“Etz Hayim”. Those are the words that are spelled out - from right to left in Hebrew script - in front of University Hill Congregation whenever we gather for worship. It is carved into our pulpit. It means “Tree of Life”. The phrase is taken from the book of Proverbs which, when describing God’s Wisdom, says that “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy” (Proverbs 3:18). It reminds us of John’s revelation that the tree of life stands at the centre of God’s kingdom come - the tree whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).
As the leaves of the Bible are turned each Sunday and the words are spoken and the message is digested we receive the transforming gift of new life. But this new life does not come without ache and trouble. It is not lost on the gathered congregation that directly above the pulpit that proclaims “Etz Hayim” stands a large wooden cross - the ancient world’s tree of death. That the source of new life is found in the place of torture and death is the great paradox of the gospel.
This is the message that is carried forward in the Advent tradition of the Jesse Tree. Mentioned as early as the sermons of Tertullian in the 3rd century and then blossoming in Christian art at the turn of the 1st millennium, the Jesse Tree is rooted in the promise given to the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah has the awful insight that God will cut down the family tree of Israel in judgment. Isaiah announces the end of the line of Jesse that has run through King David. But Isaiah also sees that “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Is. 11:1 & Romans 15:12). When the tree is surely dead and the stump is all that is left there is the impossible news that this death holds the seed of new life (Is. 6:13). This is the reason that the gospels of Matthew and Luke crucially include a genealogy. Jesus, they announce, is the long promised off-shoot of Israel’s family tree. The babe born in a manger is to be the longed for one “who shall stand as a signal to the peoples” (Is. 11:10).
At University Hill Congregation we have adopted the Advent practice of decorating a Jesse Tree in worship on Sundays while inviting households to adopt the practice daily throughout the season. We mark each of the days in Advent by re-telling a part of the old, old story. In this way we hope that the gospel gets into our bones.
Prior to each Sunday in Advent we invite seven people (children, youth & adults) to each prepare a symbol to be placed on the branches of our Jesse Tree on Sunday morning. As the scripture verse for each day in that week is read we invite them to place a corresponding symbol on the tree. When, for example, the story of creation is remembered a symbol of the earth is hung on a branch. Then an apple reminds us of the story of Adam and Eve. And so on until the arrival of the Christ-child at Christmas (a list of suggested symbols and readings can be found at Christian Seasons).
We intend our re-discovery of the Jesse Tree to be a means of keeping faith with our children and youth. Here we pass on to them the gospel story that feeds the church in its worship and in its life. In a culture in which we are severely tempted to place our hope in idols of success and security this humble practice is a living reminder to us and to our children that, instead, we will “set our hope in God” (Psalm 78:1-7) - in the God whose foolishly cruciform Wisdom transforms the Good Friday cross of suffering into the Easter tree of life (I Cor. 1:18-25).