This originally aired as a podcast episode on November 26, 2014.
The Nativity Fast is underway! It’s time for us to lead our children to the great feast of the Nativity of Christ, Christmas.
Many families will use the Jesse Tree to bring the fast to life for their kids. Search ‘Orthodox Jesse Tree’ online and you’ll find links to many different sources for ways to do the Jesse Tree in your household.
Some of us are not so structured, and perhaps not very crafty. Or maybe you’re a grandparent or a godparent and you’re not able to offer a lesson every day for forty days.
For many families and for many reasons, it’s not always desirable to implement a formal 40 day program of readings and ornaments.
Whether we’re crafty or not, whether we can do 40 lessons or just one, we should be making the effort to help our children prepare for the feast of the Nativity, and to understand just why the Nativity is such a big deal — why does it matter that our God came down to earth and took on flesh? That’s what we need to offer our children, and the model of the Jesse Tree, the logic of the Jesse Tree, is well worth considering as we look to engage with children in conversation about this great upcoming feast.
This Jesse Tree system suggests that you read one reading with your children per day, beginning with the creation of the world and the fall of man, and slowly go through the prophets and the Old Testament stories. You consider how God prepared Israel to receive the King, and you try to prepare your own heart in that same way, with those same lessons and stories, so that you can receive Christ, born right in your heart, on the feast of the Nativity.
Children can be very visual and tactile, so it’s wonderful to provide an ornament per day to illustrate the stories and to create a tree, a kind of Orthodox Advent Calendar, where they can count down the 40 days and see the history of God’s people unfolding literally in a countdown to the birth of the Messiah. It’s not too late, even if you have fewer than 40 days left — you can join in late, like we did this year. We played some catch up on our Jesse Tree, and that’s ok. We do what we can, as circumstances allow.
If you can’t do all 40 days, that’s ok. Do what you can.
If you can’t provide sweet little crafty oranments, that’s ok. Do what you can.
If you cannot build in a reading every day, that’s ok. Do what you can.
Whatever your effort, it will have its rewards.
If your effort this year is just to sit down with the kids and read a story and talk for minute, that’s ok.
Sometimes we see really big project and we know we can’t take the whole thing on, so we just walk away. But sometimes it’s better to just adapt it — to do as much as we can do.
In his glorious Pascha sermon, St. John Chrysostom calls out to each of us — to those who have wrought from the first hour to those who have arrived at the sixth hour or the ninth, saying, if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first…
Isn’t that beautiful! St. John tells us that our God,
“shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second.”
St. John does not say that if we can’t do the whole thing perfectly, we should just hang our heads and give up. When get started when we can, and God will accept the last even as the first.
So if you are not up to a full Jesse Tree experience this year, that’s ok. And if you are already well into your well-crafted tree, on time with your readings and watching your children’s happy faces as they touch lovely ornaments, then that’s good too.
No matter where we are, we can all benefit from considering WHY we use the Jesse Tree, why it’s organized as it is.
The idea of it is to begin at the beginning: to prepare our children for Christmas not with a lecture on being ‘naughty or nice’ or a story about a baby in a manger, but to begin at the beginning. Inded, if you’re looking for Jesus, for the Logos, He is there long before Mary is ever born.
St. John opens his gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made.
This is where the Jesse Tree lessons begin, and it’s really the right place to begin any conversation about the Nativity. God created the world — out of nothingness, He created everything, through the Word, which is with God and is God.
As we consider how to express the importance of Jesus’ birth in a manger, let us begin with the fact that Jesus is the Word, He is truly God, He was already with God from the beginning and we were created through Him.
Many well-meaning Christians will offer a birthday cake on Christmas, singing Happy Birthday, hoping to drive home the fact that this holiday is not about Santa and gift exchanges, but is truly Jesus’ birthday. It’s good to emphasize that Christ’s birth is the point of the holiday, but we should take care: He did not start existing at His birth. He always was, He is, and He ever will be. His birthday is not the beginning of Him.
The Jesse Tree begins with our creation, and indeed, while the Jesse Tree project itself may be relatively new, this is a very well-established way of approaching Nativity. St. Athanasius, in his work, On the Incarnation begins with ‘Creation and the Fall’ as we do — with God creating everything out of nothing, and placing us lovingly in the Garden of Eden, where we were not subject to death.
It is important to begin with creation, and with Adam and the fall, because it is precisely this condition — our fall into sinfulness and death — that Christ will overcome.
In the garden, St. Athanasius tells us that, “men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death”.
It’s really useful to consider how he expresses the Fall, as our children always have so many questions about these things. Why is there evil in the world? St. Athanasius assures us that God willed that we remain in incorruption, that we not be subject to death or illness or evil or pain — and yet, we ‘turned from the contemplation of God’. Eden was like the divine liturgy, and instead of just sitting in the joy, enjoying the light and contemplating the divine, we turned away toward evil of our own devising, and started following our own plans instead of keeping with God’s will. When we fell, the whole world fell, and we found ourselves subject to death and corruption. So each of us is now born into a fallen world, not because God punished us, but because we used our free will to turn away from contemplation of God.
If you have a good Orthodox children’s bible like The Bible For Young People from Narthex Press, which has gorgeous icon-inspired illustrations, or A Sacred History for Children from St. John of Kronstadt Press, then you already have the stories of the Bible, beginning from the Creation, told in a truly Orthodox way. I’ll post links to both of these books on the Ancient Faith blog site, as they would be great Christmas gifts. If you have a Bible like these, you can read the stories to your children and find that traditional theology is already interwoven into them.
