O Jesse Tree, O Jesse Tree

Marin pastor embraces ancient Advent tradition to give parishioners a deeper understanding of salvation history and their part in it

By Christina Gray

“I like Christmas ornaments,” Father Pat Michaels said when he heard the gasp. We had just caught sight of the fully trimmed Christmas tree in the vestibule off the entrance of the rectory at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parish. It was mid-September.

Nearly all of the intricate religious ornaments — angels swinging from fluffy clouds, filigreed saints, delicate Nativity scenes and more — were handmade by the longtime pastor of the Mill Valley parish using vintage Polish, German, Czech and Austrian glass. He crafts them from a makeshift workshop, a rectory utility closet stacked precipitously high with boxes of baubles, balls and beads and other tiny, shiny things.

Father Michaels’ master craftsmanship of religious ornaments is a story unto itself. But today, we have come to talk to him about his parish Jesse Tree.

For more than 15 years, the pastor has been deliberate and intentional about the use of the Jesse Tree at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish as an Advent devotion.

Father Michaels told Catholic San Francisco that the ancient custom of the Jesse Tree can draw the faithful into a fuller understanding of the salvation story — one that began, in fact, in the Garden of Eden, not in a manger in Bethlehem.

“You can’t talk about the coming of Jesus, without talking about why he came,” said Father Michaels, who has crafted Jesse Tree ornaments for the parish Jesse tree with as much care and forethought as he creates his glass ornaments. Each is a mobile of combined images or components that he has either hand-drawn or -painted or borrowed with credit from established artists.

He said the placement of ornaments by parishioners on the parish Jesse tree throughout Advent, along with the readings that go with each one, is meant to serve as visual invitation into the fullness of salvation history.

“You can’t celebrate Christmas without realizing that it’s actually part of the paschal journey,” he said. “The Jesse Tree helps us understand how that journey happened in Scripture, and how it happens for each of us.”

The Jesse Tree origin and purpose

The Jesse Tree is a centuries-old Christmas tradition that predates the Christmas tree as we know it. It is essentially Jesus’ family tree. The name and tradition are rooted in Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of David, Israel’s greatest king. And Jesus is descended from the line of David. He is the branch God promised would grow from Jesse’s family tree.

In a 28-page color booklet on the Jesse Tree produced by Father Michaels for his parish, he explained that the accounts of the birth of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are constructed from the prophesies of the Old Testament, fulfilled in history by Jesus Christ.

“They relate to us how the Incarnation of Jesus is the fulfillment of these prophesies, the turning of salvation history,” he said.

Art from the early Church depicted prophets as present for Christ’s birth. In the Middle Ages, “mystery plays” at Advent were meant to entertain and educate and were centered on prophesies of the coming Messiah and depictions of Adam and Eve, which spelled out the necessity of a Messiah.

Each symbol on a Jesse Tree, whether it be an apple and serpent representing the fall in the Garden of Eden, a ram representing the faithfulness of Abraham or Mary cradling the Child Jesus in her womb, is a step leading toward the birth of Jesus.

“The Jesse Tree, even though it starts with Jesse and looks at his › progeny, is actually a way of looking back at salvation history,” said Father Michaels. “It answers the question of why Jesus needed to come in the first place.”

He said it’s unclear when particular biblical events or individuals began to appear in Jesse Tree traditions. To this day, there is a great deal of variation and “no absolutes” in the practice of the Jesse Tree. The fluctuating days in Advent also means there are more ornaments on the tree some years than others, he said.

The Church doesn’t have a teaching or guidance about how a parish or person uses a Jesse Tree during Advent, according to Father Michaels. Because they are devotions, they are not “set in stone.”

“The purpose of our present Jesse Tree is to think about how we enter into a relationship, setting up walls that diminish the connection, the struggle people have had through history to reconnect with God, what God did to help (most significantly by sending his Son Jesus) and what we still need to do,” Father Michaels said.

Children and family

“Mom did a Jesse Tree with us when I was a kid,” said Father Michaels, an explanation, perhaps, for his fondness and dedication to the Jesse Tree at his parish.

“The parishioners love it,” he said, leafing through one of the seven binders he has organized according to the number of days in Advent in a given year. “The Jesse tree becomes the focal point for a whole season, and it’s growing all the time.”

The binder for the year sits on a stand near the parish Jesse tree, beginning with the first Sunday of Advent. There is an ornament for each day of Advent and an accompanying prayer.

On weekdays, anyone can read the prayer and put the ornament with scriptural text on the tree.

“On Sundays, we do it formally with a family at the 10 a.m. Mass,” said Father Michaels.

The parish wraps two other devotions into its Jesse Tree each year. On the Monday before Christmas, a reconciliation service is held in preparation for Christmas Day. Parishioners are invited to put a special reconciliation ornament on the tree, inscribing the back with what they want God’s help with before they go to confession. Those ornaments join the Jesse Tree ornaments on the tree.

“The idea is to underline that you are celebrating the forgiveness of God that is already yours,” Father Michaels said.

Also on the tree are pledge ornaments representing a financial gift to Tribe Rising India, a parish project with the Jesuits of West Bengal, that began as an Advent opportunity six years ago.

“On Christmas Eve, I rearrange the Jesse Tree ornaments from wherever they were placed, starting at the top with the creation story and moving down the tree sequentially,” said Father Michaels. The reconciliation ornaments from the current year and past years are added back to the tree, too.

“They become part of the whole salvation story,” he said. “The whole thrust of Advent is to grow in anticipation of this birth that has already taken place, but to allow that birth to be born again in us.” ■

Jesse Tree Advent Calendar

Father Michaels also likes to create a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar for families. The “door” for each day in Advent is one of the images from his ornaments. It opens up to an intention, such as “Today I will be kind in a special way to someone I do not like very much,” or “Today, I will ask Mary to help me find more room in my heart for Jesus.”

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.