From the root of a very special tree emerges the story of our Lord who becomes human for the sake of all humanity.
The Jesse Tree has helped us to understand the people, prophesies and events from the Old Testament that lead to the birth of Christ. The ancient tradition dates to Medieval times, and is found in art including ornate wooden carvings, stained-glass windows and illuminated manuscripts.
In modern times, the Jesse Tree has become a Pinterest-worthy family Advent tradition, combining the practice of decorating the Christmas tree with ornaments featuring symbols that represent the story of Jesus’s birth, starting with Creation and weaving through the Old and New Testaments. (See related.)
The Jesse Tree “reminds us that God, from the beginning, has been very carefully preparing humanity to be the dwelling place of His Son — the place where He would become Incarnate, so that the world and especially God’s people would be filled with divine life,” said Father Laurence Kriegshauser, OSB, assistant professor of Old Testament at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.
Jesus’ lineage originates with Jesse, the father of King David, and foretells the coming of a Redeemer. In the first Book of Samuel, the people ask for a king. God anoints Saul as King of Israel, but Saul makes a huge mistake. God instructs him to execute the leaders of the enemy, the Amalekites. Saul rejects God’s word, told through Samuel, and doesn’t execute the king, instead claiming he made a sacrifice. But Samuel says to Saul, obedience to God is better than sacrifice; you have rejected God, therefore God has rejected you.
Samuel is sent by God to search for a new king. He’s instructed to go to Bethlehem, where he meets Jesse, a well-to-do farmer, and anoints his youngest son, David. This new king fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, who in 730 B.C. foretold the coming of a mysterious child who is to be born, a descendant of David, and who will continue to rule from His throne in Jerusalem.
• “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
• “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:5)
• “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)
According to the Gospel of Matthew, traditionally there were more than 40 generations between David and Jesus, who often were depicted in early Jesse Tree art, Father Kriegshauser said. Such examples include a tree representing the lineage of Jesus, with Jesse at the base, and the line of kings stemming from him, and the Blessed Mother and the Christ child at the top. Other examples include trees whose branches represent the Old Testament prophets. In all cases they share the same theme: God had an intricate plan for humanity from the time of creation.
”Christ emerged from a long history of symbols and people that He fulfills,” said Father Kriegshauser. But God didn’t do it all at once. “He created a place by saving the people from destruction and slavery, by providing a leader, a temple, a law and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. The name Jesus means He will save His people from sins. He is God, man and redeemer.”
The symbols and Scriptures associated with the Jesse Tree reveal God’s grace in the times of the Old Testament, said James Campbell, a retired religious educator and author from Rockford, Ill.
Several years ago, Campbell wrote a series of reflections for Loyola Press on the symbols of the Jesse Tree for the four weeks of Advent. The reflections are based on his book, “The Stories of The Old Testament: A Catholic’s Guide,” a collection of short essays on major figures and important events in the Old Testament (Loyola Press, $14.95).
Catholics have long recognized that the God of the Old Testament is the Father of Jesus Christ, said Campbell. “In getting to know how God’s grace has been active in Old Testament times, we’re getting to know who our God is. We really can’t understand what’s happening in the New Testament if we’re not familiar with what happened in the Old.”
When his children were younger, the family made Jesse Tree ornaments from Shrinky Dinks material. More than 30 years later, they still hang on the family tree. It’s a tradition that he hopes will help families in sharing their own stories of faith for generations to come.
”I hope this leads to kids going to their parents and grandparents, sharing their stories of faith,” he said. “This kind of learning is very important for us as Catholics in order to root our own faith in the present day.”
The following are the symbols and Scripture passages, which can be applied to each day of the four weeks of Advent. To read Campbell’s reflections for each day, visit Loyola Press at: www.stlouisreview.com/bRn
Advent | Week 1
The story of Jesse, father of David:Isaiah 11:1-10.
David’s story:1 Samuel 16:1-13.
