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by Helen Hull Hitchcock
“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of the fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:1,2)
The medieval images of the Tree of Jesse combined Isaiah’s prophecy with the gospel account in Matthew 1 of the descent of Jesus from the royal line of David. Saint Matthew’s gospel is read on Christmas day. Families also may read this chapter together on Christmas eve or Christmas morning.
It was a very popular subject in medieval art. Examples of the Jesse Tree image survive in carvings, manuscripts, stained glass, and even on embroidered vestments. The “tree” often appears to be a vine springing from the side of the sleeping figure of Jesse, the father of David. The “rod” (trunk) represents the biblical genealogy of Jesus, culminating in Virgin Mary. The “branch” (or flower) is Christ the Savior. These images often depicted King David holding a harp, and King Solomon holding a model of the temple at Jerusalem. Sometimes other figures from the Old and New Testaments were included among the side branches.
The Advent Jesse Tree, a fairly recent innovation, was developed to help Catholic families “put Christ back into Christmas” by studying His genealogy. It has often been used in schools as well as in homes. The ornaments placed on the Jesse Tree represent the ancestors of our Lord, Christ Himself, Old Testament foreshadowing of Christ’s sufferings, and Old Testament personages who prefigure Christ’s life and His coming.
To Make an Advent Jesse Tree
A home Jesse Tree may be a small bare or evergreen branch set in a sand-filled flowerpot or decorated coffee can. A tree could also be made of felt, poster board, or wood (buttons or bells could be attached to hold the ornaments.) The tree is ornamented with a symbol and/or a Scripture verse for each day of Advent. A list is suggested below, but there are many additional possibilities.
During each evening in Advent, a child may place a symbol on the tree. The child (or an older child or parent, if he is too young) then reads the appropriate Scripture text and explains its significance in Salvation History.
Symbols and Verses for the Jesse Tree
Twenty-seven suggested subjects for the Jesse Tree are listed below, along with symbols and Scripture text citations. You may need more or fewer, depending on the length of Advent in a given year. The final eight days are the same every year, and the last symbol placed on the tree, of course, is always the Infant Jesus, the newborn King.
1. Creation Gen. 1:1-31; 2:1-4
Symbols: sun, moon, stars, animals, globe of the earth
2. Adam and Eve Gen. 2:7-9, 18-24
Symbols: tree, man, woman
3. Fall of man Gen. 3:1-7, 23-24
Symbols: tree, serpent, apple with bite
4. Noah Gen. 6:5-8, 13-22; 7:16, 23, 24; 8:1, 6-12
Symbols: ark, animals, dove, rainbow
5. Abraham Gen. 12:1-3; 13:2-18
Symbols: torch, sword, mountain, tent, many stars
6. Isaac Gen. 22:1-14
Symbols: an altar, ram in bush, bundle of sticks (for lighting a fire) in the form of a cross
7. Jacob Gen. 25:1-34; 28:10-15
8. Joseph Gen. 37:3-4, 12-24, 28
Symbols: bucket, well, silver coins, coat of many colors, sheaf of wheat
9. Moses Ex. 2:1-10; 20:1-17
Symbols: baby in basket, river and rushes, stone tablets
10. Aaron Num. 6:22-27
Symbols: rod and serpent
11. Samuel Sam. 3:1-18
Symbols: lamp, temple
12. Jesse I Sam. 16:1-13; Is. 11:1
Symbol: shepherd’s staff
13. David I Sam. 16:14-23; 17:12-51
Symbols: slingshot, harp, crown
14. Solomon I Kings 3:3-28
Symbols: scales of justice, temple, two babies and sword, crown
15. Isaiah Is. 6:1-8
Symbols: scroll, tongs and coal
16. Anne and Joachim
Symbols: flowering rod, baby girl
17. Zechariah and Elizabeth Lk. 1:68-79
Symbols: small chalk board inscribed “His name is John”
18. Joseph Mt. 1:18-25
Symbols: hammer, saw, chisel, angle
19. Mary Mt. 1:18-25; Lk. 1:26-38
Symbols: lily, crown of stars, pierced heart
20. John the Baptist
Symbols: shell with water, river
Eight days before Christmas, the O Antiphons begin in anticipation of our Savior’s birth:
21. O Wisdom Sirach 24:2; Wisdom 8:1
Symbols: oil lamp, open book
22. O Lord Ex. 3:2; 20:1
Symbols: burning bush, stone tablets
23. O Flower of Jesse Is. 11:1-3
Symbols: flower, plant with flower
24. O Key of David Is. 22:22
Symbols: key, broken chains
25. O Radiant Dawn Ps. 19:6-7
26. O King of the Gentiles Ps. 2:7-8; Eph. 2:14-20
Symbols: crown, scepter
27. O Emmanuel Is. 7:14; 33:22
Symbols: tablets of stone, chalice and host
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