A different Jesse Tree

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PRINTABLES

Digital activities for online teaching

Under the current COVID-19 circumstances, we have been creating online games and activities to complement our more traditional material, in order to facilitate online teaching. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.

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Slide Show

Share the screen while scrolling through the online presentation to introduce the topic in an engaging way.

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Match the symbols to their names

This drag-and-drop activity was made using Microsoft Powerpoint. In an online classroom, after downloading the activity on a device, the teacher can share the screen while showing the activity, and ask the students to direct him/her to move the images around. Please note that for the dragging to work, “Enable Editing” must be selected upon opening the file. We kindly ask that you use the file as is, without editing its contents. Additionally, as mentioned in the Terms of Use above, please keep the file you downloaded for yourself – do not bypass our webpage by sharing it directly with others, your students included. Thank you!

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Memory game

A digital version of the classic card game. The teacher can share his/her screen while the students choose the cards by giving instructions to the teacher.


TEACHING THE PREFIGURATIONS OF THE THEOTOKOS

It is a common Christian tradition of the Nativity season to make a Jesse Tree based on stories of the Old Testament, in anticipation of the Incarnation of our Lord. In this page, we tried to delve deeper into the Orthodox theology surrounding this custom, so we are concentrating on the person who made the Nativity of Christ possible, the Most Holy Lady the Theotokos, and on the prefigurations of her in the Old Testament. As explained below, this topic is closely related to the Orthodox celebration of the Great Feast of the Nativity of Christ.

The Orthodox Church maintains that the Old Testament is a continuous prophecy that anticipated “the fullness of time” when God’s salvific promise would materialize and the most precious human being, the Theotokos, would give birth to the Incarnate God. Indeed, the very first hint of God’s plan concerning the Theotokos, and subsequently the salvation of mankind, is found very early in Scripture, in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis (Genesis 3:15). This is truly the first Gospel, the “protoevangelion”, and it initiates a long line of references to the Theotokos spanning the entirety of the Old Testament.

Main points

  • The entirety of the Old Testament is a preparation for the salvific Incarnation of God the Word
  • The Incarnation of Jesus Christ through the Most Holy Theotokos was foretold in the details of various Old Testament events, and in numerous prophecies made by the Old Testament Saints. These details and prophecies oftentimes include a number of symbols alluding to the Mother of God, which are called prefigurations of the Theotokos.
  • The period of the Nativity Fast and the festal period of the Holy Nativity is a most appropriate time to reflect on the Old Testament prefigurations of the Theotokos, as these symbols help us connect the actual historical event of Christ’s birth to the Old Testament promise and the New Testament reality of the salvation of humankind through Jesus Christ and His Orthodox Church.
  • The Old Testament prefigurations of the Theotokos are continually mentioned in the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church, especially during the Vespers and Matins. They are additionally mentioned in the Canon of the Nativity, as well as in the Akathist Hymn (Salutations) to the Theotokos together with its Canon. 
  • The prefigurations are depicted in a number of Orthodox icon types, closely related to the Jesse Tree tradition.
  • The Old Testament prefigurations of the Theotokos are quite numerous. In this page we are exploring nine important symbols, but there are also additional ones.

Objectives

Younger children

At the end of the lesson, younger children should be able to:

  • Name the Theotokos as the mother of Jesus Christ.
  • Explain that God was born as a baby, therefore He had ancestors like we do. Those ancestors knew of Jesus’ mother and of His birth a very long time before Jesus was born, and left us stories and sayings to teach us all about it.
  • Mention that we use various images to remember those old stories and sayings. These images are called prefigurations.
  • Explain that each prefiguration reminds us in its own way that God was born as a real baby.
  • Name at least one Old Testament prefiguration of the Theotokos with the help of visual aids.

Older children

In addition to the above objectives, older children should also be able to:

  • Name a few Old Testament prefigurations of the Theotokos.
  • Explain that the Old Testament Saints who passed down these prefigurations are called Prophets because they foretold events long before they happened.
  • Discuss the symbolism of at least one of the explored prefigurations.
  • Roughly describe one variation of the explored icons, pointing out the Theotokos and Christ, the Prophets, and any objects/symbols that the Prophets may be holding.
  • Match the explored Theotokos symbols to their scriptural references.
  • Mention that, at church, we hear about these symbols all the time, in various hymns and readings.
  • Explain how the well-known tradition of the Jesse Tree is closely related to the Prophets and prefigurations explored.

