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. (Liturgy of the Hours translation)
O Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at Whom the kings shall shut their mouths, Whom the Gentiles shall seek, come to deliver us, do not tarry. (Traditional translation)
I included both the LOTH version and the traditional version of this antiphon because I am puzzled at how the Latin “Radix Jesse” (The Root of Jesse) became “Flower of Jesse’s Stem” in the Liturgy of the Hours. A flower is a beautiful image, and I believe anything of beauty can image our Lord, but the Root of Jesse is a symbol of the royalty to which Jesse the patriarch belonged. I asked Father John Zuhlsdorf if he might have any insight, and he said that it may be because the Latin Vulgate verse in Isaiah where this image comes from says “et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet …a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower (flos) shall rise up.”
When we speak of the Root of Jesse, there is a beautiful contrast here. Usually, a root is not something that stands up, as a sign or ensign, the way a flower might. This suggests to me the contrast of the First Coming of Christ. There he was, God, lying in a manger, a tiny, helpless baby, and yet King of Kings. A baby is not someone we usually think of rendering kings speechless, nor someone sought out by the Gentiles (strangers), but at His First Coming, He was sought out by strangers who came to worship Him (the Magi).
Another thing that troubles me about the LOTH translation is the final sentence “Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid,” traditionally translated as “come to deliver us, do not tarry.” Although the Lord never delays, sometimes it feels that way. However, faith tells us that nothing could possibly keep Him from accomplishing His Will. Therefore, I can understand the image of feeling that the Lord was “tarrying” but not that something could keep Him from helping us. He is, after all, omnipotent. The Latin says “veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.” I must confess that I am no expert in Latin. I have never taken a class, and all the Latin I know I have learned from being in choirs and being curious about what I was singing. However, tardare does suggest to me the English words “tardy” or “tarry,” so we are saying that we don’t want the Lord to be late in coming to liberate or deliver us.
My puzzlement on the translation of this O Antiphon makes me think of the new translation of the Roman Missal from which Mass is said. It is possible to translate things in a way that makes them more modern and “accessible,” and it is possible to translate in such a way that conveys their sacredness and holiness. I believe that the new translation, with its flowery and special language, conveys holiness better than the former translation, which was more everyday language. Some things are so sacred that they must have their own terminology.