The branches of Jesus' family tree

In recent decades, genealogy has found a wider audience through technological developments that enable one to trace his or her ancestry down through the centuries without leaving the comfort of home. Beyond being a hobby for the historically intrigued, anyone engaged in family history research will tell you that they likely learned something about him- or herself in the process of researching the family tree. Human genetics are amazing, and many of our characteristics and traits are passed on to us by those from whom we descend.

Of course, throughout history, lineage has always been important, and it remains so in certain societies and cultures. From whom we descend or to whom we are related can greatly influence how we live our lives. Even from medieval times, family trees have been a significant aspect of familial culture.

The relationships in our family are often bonds that we have no choice about, but the reality is that as human beings we are immersed into relationships that define us. We are born as someone’s son or daughter, and perhaps brother or sister or niece or nephew.

The same is true in our own spiritual lives. As Catholics we are bound by a pattern of relationships with each other and those who have gone before us. This is the biblical image of the Body of Christ — under his headship we are all interrelated members of his body.

In the Middle Ages, when in many ways the importance of family lineage reached a widespread high point throughout the world’s societies, and much of the Western mind was defined by Christianity, the family tree of Jesus Christ became a frequent artistic foil. It remains today as a popular means for prayer and reflection, particularly in the season of Advent, during which the Church recalls the coming of Christ two millennia ago in Bethlehem and prepares for his coming again in glory.

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Today many find it helpful to pray with the Jesse Tree, which takes its name from the father of King David in the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah foretold that Israel’s long-awaited messiah would descend from this noble and all-important Jewish lineage.

The Messiah was promised to come from the line of David, according to the prophet Isaiah. The Latin text of the significant passage (Is 11: 1), uses the word “virga” for the “twig” or “shoot,” which will arise from Jesse’s stem. This presents an interesting etymology, drawing correlation between the familial image of Christ’s ancestry and his own virgin birth.

The Jesse Tree is best described as a prayer device for the home, the domestic church. While it is not liturgical in nature, it can be used beyond the home in places likes schools or religious education programs. Expressions of the Jesse Tree can take a variety of forms, but most typically it involves some artistic representation of the various ancestors of the Lord and an associated reflection or meditation.

The Jesse Tree’s relevance is multifaceted. It enables us to get a full survey of salvation history. We are connected to the central themes of Christian faith: that we have been made by an all-loving God and pursued by him in love when we have so often strayed and cut ourselves off from him. It becomes a perfect means to reflect on Christ’s coming as a man, that he descended from human beings, many of whom are not very much different from us and needed the salvation he brings as much as anyone. A reflection on Christ’s first coming in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago is incomplete if we do not focus also on his coming again at the end of time. Christians remain in contact with our need for a savior when we study the purpose of his coming. But that requires us to live accordingly and be ready when he comes again.

Michael R. Heinelin is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.

December 2 — Creation

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Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo (detail) Public domain

No reflection on salvation history can begin without recognizing our origin from God. God made us in his own image, declaring us “very good.” We know our calling is to dwell in his love, and yet we so often stray from him. Even then his love is unbounded, that he would send his only Son to bring us back to him. It is only then we can truly be “very good.”

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December 3 — Adam and Eve

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Sin became part of the human condition through our first parents. Eating the apple was part disobedience and part wanting to be equal to God. While God made us to be like him, our incorporation into the divine life happens on his terms, not ours. Humanity’s sinfulness results from skewed perspectives of creation, an inability to submit to the will of the One who made all things and to respect our proper role in the relationship we have with him. The result is God’s plan of redemption, whereby he sends us his Son to show us the true way to be human.
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December 4 — Noah

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The story of Noah and his ark illustrates the corruptive and insidious nature of sin. Even the most personal of sins affect others, in ways we will often never recognize in this life. While God’s action in this story offers an opportunity for a “new creation” through his covenant with Noah, we can rightfully understand this as foreshadowing the new life to be found in Christ, which requires us to leave sin behind and follow Christ’s way.
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December 5 — Abraham

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Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan by Josef Molnar Public domain

All mankind has been created for a relationship with God. When God established his covenant with Abraham, he entered into a relationship with a people that will be particularly his own. This solidifies the relationship God has intended for his people from the beginning. Abraham’s story reiterates that we must reject anything that keeps us from faithfulness to God.
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December 6 — Isaac

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Those who worship the true God learn through Abraham’s ordeal that sacrifice is essential. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac — the one through whom all of the promises God made would come true — he was willing to give God everything. This foreshadowed the offering of God’s Son in the new and everlasting covenant.
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December 7 — Jacob

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Jacob Wresting with the Angel by Rembrandt van Rijn Public domain

Jacob (or Israel) is a complex figure. He became the inheritor of God’s covenant with Abraham despite having lied to achieve the birthright that made it possible. Nonetheless, God remained faithful in the context of Jacob’s situation. God’s love is indestructible.
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December 8 — Tamar

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Tamar’s story represents how God’s gifts can be misused, illustrating how God’s love and generosity can even be exploited. Tamar was maligned after her first two husbands died, and she deceived their father, Judah, in order to secure a position of esteem in the line of Abraham. And she did, giving birth to twins and becoming one of only five women named in the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew’s Gospel.
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December 9 — Joseph

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The favor showed to Joseph by his father, Jacob, mirrors the favor God showed to his own Son. But this favor included rejection and suffering. As members of Christ’s body through our baptism, we should see ourselves no different than him and Joseph. But we also know that God’s love triumphs through their suffering and results in exaltation.
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December 10 — Moses

