Christmas is coming! During this time of year, we are bombarded with reminders of preparations we need to make for gifts, decorations, and holiday visits. It is probably the busiest and most stressful time all year.
However, for early Christians who first began observing Advent, this was a season that was deeply contemplative and spiritual, much like Lent. Christians fasted and repented, mindful of the sin that caused Jesus to come to earth. Through the years, however, Advent has taken on a theme of joyful anticipation not only for the birth of Christ but for his promised triumphant return. The word advent is from the Latin word adventus, or “coming.”
Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Although there have been many ways of observing Advent through the ages, two traditions have remained especially meaningful: the Advent wreath and the Jesse tree. Either one can help prepare you and your family to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world.
Each Sunday in Advent usually focuses on a particular theme. The most common themes are hope, peace, joy, and love.
The Advent Wreath
Probably the most familiar means of observing Advent is the Advent wreath. First popular in Europe, the use of the Advent wreath spread through the United States in the early 1900’s.
If you would like to create an Advent wreath for your home, you can make a circle from evergreen boughs. Obtain four tall candles to stand upright around the wreath and one white candle for the center. Traditionally, three of the candles are purple or blue, signifying royalty, and one is a pink or rose color, signifying joy. The center, white candle is the Christ candle, traditionally lighted on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Each Sunday of Advent, someone in your family can light a candle and offer a short prayer based on the Advent liturgy and that Sunday’ s theme.
The Jesse Tree
The Jesse tree is an older Advent tradition. It was originally based on Jesus’ genealogy. The name Jesse tree comes from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” Jesse was an ancestor of Jesus, and this Scripture has been interpreted as a foreshadowing of Christ’ s incarnation.
Jesse trees were often depicted in medieval paintings, featuring a figure of Jesse sleeping at the base of a giant tree and the ancestors of Jesus within the branches reaching upward toward the heavens. Using the image of a Jesse tree during Advent is a wonderful way to show the history of God’s hesed, or steadfast love, through the people and stories of the Old Testament and relate them to the ultimate act of love, the incarnation of God’ s Son, Jesus Christ.
A Jesse tree for your home can take the form of a poster or a banner of a tree or even a small branch set upright in a vase or a container. Every week, you can hang or fasten symbols to the tree, depicting how God has loved God’ s people throughout the ages with Jesus as the ultimate demonstration of that love. Family members can draw or create these symbols, print them from pictures on the Internet, or even cut them out from old Christmas cards.
The Jesse tree is an ancient way of connecting the story of Jesus Christ to the stories of the entire world throughout history. God’ s vision for salvation began back at the moment of Creation; but it flows forward into today, like a river of hope for all believers.
Choose symbols for your tree based on the themes of the weeks of Advent. Because the theme for the first Sunday of Advent is hope, the symbols can be something simple like a star, a prism, or a sunrise that represents light in darkness. They may be things that have brought hope into your life, such as a photo of a beloved child or a grandchild. Or, perhaps, they may be symbols of a hope you hold for the future, such as the healing of a relationship. Follow with symbols of peace, joy, and love.
Advent is a time that we anticipate the birth of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago; but it is also a time of hopeful anticipation for Christ’s return, when God’s plan of salvation for all of creation will be realized. Therefore, Advent is not only looking back at what God has done for us. Advent is also looking forward in certain hope, knowing that when Christ returns, the world will be healed and made whole forever.
As you light the candles of your Advent wreath and fill your Jesse tree with symbols this season, keep the themes of Advent in your heart.
Sue Mink is a graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary and Carnegie Mellon University. Although her home is in Charlottesville, Virginia, she and her husband usually live overseas at least six months a year, staying in places as diverse as Florence, Italy, Krakow, Poland and Taipei, Taiwan. She's an avid weaver and loves to cook the cuisines she's learned during her travels. She's the mom of two adult children and has been writing for Cokesbury for over a decade.