For instance, in A Sacred History for Children, the narrative explaining the fall of man says things like, “By giving Adam and Eve a commandment not to eat a certain kind of fruit, God provided them with a way to show their love for Him.” If your children are like mine, they are often wondering why God created such a fruit — and these versions carry the answer within them.
When Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, A Sacred History for Children tells us,
“Although God punishes those who disobey Him, He is also kind and merciful. His punishment is actually a helpful medicine. It is the natural consequence of doing wrong, and it helps us to remember not to sin again. God forgives those who sin against Him when they repent and permits them to return to Him. Because He still loved Adam and Eve, He promised to send His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth. God desires that, through His Son, Adam and Eve and all people be able to live once again with Him in Paradise.”
With these Orthodox Bible Stories, the whole theology is built right in — and as we have seen in St. Athanasius and in our modern Jesse Trees, the story of Christ’s incarnation begins right there in the Garden.
If we’re reading our children Bible Stories without the Orthodox theology built in, we will have to supplement a little by answering those questions that come up. But of course, the important thing is to be teaching the Scriptures with a good, reliable source.
So we begin with the beginning, and then the Jesse Tree model then follows through readings about the various prophets God sent to His people, from Abraham to Jacob and Moses, all the way up through the birth of Christ. The prophets are the ones who foretold Christ’s coming and who taught the people who God is and what He wants for them — the prophets prepared God’s people for Christ’s coming, and we can use them to prepare our own hearts for His birth.
Depending on whether you have time for 40 stories or just 5 or 6, make your way through some of those beautiful Old Testament stories with your children, reading them with an eye out for Christ and for the ways in which these stories apply to us.
In our Orthodox tradition, we don’t understand the Old Testament as simply a document containing historic information — the Scriptures are the revelation of the Truth. They are living stories, as relevant and important to us today as ever. We understand that time is a mystery — we step into feasts; we don’t re-celebrate Pascha or its anniversary every year; there is only one Pascha and we step into it every year. The prophets aren’t dead and gone; Moses and Elijah stood with Christ at the transfiguration; like the Saints, they have life in Christ. We can read their stories and see ourselves in them; when Moses grows frustrated with the lack of faith and discipline in the people of Israel, we can look at our own hearts and find the same sins. When Elijah learns that God is not a mighty wind or a powerful earthquake or a raging fire, but is instead in the gentle wind, we can look at our own hearts and seek God in the stillness. As much as we can before the feast, let us look to the Prophets to learn more about God, to prepare for His arrival.
Because we are all one community in the Kingdom — the prophets are not foreign to us, but we are all together in the Kingdom; they are still sharing their stories and teaching us, though the events themselves may have happened thousands of years ago. As much as we can, we should be reading these stories with our kids and exploring how we can find ourselves in them — are we Jonah today, or the Ninevites? Are we Noah, building arks, or are our hearts a world gone wrong and needing a good flooding?
The stories in the Scriptures are the very story of our human life. We are all one community, one communion, in the Kingdom together.
In On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius uses a beautiful phrase ‘’the solidarity of mankind”, and it makes me think of this solidarity, this communal experience that we all share as God’s children.
But he means something else —
“For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.”
The incarnation of Christ may be God taking on just the one body, but somehow the solidarity of mankind is such that all of us are freed from death.
“You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.”
By dwelling among us, Christ has changed everything.
The Word takes on flesh — taking on one body impacts all of the bodies; because of the solidarity of man, when Christ dies and then resurrects, He frees all of us from death.
This is where the Jesse tree must lead: to the Nativity of Christ, not just to a baby in a manger, but to God incarnate, to the very incarnation that changes everything.
Just by having the King in our midst, our city is changed into a royal dwelling place. It is transformed, sanctified.
And truly, if we can see that we ourselves are like cities, and when we receive holy communion, the King comes to stay inside of us, transforming and sanctifying us.
I love his idea of the solidarity of mankind —
Is it also true that the solidarity of mankind is such that Christ’s baptism is our baptism — He stepped into the Jordan River and sanctified its waters, and now we who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ forevermore.
Christ resurrects, and the solidarity of mankind is such that death has lost its power over all of us.
And what of Christ’s ascension to heaven? He ascends bodily, taking his resurrected and transformed body up to heaven — and in that way, taking human flesh up to heaven — and the solidarity of mankind is such that He has carried humanity up to heaven.
The incarnation means that Christ truly bridges the chasm that exists between our lives in this fallen world, where we are subject to death and corruption, and heaven, where life is eternal.
This is the lesson of the Jesse Tree, and it can be the lesson that we teach our children in our own ways, more or less formally, with crafty ornamentation or just over oatmeal in the morning. A conversation in the car on the way to school can be more important than a lesson crafted in advance. Ultimately, it’s the conversation that matters:
Why does it matter that Christ came down to earth and took on human flesh?
When our kids understand that God wanted Paradise for us but we turned away from God and to our own devices, He came for us. Like Athanasius’ King who came into our town, He made us holy and royal by becoming one of us.
As we prepare for Nativity, let’s talk about the creation and our fall, and the various ways in which God reached out to humanity throughout the Old Testament — tales of prophets and holy people, to whom God spoke and gave messages for the rest of us which are still meaningful today. Finally, let’s talk about the Incarnation, in which the Word became flesh and changed everything.