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Fresco of Moses by Joseph Schonman in Altlerchenfelder church Shutterstock

Because of their sins, God’s chosen people ended up in Egyptian slavery. But God didn’t abandon them. Moses, despite his weaknesses, was chosen by God to lead his people from their bondage. God led them from slavery to freedom, yet they resisted, grumbled and even turned away from him — all an abuse of their freedom. So that his people would no longer be enslaved by sin, he gave them the Law as a means to true freedom.
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December 11 — Joshua

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Faithfulness to God was seen in Joshua’s repeated success and conquests on the battlefield on behalf of God’s people. He led God’s people into Canaan, which God had promised them. Jesus’ ancestors gave God thanks for this victory and offered to him their loot as a sacrifice. Jesus descends from these as the one who makes the true and final sacrifice to God.
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December 12 — Rahab

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The story of Rahab, the second woman mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, identifies how God’s purposes are at work even outside the community of believers. Rahab betrayed her own people and aided the Israelites to achieve God’s will. For this she was remembered as an example of great faith. Her family was incorporated into the Jewish people, a sign that God’s truth and his plans are open to all people.
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December 13 — Ruth

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Ruth in Boaz’s Field by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld Public domain

God instilled in his people an intense respect for familial relationships, which is at the heart of the story of Ruth. She chose to work to support her mother-in-law, who lost her husband and sons to death. Ruth offered her life for Naomi, and in return she fell in love with Boaz, whose heart she won by her kindness. They married and together became ancestors of their long-awaited Messiah, the Lord Jesus.
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December 14 — Samuel

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To help his people gain freedom from the Philistines, God instructed the wise and holy prophet Samuel to help establish the monarchy. This arose from the need for unity among God’s people. Samuel first anointed Saul to be king, but his weakness prohibited any effective leadership. Rather than be captured, he ended his own life. God’s people remained further divided until the kingdom unified again under David.
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December 15 — David

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King David in Prayer by Pieter de Grebber Public domain

Jesus is tied to David’s lineage, which is crucial to be acknowledged as Messiah. David brought unity to God’s people, establishing a capital and announcing his plans to build a temple for God to dwell among his people. God’s favor for David earned him the title of God’s son. Despite David’s moral failures, God remained true to their covenant, but David was deprived from building the temple. And yet, God’s son descends from his line.
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December 16 — Bathsheba

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King David’s greatest moral failing was the extramarital affair with Bathsheba and the murder he arranged of her husband so to acquire her as his own. When her son Solomon became king and built the temple in Jerusalem, Bathsheba was an advocate for the people with her son. She is the fourth woman mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, and in some ways prefigures the intercessory role of Mary with her divine Son.
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December 17 — Elijah

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Relief of Tree of Jesse, Cathedral St. Peter, Worms, Germany Public domain

The chosen people fell away from God yet again and were even led by their king into the worship of pagan gods. Elijah did not fear sharing in the fate of many of Israel’s prophets, who had been killed. He challenged those who led worship of the pagan gods to a contest with the true God.
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December 18 – Hezekiah

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The Jesse Tree by Absolon Stumme, from The Dome Altar in Hamburg, Germany, 1499 Public domain

The corrupt king Ahaz was replaced by his son Hezekiah. He was regarded as a faithful son of God and in many ways tried to make amends for his father’s waywardness. He directed God’s people toward reform of true worship. It was unnecessary that he needed to remind them to worship God alone.
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December 19 — Isaiah

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Isaiah responded positively and generously to God’s call: that he deliver God’s word to a troubled Israel destined for captivity among the Babylonians on account of their wickedness. He gave a word of consolation and hope in the midst of their darkness and despair, reminding them that God’s love would see them through their suffering. And he prophesied how in God there must be hope even when there is no sign for hope.
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December 20 — Jeremiah

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Jeremiah, as depicted by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel ceiling Public domain

Jeremiah endured much suffering on account of his prophetic call to Israel. Jeremiah called out the Israelites for their hypocritical behavior, especially ignoring the needs of the marginalized and underprivileged. He spoke a message of hope to God’s people as they awaited a redeemer.
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December 21 — Sts. Anne and Joachim

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Although unnamed in the Scriptures, Sts. Anne and Joachim are known through Christian tradition as the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They embody Israel’s hopeful expectation of the messiah through their joyful acceptance of God’s plan. Since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit’s power in Mary’s womb, the very flesh and blood of the Lord came from his mother’s parents.
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December 22 — St. John the Baptist

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Sometimes discipleship means that we must be a sign of contradiction. St. John the Baptist dedicated his life to calling people to repentance and conversion through his ascetic life. He willingly personified Israel’s hope for the Messiah. A cousin of the savior, St. John lived as an icon of his coming and our need to prepare.
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December 23 — St. Joseph

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St. Joseph’s great faith kept him from serving as an obstacle to God’s plan. When faced with marrying a pregnant Mary, he was instructed by an angel that the child came from God. Joseph knew life would become burdensome and hardship was certain. And yet he obeyed and poured out his life in service of God through his care for the Holy Family.
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December 24 — Blessed Virgin Mary

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In the holy mother of God we find the antidote to what ails humanity. When, through sin, mankind rejected God time and again, Mary responded to his will with a “yes” heard through the ages. God’s word found a fertile home in her, the first disciple of her son and the one who leads us to her son always.

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Interior decor of Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris, France Shutterstock