O Root of Jesse / Jesse Tree

December 19, 2015
Advent Reflections

The third of The Great “O” Antiphons highlights Jesus’ lineage from Jesse, David’s father. The antiphons are seven brief prayers that are traditionally chanted or sung on successive evenings starting on December 17.

O Root of Jesse, you stand as an ensign to the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, and nations bow in worship: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

“A shoot shall come out from the stock 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.” ~ Isaiah 11:1-2

A Jesse Tree, a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, represents the family tree of Jesus. Beginning on the first day of Advent, a Bible story is read relating to God’s people and Jesus’ family, starting with Creation and ending with the Birth of Christ. An ornament is placed on a Jesse Tree after each day’s story.

Maggy Keet, Manager of Donor Relations and Special Events in the Development Office, shares her remembrances and reflection on her family’s Jesse Tree tradition:

Much to my disappointment, the holidays of my childhood started not with an oversized, light-draped Douglas fir in the living room, but with a lean, bare branch beside our kitchen table. The day after Thanksgiving, while friends were out joyfully selecting O Tannenbaum, my Dad was traipsing into the late autumn woods in search of the barren branch that would become our Jesse Tree. This old Advent tradition, based on the messianic prophecy of Isaiah, “A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse,” was a sign of hope in small beginnings.

Throughout December, our family had a simple after-dinner ritual. We would light the candles in the Advent wreath and my sister and I would color the minimalist line drawing ornaments of biblical scenes—John the Baptist decked out in camel hair, Elizabeth and Mary sharing pregnancy stories—while Mom or Dad read the scripture passage for the day. We’d recite a short, page-long litany followed by a few verses of “O come, O come Emmanuel” before cutting out our ornaments and hanging them on the tree.

If Advent is about readying ourselves to receive something, we need to be leave space for it to enter. The quiet pause each evening was good for a family with demanding jobs, homework, school projects, piano lessons, youth group, holiday parties, and pageants. There was plenty to keep us busy, but little to slow us down. We had every excuse to scurry off as soon as our plates were clean, but the ritual held us together and kept our evenings calm, even if only for thirty minutes.

Postponing the Christmas commotion wasn’t easy, but the days of waiting weren’t empty. The naked Jesse Tree filled Advent with meaning and purpose: each night a new ornament to color, a new passage to read, which often sparked questions (“What’s a virgin?”) and conversations (“How did two of every animal in the world fit on Noah’s Ark?”). The Bible stories, the songs, the litany all taught us—even as young children—that the birth of Christ was not a sentimental nursery story, but a powerful sign of God’s presence in the midst of suffering and of God’s fierce insistence on universal love, justice and mercy. Each Sunday, as we lit another candle, the room got a little brighter.

Though we didn’t get a tree until days before Christmas, my parents weren’t completely austere. We ended the evening ritual by opening our Advent calendar, not the ‘cardboard with stale chocolate’ variety, but a large quilted tree with twenty-five pockets thoughtfully filled with all sorts of confections—small, sweet breadcrumbs leading us to the big day. These treats, along with our Jesse Tree, taught us that good things come from the thrill of hope—and expectation.

It took a few years for my sister and me to understand why we couldn’t “just deck the halls already!” But once we got it, we looked forward to Advent more than Christmas. We continued that tradition long after we had outgrown it. Each year Dad would copy the ornaments and litany, each year’s photocopy of a photocopy more faded than the last. But we held on to that fading ritual even after we weren’t little girls any more because the Jesse Tree had taught us that there was more joy from the branch than there was from the tree.