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The Jesse Tree, Part 1: Relating the Old Testament to Children

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Dec 05, 2016

When I was young, my family had a Jesse Tree as part of our Advent traditions. The tree itself was a simple 4-foot artificial tree. I was seven when my mother made the ornaments out of salt dough and painted with acrylic paint using designs suggested in The Twelve Days of Christmas Kit published in 1955. The ornaments are now only a fond memory as they could not withstand all those southern summers in the attic. Unfortunately, there are no photos of the ornaments, as our Jesse Tree was many years before documenting traditions on social media.

My mother was always apologetic on how simple and not very artistic the ornaments were, but I still think they were the most beautiful creations. I was captivated by the brilliant colors and loved to ponder on meaning of the symbols. We didn’t spend much time on reading and discussing. It was a simple tradition of taking turns to hang the ornament and talk about the symbolism.

Despite how much I loved our old ornaments, I have never reproduced them within my own family. I have been looking for a way to tweak the original forms. The designs were a bit modern, the salt dough ornaments were too heavy for a little tree, and my son is allergic to the wheat flour.

Those aren’t the only reasons that I have not recreated my childhood memories. When I started looking for ideas for ornaments, I realized that not everyone did the Jesse Tree the same way as my family. The choices were different for the days in Advent. And while I was inspired by the different ideas and approaches to doing the Jesse Tree at home, it just wasn’t a good fit. We would start with enthusiasm but fizzle in less than one week. It all seemed too much busy-ness. My compromise was to use the ornaments I made from my friend Michele Quigley but as a child-led activity. My sons put on the ornament for the day and look up the readings if they desire.

It’s close, but I still want to recreate my mom’s ornaments. In thinking about why the Jesse Tree (in other interpretations) has never caught on for us, I am finally able to pinpoint my reservations.

What is the Jesse Tree?

The Jesse Tree is based on the prophecy of Isaiah: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Isaiah 11:1). Older illustrations and stained glass windows illustrate the genealogy of Jesus through the Jesse Tree.

The Jesse Tree as a popular devotion is relatively new, dating from around the 1950s. The basic idea is to have a “tree” and through the days of Advent there would be a different figure for each day. This is a very popular practice for Protestants and Catholics. The most popular interpretation is different Old Testament figures for every day of Advent, but there is no one way of interpreting. There are so many variations based either on genealogy of Christ, types of Christ or symbols of salvation history. The number of choices can also vary because Advent can range from 21 to 28 days in length.

Our family Jesse Tree was based on symbols and types of Christ, with a focus on the key points of Salvation History. It never included the last week of Advent because that was left for the O Antiphons. I know the symbolism of my childhood ornaments spoke to me, but I always thought it was merely nostalgia and personal preference that held me back from embracing other forms of the Jesse Tree.

It was only when I became a catechist of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) that I found answers why I preferred my original ornaments. The approach to imparting Holy Scripture especially the Old Testament is deliberate and unique, and I found that looking at this way of giving Holy Scripture to children gave my answers what kind of Jesse Tree to have in my home.

This is a two-part series on the Jesse Tree in the home. Part One is concentrating on imparting the Holy Bible to children, particularly the Old Testament, looking at the CGS approach. Part Two is a practical implementation for a Jesse Tree that fits the family.

The Breakdown of the Holy Bible in the Three Levels of CGS

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has three main levels, the first Level is for ages 3-6, Level II is for ages 6-9 and Level III is aimed for ages 9-12.

The foundation of the atrium is based on two pillars, the Bible and the Liturgy. The child learns of the Liturgy, from simple nomenclature to closely examining the Mass and the Sacraments. The importance and sacredness of the Holy Bible and how God is present in His Word is presented from the very beginning of the atrium (CGS) experience. All presentations begin with the sacred proclamation of the Scripture text. A lighted candle accompanies the reading to show that God is present in His Word. Both the Bible and the Liturgy are presented to show their unity. The Scripture presented is found within context of the Liturgy and the Liturgical Year, and the Liturgy is unfolded revealing the Scripture within. Within both the covenant between God and man is underscored.

All Scripture passages in the atrium are direct quotes from the Holy Bible, not paraphrased passages in Bible Stories. This approach emphasizes that God’s own Word needs to be proclaimed.

Level I, ages 3-6:

The emphasis throughout Level I is on the person of Christ. The child learns about Jesus’ life and His individual love and providential care for him/her. This is shared particularly through the Good Shepherd and also through the Infancy Narratives, Paschal Narratives and Kingdom of God parables. The life of the atrium follows the Liturgical Year with different aspects of the Liturgy presented, such as the liturgical colors, articles and vestments of the Mass, the Sacrament of Baptism, etc. The youngest child receives the deepest mysteries of the Faith but always with the emphasis on presenting the essential.

In Level I, there is only one time of the year where the Old Testament is presented, and that is during Advent. Five key Messianic prophecies are proclaimed and pondered over the three-year-cycle: Prophecy of Light (Isaiah 9:2), Prophecy of Names (Isaiah 9:6), Prophecy of the Mother (Isaiah 7:14), and Prophecy of Place (Micah 5:2). The prophets are introduced to the young child as one who listens to God with his whole heart and then shares God’s secrets with everyone.

