places, like Russia, Serbia, Greece) enjoy status as Church functionaries too.
The antiphon today calls Jesus an “ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence.” This is not an Republican cry against Monarchism. Jesus is not here to free us from the oppression of monarchies, or to give us monarchies to free us from the Majority Tyrannies of the mob. Jesus – contrary to almost every thing the Secular Left and the Secular Right (through their dupes in the Church) say – had no political agenda. He didn’t “liberate” anyone or preach liberation of any kind. He was not a pacifist, but neither did he get into the political squabbles of his day. The Jews erroneously expected their Messiah to to come and liberate them from Rome. Christians today, no less erroneously, expect Jesus to liberate us from Big Gov’t, from Sexism and Homophobia, from racism, from war. He’s not come to solve the problem of Islamic Extremism or the Syrian Refugee Crisis.
Jesus makes all those things shut up – not go away. Makes them be silent in your heart by virtue of your having entered into his kingdom.
And in the silence, you can be saved.
O come, O Rod of Jesse free, Thine own from Satan’s tyranny; From depths of hell Thy people save, And give them victory o’er the grave.
The problem with every “Us/Them” division is that the people on “the other side” are no less icons of the Living God, no less in need of grace, no less worthy of heaven than the people on “our side”. Gospel was needed in the Concentration Camps of Germany: by both the inmates and the Nazis. Salvation was needed in the Soviet Gulags no less by the prisoners than by the guards. the Gospel in America is needed by the KKK and the poor whites whom they brain wash just as much as by the poor blacks that they bully and kill. Jesus is needed both by the Stupid Party and by the Evil party – apply those labels any way you wish. It works. Any tyranny of division is Satan’s own. Yes, there are lines and borders and even language and race divides us, however any failure to see “them” as God’s children needed the Grace of Jesus is caused not by the reality of the situation, but by Satan.
Again, this is not an appeal to amorality, or to any false union for becoming Christian means leaving idolatry behind, be it of states, sodomy, or sola scriptura. But we are called to bring the Gospel to all, and to avoid the luxury of human enemies. All us and them is just you and me and I can not be saved without you. Blood may be thicker than water, at least in viscosity and specific gravity, but just as our baptism makes us one in Christ, so our common humanity makes us one before God’s throne. In the final accounting no one in the Church will be allowed to say “Those people were not fully human, so we didn’t bother bringing the Gospel to them.”
And by bringing the Gospel: which means preaching and living it we are saved.