Our Christian faith can be expressed in so many diverse ways. We have many different traditions, especially for the Christmas season. I enjoy exploring the different ways in which we prepare and celebrate Christ’s birth. If you have not heard of an Advent Jesse tree before, or possibly heard the phrase but are not sure what it means, then this article is for you!
What is the Jesse Tree?
There are many ways that we can mark Advent, the time leading up to Christmas. Some churches follow a set liturgy for the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day. Amongst all the busyness this helps to focus everyone’s thoughts on the meaning of our celebration. Many Christians choose to read an Advent devotional each day in December. But a more familiar Advent tradition for children is to have a calendar to count down the days to Christmas.
An Advent Jesse tree is simply a way of preparing for Christmas by exploring Jesus’ family tree. Each day will tell the story of one of His ancestors and can be aimed at children or adults. Exploring the ancestry of Jesus in this way highlights God’s salvation plan through the generations.
But why name it the Jesse tree you might be asking?
The Old Testament patriarch, Jesse, was the father of King David, the greatest king of Israel. One of the prophecies of Isaiah regarding the Messiah is that He would come from the ‘root’ of Jesse.
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD…” Isaiah 11:1-3
This analogy, that Messiah would come from the ‘root of Jesse’ signifies the line of kings and Jesus’ royal heritage. It was back in the medieval era that the symbol of a tree first became accepted as a way of expressing lineage. During this time the way of marking Advent through a Jesse tree began and grew in popularity.
The Jesse Tree Advent Tradition
Long before tracing your ancestry became a popular hobby, people enjoyed reflecting on family history. Whether it was noble families with a hall full of ancestral portraits, or poorer families keeping a simple record of names in the family Bible, connection was important.
In the gospels, we find that two out of the three accounts of Jesus’ origins include a list of names. The gospel of Matthew starts his genealogy with Abraham and finishes with Joseph, the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus. Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ Jewish ancestry, as being a descendant of father Abraham. Whereas Luke’s gospel begins with Joseph, thought to be the father of Jesus, and continues back to Adam. Luke was a gentile, and focused more on Jesus’ humanity as a descendant of Adam and connected to all mankind.
But reading a list of names of long-dead ancestors doesn’t inspire us unless we know their stories. It is when we explore the way that different people were drawn into God’s salvation plan that we find some surprises. The Advent Jesse tree includes some unlikely characters, with less-than-perfect backgrounds!
There are depictions of an advent Jesse tree in paintings, wood carvings, tapestries, stained glass windows, and Scripture illustrations, going back to the 11th century. Artists were using the background of a tree to interweave pictures of people in Jesus’ ancestry. They were telling a story and revealing God’s plan in a way that ordinary people could identify with.
The only prophecy in the Old Testament to be illustrated so frequently is this concept of the Jesse tree. The number of branches, and stories told in the illustrations, varies according to the amount of room in the design.
Today, there are many Advent devotionals that use the concept of the Jesse Tree. It is becoming a popular and fun way to travel through Scripture in December. The devotions select and focus on twenty-five of the most important people in Jesus’ ancestry. In different ways each one of their stories points to Jesus’ birth and the unveiling of God’s salvation plan.
Jesse Tree Ornaments
Often, today’s Jesse Tree Advent devotionals will include ideas for an ornament or decoration for each day. Once made these can then be placed on a simply crafted branch or tree. Or even on the Christmas tree that is already in so many living rooms at this time of year.
Jesse Tree Symbols
The Jesse tree ornaments can come in any shape or style. The Jesse tree symbols depicted on the ornaments reflect the story and the person it is based on. There are no set designs, the style and symbol chosen are down to the individual artist. But, there are many similar designs as often the choice of representative symbol is obvious and closely linked to the story.
The Jesse Tree Anthology
If you are looking for a devotional book based on the Jesse tree tradition then I can recommend one! It has been a privilege to be part of this project, along with twenty-four other Christian writers, The Jesse Tree Anthology, compiled by Rachel Yarworth.
“Take a journey this Advent through the family tree of Jesus and his ancestor, Jesse. Beginning with the creation of the world and continuing right up to the night of Jesus’ birth, read about 25 of the most important people and events that came before Jesus, and discover how all of their stories point to Him.”
This book is suitable for reading alone, or as a family devotional. Each reading comes with questions to reflect on and discuss. There are also templates for Jesse Tree Ornaments to color, cut out, and hang on your own Advent Jesse Tree. (PDF downloads available @Rachel Yarworth Writer)