Like a lot of families, we put up a “Jesse Tree” every Advent as a way of getting the kids focused on something about Christmas other than the P-word. Ours is a simple thing, a tree drawn on a cloth with some ornaments hand stitched by my wife’s mother years ago. When I began teaching Salvation History courses for college students, I brought the Jesse Tree in toward the end of the fall semester to tie a few things together. If you put up a Jesse Tree in your home, or if you’ve ever wondered what the whole thing is about, you might enjoy seeing how I approach it with my students. It’s the same thing I do at home with the kids:
Q. Does anybody know what this is?
A. It’s a Jesse Tree.
Q. What do you do with a Jesse Tree?
A. Hang ornaments on it that tell the story of salvation history.
Q. Why do we hang ornaments to tell the story instead of just telling the story?
A. The Jesse Tree is a mnemonic device; we easily remember a set of pictures arranged on a tree where we might have difficulty remembering a set of words on a page. In this regard, it has the same goal as the timeline we use in class.
Q. Why is it called a Jesse Tree?
A. Because of the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1 about the shoot that will grow from the “stump of Jesse”.
Q. What was that “stump”?
A. The devastated kingdom of David, taken into exile for their sins.
Q. But why is it called a “Jesse” Tree in particular?
A. Because Jesse was the father of David.
Q. Based on this prophecy, what is the shoot that grows from the stump of Jesse to become a tree?
A. The “Jesse Tree” is Jesus Christ.
Q. So why do we hang the ornaments on Christ?
A. Because the whole story of salvation history depends at every step on Christ. (For geeks: “depend” comes from a Latin word that means “hang from”: the events of Salvation History “hang from” Christ on the Jesse Tree!)
Q. In what way does the story of salvation history depend on Christ?
A. Each person or event pictured on the ornaments foreshadows Christ and prepares for him. He is the model and the goal of each person and event.
Q. How many “comings” of Christ are described in the New Testament?
A. Three comings: his birth and ministry, the descent of the Spirit on the Church, and his coming at the end of time as judge.
Q. How does the Temple look forward to Christ’s first coming?
A. Christ himself in the flesh is the place of God’s presence.
Q. How does the Temple look forward to Christ’s middle coming?
A. We become temples of God when the Spirit comes into us.
Q. How does the Temple look forward to Christ’s final coming?
A. All of creation will be the place of God’s presence when God is all in all.
[Other examples from the Old Testament could be used here just as well.]
Q. What does the word “Advent” mean?
A. “Coming,” namely the coming of Christ.
Q. Do we celebrate each of the three comings during Advent?
A. Yes. We remember Christ’s past birth, experience his present invisible coming into our hearts, and look forward to his future coming as judge.
St. Bernard: “In the first coming, he comes in the flesh and in weakness; in the second, he comes in spirit and in power; in the third, he comes in glory and in majesty; and the second coming is the means whereby we pass from the first to the third.”
Q. Is the whole story of Scripture summed up in the Advent season?
A. Yes. The three comings of Christ encompass the story of the New Testament, and those same three comings are the true form and goal of every story of the Old Testament.