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve:Genesis 2:4-24
The Fall of Adam and Eve:Genesis 3
Noah and the Flood:Genesis 6-9
The Call of Abraham:Genesis 12
God’s Covenant with Abraham:Genesis 15
Abraham and Isaac:Genesis 22
Jacob and Esau:Genesis 25:19-34; 27
Jacob’s Vision of God:Genesis 28:10-22
Jacob Returns to the Land of His Fathers:Genesis 31-33
Joseph and His Brothers:Genesis 37
Joseph and Pharaoh:Genesis 39-41
Joseph and His Brothers Are Reconciled:Genesis 42-45
Advent | Week 2
The Birth of Moses:Exodus 1-2
Moses Meets God in the Burning Bush:Exodus 3
Pharaoh’s Contest with God:Exodus 5-6
Journey to the Sea:Exodus 14:1-15:21
Testing in the Desert:Exodus 15:22-17:16
Moses and Aaron
The Hebrews Meet God at Sinai:Exodus 19
The Ten Commandments:Exodus 20:1-11
Rahab and the Fall of Jericho:Joshua 2; 6
Joshua Renews the Covenant:Joshua 23-24
Gideon’s Small Army:Judges 6-8
Naomi and Ruth:Ruth
God Calls to Samuel:1 Samuel 3
Samuel and Saul:1 Samuel 10-12
Advent | Week 3
The Young David:1 Samuel 16-17
David and Jonathan:1 Samuel 18
Saul and David:1 Samuel 24; 28
David the King:2 Samuel 5-6
David, Bathsheba, and Nathan:2 Samuel 11-12
David’s Later Years:2 Samuel 19-24
Elijah is Fed by God:1 Kings 17
Elijah Confronts Baal:1 Kings 18
Reign of Hezekiah:2 Kings 18–19
Isaiah’s Vision:Isaiah 6
Isaiah’s Message:Isaiah 1-2
A Savior Will Come:Isaiah 9; 11
Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon:Jeremiah 7; 26
Jeremiah Speaks Against Jerusalem:Jeremiah 28
Sorrow for the Fall of Judah:Lamentations 1
Jeremiah’s Message of Hope:Jeremiah 29; 31
The Sack of Jerusalem and the Fall of Judah:2 Kings 24-25
Ezra and Nehemiah:Nehemiah 8-9
Advent | Week 4
John the Baptist
John the Baptist Preaches Repentance:Luke 3:1–6
Messengers from John the Baptist:Matthew 11:2–11
The Annunciation:Luke 1:26–38
The Visitation:Luke 1:39–45
The Birth of John:Luke 1:57–66
The Canticle of Zechariah:Luke 1:68–79
An Angel Appears to Joseph:Matthew 1:18–25
The Finding of Jesus in the Temple:Luke 2:41–52
The Birth of Jesus:Luke 2:1–20
The Genealogy and Birth of Jesus:Matthew 1:1–25
The Birth of Jesus and the Visit of the Shepherds:Luke 2:1–20
In the Beginning Was the Word:John 1:1–18
Loyola Press also provides additional resources for Advent. See www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/liturgical-year/advent
Jesse Tree resources
• Holy Heroes has a Jesse Tree DVD, with a link to download free printable ornaments.
• No time to make your own ornaments? JesseTreeTreasures on Etsy has a set of full-color, wooden ornaments, with a book explaining each symbol and Scripture reference.
• Domestic-Church.com has some Jesse Tree inspiration, including corresponding images and Bible verses and inspiration for making a tree and ornaments. Author Catherine Fournier also has a book, “The Jesse Tree: A Family Craft for Advent.”
• Catholic blogger Jessica from Shower of Roses has a tutorial for making a no-sew Jesse Tree and ornaments from felt.
• “The Jesse Tree” (Geraldine McCaughrean), is a children’s book that traces Jesus’ family tree.
• The Advent Jesse Tree” (Dean Lambert Smith) includes devotions for children and adults to prepare for the birth of Jesus. The book is available in hardcover end Kindle formats.
Jesse Tree ornaments
Jesse Tree ornaments have long been a popular tradition for Catholic school-age children to learn about the story of Christ’s birth as told through the Old and New Testaments.
It is one of several Advent traditions at St. Clement of Rome School. This year, seventh-graders made a set of hand-drawn ornaments, featuring symbols that link to the Scripture passages that share the story of Jesus’ lineage. An apple for Adam and Eve. An ark and rainbow for Noah. Two stone tablets for Moses.
Seventh-grade religion teacher Angela Zach had students match symbols with the people represented in the Jesse Tree story. During Advent, they will take two ornaments off the tree branch each day and share the Scripture passages linked to each symbol as part of morning prayer.
”So many of the Scriptures, they’re having trouble matching some of them, because the symbols are repeated (in different places) in the stories,” Zach said. “There’s all these different meanings present in the entire story of the Bible. With the dove, we were going back and forth on which reading could it be? It was a fun class discussion.”
Here’s something to know about Jesse Tree ornaments — there’s going to be some variation in the symbols used, but what’s important is that it starts with the creation of man and ends with the birth of Christ.
Jesse Tree ornaments are a great way for anyone to learn more about the Old Testament, said Barb Yoffie, St. Clement’s director of religious education. “There are so many sources out there now to explain this very simply,” she said. “The Jesse Tree causes you to stop and think about Scripture and Jesus’ family. It’s such a rich history.”