A Jesse Tree Image
it begins with a new hymnal
Many were created sitting in front of my computer screen, arranging and re-arranging parts and pieces until something more complete emerged. Some were created sketching with a 4B pencil on the studio notepad the old school way. And one, I recall, was envisioned by scribbling on a rough tan napkin as I sat with a hot cup of coffee with cream at a local cafe reflecting upon the reality of Christ and the liturgical year of the Church.
I’m referring to the ritual images I was commissioned to create years ago for Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), the official book of worship for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). A cutting-edge project in many ways, ELW was the result of the synod’s efforts to put forth a new book of worship, expanding beyond a hymnal project to include the many rites and services within the life of the church and to recover the tradition of adult baptism and more frequent Sunday communion.
The folio of ritual art consisted of both smaller symbolic symbols to highlight certain aspects of liturgical life, but larger images of the worshiping assembly gathered for significant festivals such as Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas.
I worked closely with Daniel Kantor, a good friend and skilled graphic designer who was responsible for designing page layout. Together, we were able to integrate word and image in a fresh and inspirational way. To my knowledge, ELW has proven to be of great benefit to the faith formation of not only members of the ELCA but to many others who have viewed both the hymnal, lectionary, and subsequent ritual books and products that accompany the project.
One of the commissioned images was for the season of Advent, a special time in the church year but a season almost completely forgotten by our culture, which has replaced it with the commercial blitz from Black Friday until December 25th.
I recall when I was in the seminary a fellow student and friend of mine were in a class on preaching. We were part of a special project for which we took a video camera down to a local mall in Maryland at Christmas time and interviewed the locals. With recorder and microphone in hand we approached mall shoppers who were strolling the aisles looking for that perfect Christmas gift for loved ones. We only asked them two questions: The first: "would it be ok to video tape you for an academic project?" I don’t recall anyone saying no, which was a hopeful sign. The second: "what comes to your mind when you hear the word ADVENT?" With this question we received a variety of responses.
Whereas a few people had a vague memory the word was associated with Christmas, responding with something akin to "waiting" or "coming" few indicated they understood much of the Advent season. Most shoppers were somewhat dumbfounded as to how to respond. Many had never heard the word before. I remember one elderly gentleman specifically well. After we asked him what was his response to the word Advent, he uttered the word “pain.” Perhaps he confused the word Advent with Advil, since we interviewed him outside the mall drug store. We will never know. But regardless, whether on purpose of by chance, we thought his was the most objectively insightful word shared. Indeed, the season itself can be the antidote to the pain of life. Even the repentance and waiting during the season is meant to prepare us for healing and the coming of the Lord. In this man’s word, we thought, have we found a certain necessary wisdom? Either way, it was clear to us that the Church had her work cut out for her if the meaning of the Season of Advent was ever going to become important again for the culture.
Thus, in pondering the creation of an Advent image, aware of the challenge ahead, I wanted to craft a visual, which would help worshipers regain a more profound sense of the season. I was lead to the Jesse Tree tradition.
From the history I know, images of the Jesse Tree started to be associated with Advent based upon the text from the Scripture passage about Jesse: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom (Isaiah 11:1). Part of the story of the coming of the Messiah is the fulfillment of this prophecy that Jesus was to be born in the lineage of King David, Jesse’s son.
Many of the early Jesse Tree images were the result of using a full tree as a metaphor of this lineage, giving believers a visual way to understand this rich history. Numerous works of art in illuminations, mosaics and stained glass have been produced over the centuries. Knowledge of the Jesse Tree was particularly abundant during the Middle Ages when heraldry influenced the understanding the people had of their identity. And slowly it appears there came a shift in form from depicting the individuals in the direct lineage of Jesus as spelled out in the Scriptures, to people and events more generally associated with His birth.
In more recent times, the Jesse Tree tradition is celebrated in churches as an example of this adapted tradition. Evergreen trees, otherwise barren until the Christmas Season, are decorated at Advent with ornaments or portraits of people, events or symbols such as a harp, a dove, or an ark. It is from this more modern custom that I was inspired to create a Jesse Tree image for the Season of Advent. The purpose was to visually depict this sacred memory through the image of a transfigured tree, embracing in its branches symbols of salvation history.
After the creation of the first Jesse Tree Advent image for ELW, I crafted a second version for the slightly different purpose of being part of a group of Advent graphics to be used by churches to assist them in celebrating the Advent season through bulletin art, projectable vector images and the like. Each image shares a common origin of thought, but embodies a distinct look.
