Jessie Tree 1
I receive a daily reflection from the Society of St. John the Divine each day. A word chosen for the day shows up in my inbox with a short reflection about it. And today, with the start of Advent, I received the word: ‘Tender’ a bit of a weird on this first day of Advent.
This day when we read apocalyptic predictions from Jesus that include stars falling and his triumphant return like a warlord – (not the Jesus I am interested in or know). But I was curious. Tender. The writer went on to talk about where tenderness does show up in our reading for today and here is some of it The word “tender” does appear in this passage, but it’s in the context of reading the signs of the times: “As soon as [the fig tree’s] branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Jesus isn’t talking about the branch being loving or kindhearted as we usually think when we hear the word “tender.” He’s talking about reading the signs when you see that the branch is sensitive, when it’s delicate to the touch. Jesus certainly sees and understands the signs around him; he knows that he is entering the “time of trial” as Mark says, the “time of darkness” as Luke puts it. Soon will come the betrayal, denials, abandonment, trial, torture, and the cross. This Jesus, who one day will come with great power and glory, is also the one who suffers and weeps and asks his friends to stay awake with him in his time of trial, in his time of darkness.
The tenderness shows up in a delicate time, a time in life when vulnerability is exposed. And something about that really spoke to me. It’s a bit weird that as we begin this season of waiting and expectancy or hope for new life and what might be possible, we have this reading with an impending sense of doom. It sits funny that we are prepare to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, we are also reminded of his death. But they are tied together – life and death – hopefulness and disappointment, That space in between is tender, vulnerable where possibility lies but also so much is unknown – where there is excitement but also the very real potential for things to go either way. Jesus relays for his disciples and us, the readers – this warning of what is to come; which frankly, we don’t need because here we are now living through 2020.
So, by my calculations – the ‘Promised One’ should be right around the corner – the sky has fallen – the heavens have been shaken.
‘Keep Awake’ this passage tells us. Because we don’t know when the Promised One will come. We don’t know when or how Jesus might show themselves to us, in what form. And rather than planning for the apocalypse and for a surprise Jesus who shows up riding on a chariot, I’ve begun to think about this more framed by what we hear in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25, “When I was hungry, you gave me food and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink’. I think about the return of Jesus as happening over and over again in each of us, in brief encounters where we are able to see something of God either in ourselves or in someone else.
And I think about these Advent readings in terms of what they point us towards. What do then enable us to see – who do we see in them and how do we find God in this text and in each other.
Keep awake – something is happening and as will all new births, new beginnings, it’s a little bit fragile and requires care and attention. And at this point in my reflection, I want to take a little side journey – just to set the stage for what we are doing this Advent season. Our community is doing an exploration of the Jessie Tree. And each week we will be exploring various symbols that can be added to our trees.
The tradition of using a tree or tree branches as decorations in homes in the winter time apparently goes back as far as the 4th centrury when people would bring evergreen branches into their homes as decorations and for a bit of colour and light in the long, dark winter.
People would use the branches of evergreen trees and plants to ward off evil spirits or illness. They were used to celebrate the winter solstice to remind them that things would grow again in the spring and summer – something to look forward to. The Celts decorated their temples with green boughs as signs of everlasting life.
The Germans are credited though with what we now recognize as the Christmas tree – bringing a tree into their homes and using candles on the branches to give light – which sounds slightly dangerous to me.
The Jessie Tree is likewise a very old tradition which seeks to link the stories of the Bible to the coming Christmas season. It takes its name from the book of Isaiah chapter 11
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him-- the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD-- 3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. Isaiah 11:1-4 (NIV)
And there are a variety of symbols connected to readings that you can use each day in Advent – beginning with the Creation story in the book of Genesis and ending with the birth story of Jesus as we have it in the Gospel of Luke. There are all kinds of resources that you can find on the internet with a quick search. This weeks’ options felt like symbols of wonder and creativity to me, each one of them connected to a precarious moment in its Biblical story.
A moment when things changed or maybe were a bit tender :
- An apple
- The ark
- Joseph’s coat
And the symbol I chose, the star.
The star for the Jessie Tree tradition is connected to Genesis 15 and God’s covenant to Abram – when Abram is promised that he and Sarai will have children of their own and God asks them to go outside and look up and they are told that their descendants will number as many as the stars.
We look to the stars as signs of possibility, creativity, exploration. They hold our wishes and our dreams, which are tender, don’t you think? Fragile. In our community we write prayers on stars and hang them so that throughout this season we are covered in prayer. This season those stars are being sent out to the wider Cathedral, with thanks to many of you who helped to cut them out so that we would have enough, and people are being invited to write their prayers on them and to send them back to us – a way for us to be together in a time when we have to remain apart.
And so we look to the stars and the shoots of new life – like a new leaf on a tree- the anticipation of a birth - the tenderness of new life – and hold it with all of its potential for things to be beautiful and all that could go wrong and we remember that this is exactly where Jesus shows up. In those precarious moments – in the tension – in our care for those vulnerable moments and each other.
This season that feels particularly so – as we await news of being able to safely be together again and know that in the meantime so many are suffering and anxious. So tonight, I invite you to meditate on stars which – at least for me, hold promise and the beauty and tenderness of what is possible.