Monday, December 19, 2005

Six more days: O Radix Jesse

Come O Radix Jesse!

December 19: Six more days: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)

O radix Iesse,
qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardare.

(translation from Fr. Britt)

O Root of Jesse, who standest as the ensign of the people, before whom kings shall not open their lips; to whom the Gentiles shall pray: COME and deliver us, tarry now no more.

(another version)

O Flower of Jesse's stem,
you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples;
kings stand silent in your presence;
the nations bow down in worship before you.
Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.
(For this I have drawn a mystical plant bearing a golden flower which is the "Star of David".)

"That day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples. It will be sought out by the nations and its home will be glorious." [Isaiah 11:10 Jerusalem Bible translation]

In yesterday's discussion, focussing primarily on the law, I pointed out that the title "Dux domus" - the leader of the house [of Israel] - would need further elaboration. With this symbol, the Root of Jesse, we shall now explore the domestic attributes. Note that sometimes the flower - sometimes the root - is indicated. Possibly this is a kind of synecdoche, the figure of speech where a part stands for the whole: the whole royal line of Israel begins with David - but that line is rooted in Jesse, who is David's father. But the line, great at one time, had all but vanished - until a new flower sprang forth.

We turn, then, from our examination of law, urban studies, civics, or politics, to the more familiar and homely. Certainly we see in the Bible and in the history of Israel a very exalted view of the family and the home: one of the Commandments we recalled yesterday directs us to "honor thy father and thy mother..." and there are many other examples of the special role the home and the family played throughout the Old Testament.

Again we find a very strong parallel in ancient Rome. Quite some time ago in one of these Advent discussions, I mentioned the word "tribe" which is a Latin word, not an American Indian one. And the alert student will sniff that word and wonder whether the Latin root for "three" is lurking therein - and you would be RIGHT! For there were originally just THREE tribes of ancient Rome, representing (as I understand) the three most ancient peoples who had joined in setting up a common living place, there on the banks of the Tiber. Later, other "tribes" were added, in an effort to give a kind of "representation" to certain aspects of the government... I cannot go into detail here, but there is thus some hint of relating the "family" as a "tribe" to the "government". In this case, the historical details may distort my proposed analogy. But this is just one way in which the family was important in ancient Rome.

It may be somewhat distressing to learn that the root of "family" refers to the servants or slaves of the household. But this distortion is brought back to focus by considering what it was the slaves were doing: they were working: to feed the household, clothe the household, clean the household, and do all the chores and other work necessary to run the household. This STILL HAPPENS - it is not a matter of slavery. It may be made a little more visible if I switch to Greek and bring two words to your attention: economics and ecology. The Greek root which is common to these - rendered "eco" - means "house". Economics means "law of the house", ecology means "study of the house". If you're going to run a house, these things play a part - but somebody has to do the work. (Even economists and ecologists have to live!)

But (as we know) the idea of serving changed - at least as an idea. The change came about around 2000 years ago, when a certain baby was born... So quickly did it change and so profoundly, that the new organization soon had to set up a special office called the "servants". They used Greek, though, and the word sounded something like "deacon". Some time later there were organizations which "served" lunch to the poor: they made a thick stew-like soup which they "served" up. They called it the BIG SERVE - in the worn-down Latin they used it sounded like "MINESTRONE."

So there is a healthy sense to this idea of service in the family. But let's get back into focus - what about Rome made the family so special?

It was the FOCUS.

That is, the hearth. (The Latin focus means "hearth".) I cannot go into a long elaboration about Italians and cooking - and the kitchen - it will make me hungry... but probably you already know about it. But this is not about pasta or scallopini, or even wine - it is about home life - and eating is a big part of life in the home, and food is prepared at the fireplace. It may be surprising to you, but there was something else there at the hearth, which did not have to do with cooking. It had to do with religion.

It may be legend, or it may be real. But there was a strange but very understandable aspect of ancient Roman religious practice, and it happened around the family fire-place (the cooking area, or the kitchen). They were called the "household gods" or the Lares: the gods of the hearth. It will stretch the image here, but make a useful link for a future discussion, to say that this was something which served the adults almost in the way a modern night-light can serve a child: something familiar, something to inspire confidence, something which gave protection... Maybe not like a weapon or a dog would - though supposedly the idol for a "Lar" was a kind of dog - (hmm) - maybe it was something inside the person who felt protected. Anyhow: this great pagan society, with their various temples and gods and goddesses, ALSO had this very local, private, and personal kind of devotion as well. There was something which made the hearth warmer than just the fire burning there - and it was something religious.

"The truth is that only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard or a status by which to criticise the state. They alone can appeal to something more holy than the gods of the city; the gods of the hearth." [GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:275]

Now, the root of Jesse blossoms forth: the signal is raised for the peoples! It is no longer a pagan idol, nor just a Roman (I mean Imperial Roman) practice. It is not a mere placebo or a security blanket. And so the family is exalted as never before.... Yet ancient Rome anticipated it, as they anticipated so much. Shortly we shall see just how close they came to guessing about... well, you will see when we talk about the great poet Virgil, who died about 40 years before the birth of Christ. But if the ancient Romans had come to Bethlehem - ordinary people like characters in Virgil's writings, honest common folk who cooked and ate and slept around the family hearth with their Lares, if they had come? Well: "They might have found in that strange place all that was best in the last traditions of the Latins; and something better than a wooden idol standing up for ever for the pillar of the human family; a Household God." [GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:308]

Come O Radix Jesse.


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