by Paige Bullen, Chaplaincy in the Community CatholicCare Sydney
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots (Isaiah 11:1)
The lead-up to Christmas can be a time of expectation, enjoyment, and connection. But for many, it can also be a time of grief, anxiety, loneliness, money worries, and emotional stress. Challenging relationships, the absence or loss of loved ones, financial pressure, and the failure to live up to the often repeated commercial view of Christmas perfection can leave us feeling stressed and in despair.
These messy and unhappy truths are not limited to us as individuals, they are shared by all humanity.
One symbol that welcomes and ultimately transforms the mess is the Jesse Tree, named after Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of David the Great, King of Israel.
Follow our Advent reflections:
In medieval times, artistic depictions of Jesus descending from a line stretching back to King David used a tree with various symbols for each of the ancestors - essentially a family tree. Traditionally, the Jesse Tree recalls an ancestor of Jesus each day of Advent, and a pictorial symbol is hung on tree branches, leading up to a symbol for Jesus, himself, on Christmas Eve.
On one level, the Jesse Tree can be a symbol of a journey through time reminding us of the long line of men and women who lived human and imperfect lives full of longing. God never gave up on them, even when they may have given up on God. On another level, however, the Jesse Tree shines a light on:
The Jesse Tree reminds us that we all belong in this great story.
One of Jesus’ ancestors recalled this week through the Jesse Tree is Noah.
“Then the Lord said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation.“ (Gen 7:1)
When we are feeling our most vulnerable and trying to navigate our way through some of the storms of life, we can feel as if we are sinking. To support us as we make our way through the chaos, our “ark” may be found in another person - someone who will be with us despite a culture that sometimes keeps us isolated, and honour our story, not as excess “baggage” but rather as the important and precious cargo it is. Sometimes having another listen to us can help us to bear its weight.
In this relationship, we are heard. Space is held. Our feelings may be expressed honestly. CatholicCare Companions help ensure we have another beside us as we travel the unknown, we may find our feet touch the solid ground at last, and our world, once destroyed, may be found to be transformed.
Advent can be a time to reflect upon a God who draws close to us, walks alongside us, and is our Companion.
This week we remember the story of Naomi and Ruth.
“He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age” (Ruth 4:15)
Every stage of life is precious. Yet, in a culture that prioritizes youth and chasing the next big thing, the gifts inherent in aging can remain hidden from view, its challenges and losses left unheard, and our elders have forgotten and lonely. The story of Naomi and Ruth serves as a powerful reminder of the profound privilege of caring for our elders, the blessings of intergenerational relationships, and humble, domestic acts of service being part of something altogether extraordinary. There are no big miracles or grand events in this story and yet what comes from the faithful service of Ruth and the wisdom of Naomi is indeed miraculous. Both women in this story have their lives completely transformed through their trusting relationship and in turn they become part of something that transforms the world forever.
The Jesse Tree tradition in Advent reminds us that God chooses ordinary people, those on the margins, the forgotten, to do the unexpected, the extraordinary.
This week we reflect on the words of the Prophet Isaiah.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness
on them light has shined. (Isiah 9:2)
Dying is one experience we will all have in common, regardless of our differences. Death does not discriminate. It is entirely human and the movement toward our dying is a place of raw and real vulnerability.
When we, or someone we are connected to, is diagnosed with a serious chronic illness we can struggle with complex feelings. Losses can accumulate, more bad news may be imminent, and we grieve it all.
But into this overwhelming darkness can come the light of informed and caring communities, an invitation to express my feelings openly and safely, and someone who will listen. The Living Well Dying Well program aims to naturalise conversations about death and dying. It grows community capacity and confidence to support someone diagnosed with a chronic critical illness and/or receiving palliative care and their families and friends.
Christmas reminds us that even through the longest night, God is with us. The same God who began life and died as we all do - in a state of exquisite vulnerability. Who rises and ascends - as we do. To be with a person at the beginning or end of their earthly life is to share intimately in what makes us most human. Christmas tells us that God wants to be with us in this too.
This week, as we move towards the celebration of Christmas, we ponder the story of mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth.
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry “Blessed are you amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:41-43)
In the beautiful story of The Visitation we hear about two women, each bearing a Divine miracle inside them, meeting. It is a story of blessing upon abundant blessing, but not without its risks. One is too old to bear a child, the other, too young.
The older woman, recognising the life inside of her, is moved to recognise her cousin’s special and unique place as “mother of (my) Lord”. In recognising the blessing that is inside each of us, we can recognise the blessing of the other, give thanks for them, be moved to celebrate who they are and what they bring to the world.
As Advent moves to Christmas may we risk doing it differently this year. The busyness, the anxiety, and the long supermarket queues will still be there, no doubt. We will still inhabit imperfect lives full of longing. But in all of this a miracle is present. It is in each one of us. May we recognise it in ourselves so we can bless it in others and may we be God-bearers in our (messy) world.
Tree of Hope, a community of care for those living with HIV/AIDS, is a great example of blessing of community. With a rich history finding its beginnings at the height of the AIDS epidemic in Sydney in the 1990’s. In a time fraught with fear, stigma, and grief, Tree of Hope offered pastoral support and continues to do so, to this day.
Through regular gatherings, retreats, workshops and celebrations, Tree of Hope members sustain one another through relationship, inclusion and solidarity.
Paige Bullen is Project Manager - Chaplaincy in the Community. Paige has worked as an educator and pastoral care practitioner in school and Parish communities as well as other ecclesial agencies across the Sydney Archdiocese for 22 years. She is an advocate for enhancing community capacity to support and include people at each stage of life and through the toughest of experiences.