Vocabulary

Theotokos, Prophets, prefigurations, Old Testament, New Testament, Incarnation, Salvation, Nativity

PLANNING THE LESSON

Possible lesson outline

Are you teaching remotely?

Visit our post on remote religious education for tips on how to use our material in an online session.

Using our material, a lesson on the Old Testament prefigurations of the Theotokos could go as follows:

  • Present the topic using our slide show.
  • Discuss the main points.
  • Do some reinforcement work utilizing our printable packet and/or our interactive activities.

Printable activity options

Our printable packet contains a variety of activities for different ages. They are:

  • Icon worksheet.
  • Crossword puzzle on the vocabulary of the lesson.
  • Cut-and-glue activity to teach the relevant Scripture excerpts.
  • Cut-and-glue activity to teach the names of the prefigurations.
  • Memory game.
  • A craft that is detailed below.

CRAFT OPTION: Theotokos Jesse Tree

Glue or hang our illustrations on a tree branch to make an Orthodox-themed Jesse tree focusing on the Mother of God.

BACKGROUND

A few words about the Old Testament 

From the beginning, the Church used the Old Testament – the Scripture – as Her official book of readings in every celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Even after the Gospel accounts and the Epistles were written, the Church kept the Old Testament readings, which are recited before the Gospels and Epistles to this day. The Old Testament describes the struggle of the chosen people of Israel to trust and follow the One True God and make Him known to the whole world. Despite their gifted leaders – prophets, judges, and kings – the chosen people of the Old Testament ultimately failed in this mission. So why do we, as Orthodox Christians, still study Israel’s stories? 

The Old and New Testaments are interconnected, so that one cannot exist without the other. The God of the Old Testament is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the same God as in the New Testament, while the stories of the Old Testament inform us of God’s plan for the salvation of the world, which materialized with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. As promised in the Old Testament, our Lord entered human history becoming one of us, and leading us to the new Israel, namely the Orthodox Christian Church.

The Old Testament foretells the events of the New Testament, while the New Testament fulfills the promises and prophecies made in the Old Testament. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself mentioned on numerous occasions that the Scriptures, especially the books of the Prophets and the Psalms, refer to Him and His Church (see, for example, Matthew 5:17, Luke 4:14-31, John 5:39-40). Therefore, we cannot understand the New Testament without the Old one, and, at the same time, the Old Testament cannot be correctly interpreted without the insight of the New Testament.

Saint John Chrysostom writes, “If neither one (Testament) were (written) by the same Master, they could not be called New and Old. Therefore the difference in their name means that they are related, not in the essence, but in the time they were written (St John Chrysostom, PG 51, 282). And elsewhere, “The Old Testament came before the New, and the New Testament interpreted the Old” (St John Chrysostom, PG 50, 796).

Important Old Testament symbols of the Theotokos

Symbol of the TheotokosProphet Scripture reference 
Mountain unhewn DanielDaniel 2:34,45 
Tongs IsaiahIsaiah 6:6-7 
Staff that sproutedAaronNumbers 17:8
Ark of the CovenantDavidPsalms 131 (132):8 Exodus 25:10-22
Ladder JacobGenesis 28:10-13 
Fleece GideonJudges 6:36-38 
Burning BushMosesExodus 3:2
Sealed Gate Ezekiel Ezekiel 44:1-3
Seven-light lampstand ZachariahZachariah 4:2 Exodus 25:31-40
Please note that the above list of Old Testament prefigurations of the Theotokos is not comprehensive; there are even more Theotokos symbols that have not been explored here.

Explanation of the symbols

Mountain Unhewn

This prefiguration is from the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2. He saw a huge statue of himself made from different materials; suddenly, without any human intervention, an enormous stone from the peak of a mountain was cut off by itself, rolled down and crashed the statue. Nebuchadnezzar woke up terrified, and called his counselor, Prophet Daniel, to explain the dream.

The unhewn mountain symbolizes the Virgin Mary, while the stone that was cut off and rolled down, without the work of a human hand, symbolizes Christ Who became man without the help of a human father. 

