The Gospel of Matthew begins with the well-known description of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. St. Matthew emphasized to his largely Jewish audience the real and deep connection of Jesus with the Hebrew people, showing that He was indeed the son of David. This connection became important not only for Jewish readers, but for all those who sought to understand whether Christ was truly the Messiah promised by the Hebrew prophets.
Through the centuries, the Church deepened her understanding of the people and events of the Old Testament. The Fathers of the Church came to see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and many others as having a special role as forerunners of Christ. These figures of the Hebrew Scriptures imaged Him in a dim way, preparing the world for His future coming. They played a vital part in the history of salvation and in God’s unfolding revelation of Himself to mankind.
The Jesse Tree seeks to present visually that important family history of our Savior—a family history that in Christ becomes the history of our salvation.
The tradition of tracing Christ’s genealogy in this way dates from medieval times—an eleventh-century illuminated manuscript contains a depiction of the Jesse Tree, and 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,
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump [root] 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 might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. (Isa. 11:1–3)
Isaiah’s contemporaries probably assumed that this “root of Jesse” was David, the great king of Israel. But the passage is also a foretelling of the coming of the Messiah, the descendant of David and future King of Kings.
During Advent the Church turns her attention to the coming of Jesus, making it the ideal season for the devotion we now call the Jesse Tree. Naturally enough, many families hang Jesse Tree ornaments on their Christmas trees. The Christmas tree originated, of course, in Germany, most likely with the (spiritual) mystery play presented on Christmas Eve in medieval times. This play’s scenery included the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, an evergreen tree hung with apples. The plot unfolded to show Eve picking the apple, and she and Adam both eating of it.
Even today many families hang apples on their Christmas trees to highlight the connection between the Original Sin and the birth of the Savior. “In order that we might live, it was needful that God should incarnate Himself and be put to death” (St. Gregory Nazianzus). In Eden a tree brought death through Adam’s sin, but Christ’s tree of death, the Cross, became a tree of life through His sacrifice (see Rom. 5:18).
As the days of Advent pass, the Jesse Tree helps us follow the course of salvation history from the creation of the first man and woman, to the great flood, to the patriarchs of the Jewish faith, to the prophets, to the immediate forerunners of Christ. As we trace God’s plan for the salvation of the world, we see revealed in deeper and deeper ways the mystery of His great love for man.
May He bless you in this season as you make a pilgrimage through the family history of our Savior.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.