We do not have a Christmas tree as part of our Advent or Christmas celebrations. This was a conscious choice when we were blessed to be able to adopt our son. We decided instead to have an Advent Jesse Tree.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of a family tree that depicts our biological family’s relationships in the shape of a tree, often pictured with the trunk, branches and leaves of a real tree. Most of us may not know that this way of depicting our genealogy comes from the Jesse Tree.
Who was Jesse? Jesse was the father of King David, who lived about a thousand years before Jesus was born (see I Samuel 16: 1-13). David was the greatest and most faithful king in Israel’s monarchy, yet he too was all too human and missed the mark. As time passed and after successive failures, Israel began to long for the true Messiah, the one that could lead them in fulfilling God’s true intentions. It is this longing we see reflected in the prophecy from Isaiah 11 above, which tells of this Messiah who will come from the line of David. Christians understand Jesus to be that long awaited Messiah who is the redemption of all Creation, although in quite unexpected ways.
Two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, contain genealogies for Jesus. It was the proclamation of the early church that Jesus was this long awaited Messiah and so it was important to show his biological heritage as rooted in the line of King David (through Mary) as well as his spiritual heritage as connected with the great figures of the faithful from Israel’s history.
The interpretation of Mary as the shoot from the stump of Jesse and Christ as the branch from the Isaiah 11 passage is mentioned as early as the beginning of the third century (200 A.D.) by Tertullian (a priest and writer). It is not until about 1000 A.D., however, that the image of the Jesse Tree became prominent in artwork. For especially the next two hundred years the image of the Jesse Tree blossomed in stonework, manuscript illustrations, paintings and stain glass windows. Typically the image of Jesse, lying down, is placed at the bottom, with a tree growing from his loins. Along the main trunk of the tree are pictured some of the kings that followed, then Mary and finally Jesus at the top. There are many variations, some simple and some very elaborate. The Lancet Window in the Chartres Cathedral in France is a classic example while the one found on the ceiling of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Germany has over a hundred figures.
The Advent Jesse Tree is a more recent variation on the theme. We live in times and a culture, at least in North America, that does not stress genealogical connections as much as was done in the past. We also live in times when the “old, old story” is not as well known. The Advent Jesse Tree shifts the emphasis from genealogy to narrative. The story of Christ’s birth is connected with all the stories of the Old Testament that have come before it. The grand sweep of the great narrative of what God has been up to is re-told through story and symbol, beginning with Creation in Genesis and culminating in the birth of Christ.