During the rest of the time in Level I, outside of the Book of Psalms, no other passages of the Old Testament are imparted. Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark and Moses and the Ten Commandments are not part of Level I. It may seem lacking, but Sofia Cavalletti, one of the founders of CGS, explains why:

When we come to consider how to introduce the child to the Bible we are immediately faced with the dilemma of whether to begin with the Old or the New Testament. There is only one covenant between God and man, but it is realized in successive stages. Should we make the child retrace this development from its beginning? ...In our estimation, children should be initiated into their present religious reality, and fundamental to it is the presence of the Mediator through whom we go to the Father. Moreover, in order to approach the Old Testament it is necessary to be able to move easily within time, and to be able to imagine customs and habits different from our own. What impression would a child receive, for example, from the account of the sacrifice of Isaac, without knowing or being able to understand that there were cultures in which the offering of a son in sacrifice was an act deemed pleasing to their deity? We maintain that the children initiation to the Old Testament should not begin before the age of eight. Further, we should not let ourselves be deceived by the apparent facility of many pages of the Bible.

In the Bible we find a vast abundance of facts, impressive and easy to recount. We should make an accurate choice of these to present to children, concentrating solely on the passages the theological meaning of which the child can penetrate. The Bible is a book of historical theology or theological history; we cannot separate theology from history in the Bible, for if we did we would be unfaithful to the message. There are many biblical passages the history of which the child easily learns, without piercing through to their theology. We should carefully avoid such passages, otherwise we risk making the Bible become a book of “stories” if not “tall tales.” If, for examples, we were to present a child with the account of original sin, it would be taken in the same way as a fairy tale where animals speak; however the child could in no sense understand its meaning or teaching. In our view it is a mistake to give children texts that are predominately, if not exclusively, narrative in nature. As a matter of fact we think that the more articulated and detailed the narration, the greater the risk that it will obstruct the children from reaching its depth.

I do not think it right that the child first know certain facts, and only at a later time enter into their theological significance. I believe that an event learned only as a story (or legend) will stay a story or legend even when the child is grown, and it will be extremely difficult to recover its theological content later on. The children’s drawings can be a guide in our choice of texts. If the child, in relation to a specific biblical passage, only knows to draw descriptive rather than interpretative illustrations, then it is better to avoid that text; it is obvious that his understanding of it has stayed on a level of superficiality. On the other hand, there are numerous biblical passages the child is capable of penetrating deeply; the richness of content in the drawings reproduced in this book provides this fact. Why not concentrate on texts such as these? (Cavalletti, Religious Potential of the Child, pp. 105-106).

During my first CGS formation training eight years ago, I wrote in the margins of my book how I disagreed with this passage. There are so many beautiful children’s picture books and Bible story books imparting these Old Testament stories that I didn’t want to accept this idea that young children under the age of 6 were not ready to understand the Old Testament.

Over time I’ve changed my opinion. Just the phrase “Bible Story” proves Sofia’s point that it sends a mixed message to the child. I have come to see the wisdom in this approach. A child at this young age does not have a concept of time. He/she doesn’t understand history; everything is seen with eyes only in the present. I remember taking our oldest son when he was 4 or 5 to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. We read picture books and talked about this great president before we made our visit. I was so excited how interested my son was in history, but halfway through our tour he turned to me and asked me when would we see George Washington. He didn’t understand that our first president was no longer alive.

The other reason why the Catechesis avoids imparting the Old Testament separately in different stories is that Bible stories are presented out of context. They are not presented in relation to Salvation History or the Liturgy.

Level II, ages 6-9:

When the child enters Level II at age 6, he or she is entering a new plane of development with a capacity to understand the concept of time and history. Even though the child is older, he/she does not go deeper into the mystery, because the the deepest truths have already been presented to the youngest child. The heart has already been presented, so the spiral can never go deeper. Instead, the Catechesis takes a spiral approach where each year the spiral expands wider.

There is a new work at this level on the books of the Bible, “The Holy Bible and the Books Which Comprise It.” It is a small wooden cabinet with miniature wooden books representing all the books of the Bible, each bearing the names of the book. The size of the books represent how long is the book of the Bible. All the books are organized in the different sections: Pentateuch, Historical, Wisdom, Prophetic, Gospel, Acts, Letters and Revelation. This is a favorite presentation, one that is repeated often. The children love to trace the books, copy the titles, and memorize the order of the books. In this way they are taking “ownership” and becoming very familiar with the Holy Bible.

At this age the child is developing reading and writing skills, so besides becoming familiar with the books of the Bible, he/she also copies and reads Scripture passages related to different works in the atrium or makes prayer cards with different Scripture passages.

Later, when it is their sacramental year, each child is given his/her very own Bible before receiving First Reconciliation and First Holy Communion. This is a pivotal moment for the child. I have witnessed with my own sons and heard stories from other families about the children loving and reverencing their Holy Bible. They want to look up passages, read it aloud, read it in bed—some even sleep with it under the pillow. Both of my sons wanted to bring their Bible to Mass so they could read the Mass readings directly from their Bible.

