O Radix Iesse: Never Too Late

Today’s ‘O Antiphon’ takes as its guiding image Isaiah’s prophecy of the “branch of the root of Jesse (see Isa 11). The prayer reads:

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.

When the prophecy was uttered, Jesse’s tree, that is, the line of King David, was still going strong. But as the centuries went on and the restoration of the monarchy became a distant dream, the root of Jesse seemed more like a dead old stump. And so, the image of this prophecy, and what it meant for those at the time of Jesus, reminds me of walking through the great mist forests of the Pacific Northwest, where it’s not uncommon to find new saplings growing out of ancient gnarled stumps or root systems long taken for dead. It’s such a powerful symbol of the potential we all carry for new life, even in those parts of us that feel atrophied or even dead from lack of care or from abuse. I’m reminded too of the prophecy from Ezekiel 37, in which the prophet, gazing at a valley full of old, dry, sun-bleached bones, is asked by God, “Can these dry bones live?” God then commands him to prophesy to the bones and they come back to life, “For I the LORD have done this!”

This idea of life coming to places where it has no business being is one of the most striking motifs in the Scriptures. It’s not for nothing that the child-born-to-childless-elderly-parents is an actual trope of the Bible: Isaac, Samuel, and John just to name three such miracle babies, born to childless women who were well past childbearing age. As uncomfortable as the meaning may be for us today, in the patriarchal culture of the Scriptures, this trope functioned in much the same way as the image of the Valley of Dry Bones: a shocking, miraculous new life in a place of desolation.

Perhaps these stories planted the seeds (pun not intended) for men and women of faith to expect the impossible from their God, to hold out hope where none seems appropriate. And perhaps this is why they were so resilient in their hope throughout the centuries. Even when it must have felt like God had long ago abandoned them, the grasped onto the words of their prophets, clinging to them with expectation that God wasn’t through with them yet.

The message I take from this this morning is the reminder that with God, there is always the hope of new life, even and especially when all seems lost. The oldest root can spring forth new life, the driest bone be filled again with blood and marrow. With God, nothing is impossible. With God, it’s never too late.

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.

Amen.

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