If you had been there to see the preliminary compositions I designed for the ELW, you would have seen many bits and pieces of final art that were my day to day world. Heads, hands, leaves, water and stars covered the page in my illustration application. These images might have provided you with a visual hint at the messiness with which I was familiar. How was I to bring beauty and harmony to the final art? This was the question always before me. Through the process, there were many times I had no idea at the moment what to create. I would “sketch and re-sketch” arrange and rearrange to see if a pattern or idea started to emerge. If there is such as thing as “writer’s block” for a visual artist, I had it often. It was a journey of faith with the hope that eventually a final image would surface from the parts. This process echoed the Advent Season. We have the promise from God that things will be complete in the end, but most of the journey is in darkness, with only parts and pieces in place.
Whereas the final images of the Jesse Tree I made were complete and balanced, it is so important to keep in mind that as a symbol of God’s plan, our Lord works with people who are far less than perfect to bring about His way. All one needs to do is read the first books of the Bible to know that when Adam and Eve turned their backs to God, He did not stop everything until the story was perfect and without dysfunction. Rather, the story continued. God does not let our fallen efforts get in the way of His plan to bring about redemption and salvation. Right after the Fall, things were messy. Read the account of Cain and Abel. Again, sin does not get in God’s way, nor chaos, nor our limitations, illnesses or delusions. Abraham was a sinner, David committed adultery, and Moses anger prevented him from entering the Promised Land. John the Baptist was beheaded. The Holy Innocent were slaughtered at the command of King Herod. The stories go on and on. But God not only refuses to wait on the messiness, He redeems and saves in its midst to bring about a New Creation. This is why I can refer to the Jesse Tree as the Messy Tree. Not only is God the hero of the Bible, bringing about salvation in many cases in spite of us, He is the hero in our lives today too. No matter how difficult life may be, how hard we may try to turn from Him, distrust Him, reject His teachings and those of His Church, Jesus is savior and that is Who we await during Advent. Despite the darkness and disorder, it is God’s Grace that makes it possible for us to live faith in love and thus realize the purpose for His redemptive coming.
blessed be tree
It is good that the many final images of the Jesse Tree in the life of the church are complete, finished and ordered. This is true whether in a mosaics, etchings, decorated evergreen in our church Sanctuary, or image on this website. It is also good that we are aware these images were part of a creative process where the artist had to bring order out of chaos. The creative process is not tidy. Nor is the redemptive process. Still, this is what God has done with lives in history and today. Jesus is the Logos who brings order out of chaos. And it is this point that brings me to the final name I have for the images you see:
“The Blessed Be Tree”
God blesses us not because life is perfect. It is not. God blesses us not because we have always been faithful, we have not. We are blessed not because we have always done what was good. We have not. We are blessed not because we deserve God’s love. We do not. We are blessed this Advent because the God Who has been faithful throughout all of history remains faithful today as we again gather to celebrate the coming of Jesus, in history, the present moment, and anticipate His coming in the future. God strengthens us, guides us and gives us hope. The Jesse Tree, which echoes elements of Tree of Life reminds us that God brings this life, though we sojourn through death and darkness, symbolized by the apple that resides at the base of this tree. Through fire and flood, we still light a tinted candle of hope each week. As it burns and grows smaller, reflecting the passage of time, we still look to the heavenly star, which points our way home. Indeed, Blessed are we.
Alas, there is a final meaning of Blessed Be. God blesses us indeed. But we also bless God. How is this possible? To Bless God is to offer to Him praise and honor, majesty and glory. What a better ending to the journey of the Jesse Tree. A symbol of life and love, messy relationships, fragile humanity, sin and promises. And in the end, the final harmonious image, which rises to the star, points us to the light Who gives our dark days “Advent hope.” Let us take within us the medicine of Advent joy to heal the pain of a confused and divided world. Jesus will come again one day upon the clouds and usher in a new era. Contemplating this mystery, we can sing along with the Psalmist:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
From all eternity and forever. Amen. Amen
Nicholas Markell is a liturgical artist who is dedicated to iconic imagery in glass, pigment and graphics. He believes liturgy and worship are among the most important of the Church's works, and a revival of iconic images is meant to lead to the renewal of hearts, minds and lives. Nicholas explores the mysteries of faith creating Christian art with great meaning and beauty.