By Denise Trull
I have a history with trees. Large, gnarly trees -- tall and stately and ancient. I have walked familiarly among them for years now. I know all their ways, all their quirks, their berries, acorns, and leaves. They, too, know my secrets -- my thoughts as I wander the path, my sorrows, my skipping joys, my doubts, my anger sometimes walked briskly away in their calm and patient company. Their healing serenity can always be relied upon. I have come to call them my trees, so much have we been through together for the past twenty years in an unassuming park near my home. I have come to rely on their permanence. I did not realize how much so, until one afternoon.
I rounded the corner in the path and looked up, expecting to catch in my sights the grandest gentleman of them all -- Tree Beard, I had come to call him. He was enormous, spreading his branches over one whole corner of the park. No one knew how old he was. He had always been there. But not today. I was stunned. There was only empty air where he had been. The world felt strangely misplaced. My eyes traveled to the ground and took in the large stump with myriad secret rings disconcertingly exposed to the garish light of day -- this sudden quantifiable calculation of his seeming agelessness. But he was no more. Cut down. Dear Reader, I cried. That such a thing of ancient beauty was no more, just like that. But I was a busy mom, and I had no time to mourn properly. Life went on and so did I. Each day I would round the bend and see that stump. After a while, I didn’t even stop to look at it.
Then one spring afternoon I walked slower. You might say I waddled, as I was in the last month of a pregnancy that had taken a physical toll. I stopped to rest a bit and there it was. A little green shoot. One stem, two leaves like open arms on either side just swaying in the breeze. It had found its way up through the center of that enormous stump and all its ancient rings. It was beautiful to behold in all its small but exquisite existence. Hope is like that. Small sometimes, but always an exquisite surprise. The little shoot grew into a slender sapling all that summer, like the baby in my arms, and it kept growing until I could no longer see the old stump. Life had won, and held for me “a weightless grace.” The grace of hope.
I always think of that tree on the first Sunday of Advent. I think of the trees growing in the garden where Adam and Eve wandered the paths with the Lord at twilight. How they must have known all of them as intimately as I knew mine and perhaps even named them. But sin changed all that. They would never see their trees again. Banished. Barred from the garden. Death had cut down their beautiful dreams to a stump of despair, but not quite. There was a promise before they left -- a promise of a child and a woman who would trample the devil underfoot. There was the promise of redemption and a return to a garden of a different kind.
Over the years of heavy toil and suffering, Adam and Eve perhaps forgot at times about that promise. They labored through their days remembering less and less of the trees they had known so well -- though I can imagine the wistfulness they experienced at the rising of a forgotten memory, or hear them sigh suddenly at odd times for the life that could have been theirs and the constant regret: how could they have possibly sinned against one as loving as their Father? But life went on as it always does. They had children. The children went on to live lives of their own. But slowly, slowly out of that stump of despair there rose a fragile shoot of hope. The promise of God.
Noah heard the promise as he built his ark in a desert place. Abraham saw it. Then Isaac and Jacob. And it was seen and heard by many others through the centuries until it made its way into the heart of Jesse, the father of many sons, the youngest and ruddiest of whom was David, the future King of God’s chosen people. And from David would come the promised one. The Savior. The shoot that would grow from the center of God’s people. Jesus. Emmanuel. This would all happen quite slowly over time. Many would forget it was happening, so busy were they with many things. But there were always the observant ones. The waiting ones. Those who would not miss the miracle of His coming among us.
In this time of Advent, we draw close to those observant ones. We watch them grow before us like branches on a tree, one after the other, each supporting those who would come after. We listen to what they did. What they said. What God said to them. And slowly over the four weeks of Advent, the branches grow into a large and beautiful tree that will burst into blossom on Christmas Day with the promised one.
We have a wonderful custom in our Catholic Church. It is called the Jesse Tree. This wonderful devotion is quite ancient. It started in Medieval Churches as an artisan’s gift to the poor who could not read. The poor could gather and stand before a soaring stained glass window picturing a sprawling tree that sprouted pictures of all the prophets, patriarchs, kings, and ancestors of Jesus who did not forget He was coming. We can stand with those Medieval peasants even in our time, around our own Jesse Trees, in poverty of spirit. We, like them, look and listen to the stories of those who share their wisdom with us to help us grow in holiness. We ponder Adam and Eve’s sin and our own. We look over the plains with our Father Abraham who was promised descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. We cross the Red Sea with Moses and hear the trumpets of Joshua, we wrestle with angels along with Jacob. We glean with Ruth and Boaz and find happiness in their married love. We enter the courts of King David and we meet many, many others who will tell us of what is to come. We travel from branch to branch slowly putting together the story of our salvation until we find ourselves at the entrance to a cave. And a manger that holds a tender Child, growing in fragile beauty from the center of all those ancient rings of prophesy and waiting.
There are many kinds of Jesse Trees. They can be simple or as ornate as you wish. All you need is a bare branch from the outdoors and a flower pot filled with rocks to place it in. Or you can use a small Christmas tree. Each day you will place one ornament on a branch starting at the bottom. The ornament will have a symbol on it. An apple for Adam and Eve, a sandal for the traveling Abraham, the tablets of stone for Moses and so on. A crafty, artistic child will love making these ornaments - we started with small clay ones in our family and ended up with some lovely paper ones in the end. Each day you will read the Bible story of that day followed by a simple hymn. Slowly the tree will be filled until the Christ Child adorns the top like a star on Christmas Eve. It is a beautiful custom to start with your children. It is a devotion like no other for showing them the faithfulness of God down through the ages until our own time. It will also give each of us an understanding of our own growth in the spiritual life and how that takes time and effort and waiting. And even from the stumps of our failures and sins, a shoot is always waiting to spring up in the center of our repentant hearts to heal us.
I have grown to love this tree that grows slowly in the corner of my dining room every Advent. This year I will share some of the thoughts I had over the years as these ornaments were placed on the tree. I hope you will find something there to help you on your Advent journey. You will also have many thoughts of your own. I promise. And may your own Jesse Tree be “a weightless grace of Song” and a blessing on this place, your home.
Blessed Advent to every domestic Church wherever you may be. Praise Him!