While this continued love for the Holy Bible is nourished, now that they have a better concept of time, the children are presented the whole, “the big picture” of salvation history connected all through time. The “Kingdom of God” is unfolded in a broader expanse. They begin to see “the significance of biblical history as a whole—its unity and vastness, its development as a history of gifts, and its one author with one plan to create cosmic communion” (Cavalletti, Religious Potential of the Child, 6 to 12 years old, p. 43). The three key moments of salvation history, Creation, Redemption and Parousia, are repeatedly emphasized.

During Advent the same prophecies from Level I are repeated and synthesized, with three new ones added, Prophecy of the Valleys and Mountains (Isaiah 40:3-5), Prophecy of the Shoot of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-3a), and Prophecy of the Peaceable Kingdom (Isaiah 11:6-9). Except for the Genesis creation account and Psalms, these prophecies are again the main Old Testament experience for Level II.

Level III, ages 9-12:

While the 9-12 aged children are still in the second plane of development, their grasp of time and history is more rooted. In the previous level there was a new awareness of personal morality and the interaction within their community of peers. At this age the children are deepening this focus, but also seeking to find what is their role in the larger society and Church. Now that the child has seen the “big picture,” Level III introduces typology. The child examines individual events in salvation history (Creation, Sin, the Flood, Moses, Exodus, Abraham, etc.), all viewed in context of the overall picture of salvation history. As Sofia Cavalletti explains:

As Saint Augustine referred to it, salvation history is like “a golden thread which binds together all the individual gems,” uniting all the events of history in one plan. A typological reading of scripture is one which searching constantly for this “golden thread,” which is the Plan of God uniting all the various events of the history (ibid, p. 45)....

But rather than calling it by one method, parable or typology, or signs, Sofia called it “‘the method for approaching the Mystery’ in its various manifestations.” (p. 47).

The typological method is the method of exegesis that either begins with the present phase of salvation history and searches for its roots in the events, institutions, and persons of the Old Testament, or begins with the Old Testament and reads it in light of the events of the New Testament. In other words, the typological method searches for the “imprint” of one phase of sacred history upon another, keeping in mind the unity of the divine plan from creation to Parousia (Cavalletti, The History of the Kingdom of God from Creation to Parousia, p. 16).

Each event in the history of salvation is examined in its threefold moments in time: the Past (Old Testament), the Present (in the time of Redemption), and the Future (Parousia). The threefold moments position the Old Testament with the Liturgy. All through Level III the zoom lens focuses in and out, viewing the big picture and then focusing on individual moments, then zooming back out again to see them fit into the overall plan of God.

As the spiral widens from level to level, the Advent prophecies from previous years are repeated and then expanded into a work that studies the prophets and their call and struggles. There are also particular Messianic and Moral Prophecies introduced (or reintroduced): The Messiah as Good Shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-25), The New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), Multitudes and One God (Isaiah 60:3-9, 40:5), Prepare the Way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3-5), The Fast that Pleases the Lord (Isaiah 58:6-10), and The Offering that Pleases the Lord (Isaiah 1:10-18).

Application Within the Family

Our family or domestic church is not striving to do an exact replication of life in the atrium, nor should it be. This is a catechesis program of which elements can be brought into home. Other acts of piety grow out of the life of the family and the interaction with the life of the Church, which might not be part of the life of the atrium, but suitable for home.

Aspects of the atrium’s approach to the Old Testament that impress me the most is it is intentional, only the essential is chosen, and all is presented in context. This is what I want to carry forward in my home:

  • Intentional — Understanding the audience. Who is this child, and what are her/his capabilities for the age? Just like in the atrium, I want to provide an ordered unveiling of the Old Testament to children, looking at the whole child.
  • Essential — While it is interesting to read of different Old Testament characters, what is important is to find the heart of the Faith and not distract the child with extras. It’s not necessary to know about the kings of Israel and Balaam’s donkey at a young age.
  • In Context—The aim of the CGS is to teach the Faith through the Bible and the Liturgy. All is presented is within context of the Liturgy. This is also the aim of my domestic church, to have it echo the Church’s Liturgy, and bring the family closer to the Liturgy (as I elaborated extensively earlier this year). A young child will be exposed to different aspects of the Old Testament, often through popular culture. A Catholic child will be exposed even further by hearing aspects of the Old Testament through the Liturgy and Lectionary, but in context of the Liturgical Year. I want to present the Old Testament similarly, in context with the unfolding of the Liturgical Year.

What is the purpose of the Jesse Tree? If it is to familiarize my children with the Old Testament as a whole, then any Old Testament figure would do. But if the purpose is to unfold how God had a plan even from the beginning for the Redemption of man, then I want to make deliberate choices for the Jesse Tree figures. They should be illustrative of our salvation history and in context with the Liturgy.

The Jesse Tree, Part Two is a practical application to present the essential message of Redemption through the Jesse Tree or a type of Jesse Tree that suits the child and family.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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