The Jesse Tree

There seems to be an increasing interest in using the Jesse tree as an Advent symbol in parish churches as an alternative to the more familiar Advent wreath. This is perhaps because much of the basic symbolism of the Advent wreath, such as branches that remain green in the depths of winter bareness, lose their meaning in the Australian summer setting of Advent.
Jesse was the father of King David and thus an ancestor of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah foretold that the longed-for Messiah would descend from the royal house of David: “A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse, a branch grows out of his roots, a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and power, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” (Is. 11:1-2).
The Jesse tree uses symbols to represent those who prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah. It is like a family tree through which the stories of those who preceded Christ are remembered. During the weeks of Advent, symbols are placed on a small evergreen tree or leafless branch, beginning at the bottom with Adam and Eve and moving upward to the topmost symbol, the Chiro representing Christ. As each symbol is hung on the tree, the person it represents and their place in Jesus’ story is remembered.
The symbols used are based on scripture:Adam and Eve - a garden: the garden of paradise is their home (Genesis 2:8,9,15-23.Noah - a rainbow: this is the promise made by God to his people (Genesis 8:6-12, 9:12-16.)Abraham and Sarah – stars: Abraham was promised descendants as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:1-6).Isaac - a bundle of wood (Genesis 22:1-18).Joseph - a coat of many colours (Genesis 37:2-36).Miriam - timbrel /tambourine (Exodus 15:20-21).Moses - the tablets of the law (Exodus 19, 20:1-21).Ruth - a sheaf of corn (Ruth 2:1-7).David - a harp (1 Samuel 17:40-52, 18:10-15).John the Baptist - a figure wearing skins and eating locusts and honey (Matthew 3:1-5, 11:7-15).Joseph - carpenter’s tools (Matthew 1:18-25).Mary - a lily: the white lily is a symbol of purity or fairness (Luke 1:26-38).
Other symbols include creation (a sun), the fall (an apple), Hagar (a well), Jacob (a ladder), Judah (a lion), Joshua (a trumpet), Deborah (a palm tree), Solomon and the temple (incense), Elijah (a pitcher), Hosea (wedding rings), Isaiah (a branch – for the exile), Ezra (a scroll – for the return), and Jonah (a whale).
Symbols that speak of what happened after the birth of Jesus are sometimes added: decorated spheres to indicate that Christ came to save the whole world, stars representing the direction and guidance which Christ gives to our lives, doves for the Holy Spirit, hearts to remind us of God’s love, bells which ring out the good news, and lanterns and candles to emphasise that Jesus is the light of the world.


Elizabeth Harrington