Sr. Louise Zdunich


December 13, 2010


What is the Jesse tree and what does it represent?



The Jesse tree is inspired by Isaiah's prophecy: "On that day, a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of its roots" (11.1-10).

We are familiar with family trees. The Jesse tree is similar, helping us learn about Jesus, his ancestors and the history of the Hebrew people.

It was important for the early Christians to show Jesus, the promised Messiah, was biologically connected to the line of David. Mary as the shoot from the stump of Jesse and Jesus as the branch is mentioned as early as the third century by Tertullian.

However, it was only about 1000 AD that the Jesse tree became popular. For the next 200 years, it was common in paintings and stained glass windows. It was the preferred choice for windows, some being simple with few figures while others elaborate, with a hundred or more. The Middle Ages liked to connect Jesus to his human ancestors.

For early Christians, a tree was a special symbol as it directed one's gaze upwards to God and not to self and earthly treasures. It showed the connection between heaven and earth with roots in the earth and branches pointed heavenward.

Usage of the Jesse tree declined after the 13th century. More recently, it has been revived as a children's Advent activity. It seems to me that it could be a powerful way for adults to learn about biblical personages. This would oblige us to delve into the Old Testament to learn who these people with odd-sounding names really were, although some may be difficult to find.

Who has not been bored listening to a reading of the genealogy at Mass from Matthew's Gospel (this year on Dec. 17)? But once you've learned something about Jesus' ancestors, it will have meaning. Therefore, it would be a good project for church congregations and schools where it could be celebrated as simply and briefly as the Advent wreath.


Only Matthew and Luke have the infancy narratives. For the genealogy, Matthew starts with Abraham and goes down the line to Jesus while Luke starts with Jesus and goes all the way back to Adam. There are differences between the two, although many names are the same.

The Jessie tree can be developed on a chart with symbols representing Jesus' ancestors. An evergreen tree would be better but might dry out and present a fire hazard.

So, it would be best to use an artificial evergreen for the symbols, then top it with a star or angel depicting the birth of Jesus and then use it as a real Christmas tree. Christmas tree lights, etc. can be added. Having once seen a Jesse tree in a church, I was intrigued by its beautiful decorations and its possibilities for learning.

I would like to give you a few examples of symbolism which could be used to represent some of Jesus' ancestors. One could begin with the easier ones the first year and then others in later years.

First, read Isaiah 11.1-10 where the idea of the Jesse tree originates. Then read each Scripture text related to the persons before making and displaying the symbols.

For the creation story, use symbols such as a globe, pictures of the sun, moon, stars, mountains, seas, animals, birds or fish. An apple and a serpent could represent Adam and Eve. These would be placed near the bottom of the tree for God's creation is the base for what follows.

For Noah and his descendants, make an ark. For Abraham and Sarah, stars show God's promises while a laughing face would depict Sarah's reaction to the promise of a son in her old age. A ram represents Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac.


For Jacob and Rachel, a ladder could symbolize Jacob's dream and the number 12, the 12 tribes of Israel they parented. A colourful coat designates Joseph, their favourite son, who was sold into Egypt, beginning the saga of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt.

Include Moses with tablets or a burning bush; his brother, Aaron with a rod; his sister, Miriam with a tambourine as she sang triumphantly. Continue with Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Obed, Jesse, David, Isaiah and Micah with their Messiah prophecies, then Mary and Joseph with Jesus at the top of the tree.

Have a blessed Christmas with a greater love and understanding of Jesus and his people.

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