Jesse Tree tradition enters us into the divine story of salvation
By Fr. Mark McCormick
Every Advent season, I look forward to the Jesse Tree devotion, which is one of my favorite Advent traditions. I am so grateful to Jacques and Annie Daniel and their family, who encouraged me to incorporate this devotion into my Advent almost ten years ago. Since then, it has become an important part of my Advent journey — preparing, pondering, and opening my heart for the coming of Christ at Christmas.
The Jesse Tree is a beautiful and powerful tradition that can help us to fight against the commercialization of Christmas in our culture, which begins with Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and runs hard all the way to Christmas Eve. The Jesse Tree devotion helps us to focus and center our lives, directing our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time, leading us to a joyful, prayerful, and restful celebration of the anniversary of our Lord’s birth at Christmas.
It is so easy to be caught up in the hustle and bustle of the commercial spirit of Christmas that we seem to ignore the Advent season altogether. The Jesse Tree devotion can become like a governor on a vehicle, which helps us to keep a more steady pace, slowing us down so that we are not frantically running from place to place, becoming exhausted and run down before Christmas arrives.
You might think those are some big promises that I am making surrounding the Jesse Tree devotion. Think about it, for 25 days leading up to Christmas, you take the time to gather around the Jesse Tree with your family to read and ponder the history of our salvation. The names, the great stories, and the wonderful symbols speak of our faith, culminating in the birth of Jesus, our Emmanuel, our Savior, and our Prince of Peace. The Jesse Tree devotion keeps us rooted in Advent as we pray Come, Lord Jesus!
Eric and Suzan Sammons, in their book “The Jesse Tree: An Advent Devotion,” seek to present “visually that important family history of our Savior — a family history that in Christ becomes the history of our salvation.” The Sammons go on to say, “the tradition of tracing Christ’s genealogy in this way dates from the medieval times —an eleventh-century illuminated manuscript contains a depiction of the Jesse Tree, the twelfth-century Chartres Cathedral boasts a Jesse Tree stained-glass window.” The name for this visual depiction of Christ’s heritage arises from the passage in Isaiah that proclaims “A shoot shall come out from the stump [root] of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-3).
The great gift of the Jesse Tree is that it immerses us in the word of God. We hear in Hebrews how the word of God is alive. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). As the days of Advent pass, the Jesse Tree devotion will help one to be immersed in the richness and beauty of God’s word, again hearing the incredible stories of our faith. Each day in Advent, one places an ornament with the symbol representing the story, highlighting the importance of that story in the history of our salvation.
I introduced this beautiful Advent tradition of the Jesse Tree devotion to our students at the Newman Center on the campus of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology five years ago. The students enjoy taking turns in reading the history of our salvation in the scriptures and then placing an ornament with the symbol for the reading of the day on our Jesse Tree, retelling the story. It is an incredible experience to see the tree slowly begin to be filled with the symbols of our salvation. Creation with the globe of the world, the apple representing Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Moses and the tablets, Abraham and the stars, Jacob and the ladder. It helps the students to see their own life as a part of this great story of salvation.
I am excited to use the Sammons’ book this year during Advent with our college students to help keep their minds and hearts focused on the true spirit of Christmas, the coming of Christ, by reflecting on the history of our salvation in a visual way.