Jesse Tree shows link between birth of Christ and Old Testament

Lisa Johnston |

Everyone knows what a Christmas tree is. On the other hand, the Jesse Tree, a religious symbol seen and referred to frequently during Advent and Christmas, is something of a mystery to many Catholics.

Many parishes and schools display some sort of "Jesse Tree," which they use as part of their charitable giving during the holiday season.

But what is it? Where does it come from? And how is it relevant for Catholics?

"The Jesse Tree is literally a family tree of Jesus," explained Msgr. Michael Witt, associate professor of Church history at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. "It refers to the genealogy of Jesus, given in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and it also goes back to the prophecy from Isaiah in the old Testament, 'a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.'"

The genealogy of Jesus and His connection to the line of King David was very important to the early Church, Msgr. Witt said. And it is important to us as well. "This is very potent for us. It shows that our faith is grounded in actual fact, in genealogy. It's not a myth. It's real. It's historical."

The genealogy section of the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew has been referred to by some as "The Begats," because in some versions of the Bible the wording is that "Abraham begat Issac," etc. In the New American Bible, the Gospel of Matthew begins "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob ..." and continues through a total of 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus.

The "shoot" from "the stump of Jesse" refers to Jesse, the father of David, the great king of Israel. "It was very important to show the link between David and Jesus," Msgr. Witt said.

"That is what the tree of Jesse does. Everything in the Old Testament points to Jesus. You can find huge prophecies that speak of the coming Messiah from the line of David," including Isaiah's.

The line of David begins with Abraham, eventually gets to Jesse and his son, King David, and goes on to Joseph, the foster father of Jesus and husband of Mary.

"It is very important that Joseph is the foster father of Jesus, that God chose Joseph to be the foster father of Jesus," Msgr. Witt said. If not the physical father of Jesus, Joseph was the adoptive father of Jesus, and by Jewish law, the line of Jesus would be traced through the father, not the mother -- through the line of David.

"Now Mary is evidently of some noble descent herself," Msgr. Witt said, citing scriptural references and early Church documents. "But she is not in a prominent role in the Jesse Tree," the genealogy of Jesus.

The genealogy in Matthew ends, with "Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah." Msgr. Witt explained, "This shows there is a balance in our salvation history. None of this is by accident. Our faith doesn't start with the nativity. To understand the New Testament, you need to read it in the context of the Old Testament."

Mary is important here, he said, because "from the very beginning we have the prophecy that God is going to send a Messiah, a savior, done through a woman who has crushed the head of the serpent. This is not meant literally but means that she bears the Son of God. That will crush the head of the serpent, the Evil One."

Msgr. Witt referred to Our Lady of Guadalupe, saying "The word 'Guadalupe' is the way the Spaniards heard it, but the actual word in the Aztec language means 'the woman crushing the head of the serpent.' And that meant a lot to the Aztecs, because one of their gods was the Winged Serpent."

Msgr. Witt said, "Our faith is not a fairy tale. It's based on historical fact. That's what the Jesse Tree tells us."

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