Tongs 

This prefiguration comes from a dream of Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6. He saw that he was standing in front of the throne of God Who called him to prophesy God’s will to the Israelites. Isaiah was worried that, being a sinner, he was unclean, yet he was able to see God. Then a Seraphim cleansed Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal held in tongs so his sins were blotted out.

The tongs symbolize the Theotokos who was blessed to carry in her womb the “spiritual coal”, Christ, without being hurt from the fire of His divinity. It also refers to the mysteries of Confession and Holy Communion which “blot out” our sins and “cleanse” our body and soul. 

Staff that sprouted

This prefiguration is mentioned in Numbers 17. It refers to a miracle that God worked to ascertain His choice of the Prophet Aaron’s line for becoming priests and leaders of the Israelites. Moses instructed the leaders of the twelve tribes to bring their staffs to him. Then God made Aaron’s staff miraculously sprout leaves, blossoms, and almonds. This way Aaron’s position as a priest and leader of Israel was undisputable.

The staff that miraculously sprouted stems, blossoms, and fruit symbolizes the Theotokos from whom Christ “sprouted” miraculously. 

Ark of the Covenant

David’s Psalm refers to the moving of the Ark of the Covenant to the city of David (2 Kings (Samuel) 6). The Ark of the Covenant was a golden chest constructed by Moses as instructed by God; it carried the tablets of the Law, the golden urn of Manna, and Aaron’s sprouted staff. Two seraphim were engraved on the top of the Ark and between them God would dwell to talk with Moses (Exodus 25:10-22).

All the objects concerning the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the Ark itself, are symbols of the Theotokos and Christ: like the Ark, the Theotokos “hosted” God in her womb. Like the golden urn, the Theotokos held Christ the “divine manna”. Like the tablets of the Law, the Theotokos has the Law of God engraved in her heart. 

Ladder

This is the famous dream of Jacob, that he saw when he was wandering in the wilderness trying to escape the fury of his brother Esau whom he had deceived (Genesis 27). Ηe dreamt of a ladder extending to heaven and angels stepping up and down on it; then the Lord talked to him and made a promise (Genesis:28).

The early Fathers of the Church saw in the ladder a clear prefiguration of the Theotokos: she became the “ladder” through which Christ “stepped down” and lived among the people. Yet the Theotokos is also considered our “spiritual ladder”, because with her intercessions – and our repentance and prayer to her – we are able to get closer to God. 

Fleece

This is a miracle that God performed for Gideon, the future leader of the Israelites, so that he would believe that only the Lord God would help him defeat the people of Midian. Gideon told God that he would leave a fleece outside overnight (note: a fleece is the woolen coat of the sheep after its shearing, and before any processing into yarn is done); if God would make it so that in the morning the fleece would be wet by dew but the earth around it would be dry, then Gideon would believe in God. So it was done. (Judges 6).

According to Saint John Chrysostom, the fleece symbolizes the pure and immaculate Virgin Mary the Theotokos, and the dew symbolizes the Word of God. As the dew fell silently upon the fleece, also the Son of man silently entered the virgin womb and silently came forth into the world.

Burning Bush

This refers to the famous story in Genesis 3, when the Prophet Moses, after fleeing Egypt and having become a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock, saw the amazing sight of a bush on fire but not consumed. When Moses walked closer, God spoke to him through the bush and for the first time named Himself: “I am who I am” (Genesis 3:14). 

Saint Gregory of Nyssa was the first to associate the burning bush with the Theotokos and the fire with Christ. Just as the fire did not consume the bush on Mount Horeb, so the fire of the Divinity of Christ did not hurt the Theotokos. 

Sealed gate 

This is one of the visions of the Priest-Prophet Ezekiel during the Babylonian Exile (6th c. BC). The angel who guided Ezekiel showed him the East Gate of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, and said that this gate is sealed and is to remain impassable forever because the Lord has come through it (Ezekiel 44:1-4).

The sealed and impassable gate symbolizes the virginity of the Most Holy and Ever-Virgin Mary the Theotokos, who remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ.

Seven-light lampstand

This is a vision of the Priest-Prophet Zachariah during the second Babylonian Captivity. The angel guiding the prophet showed him a lampstand with seven lights, like the one made by the Prophet Moses according to God’s instructions (Exodus 25). 

The Theotokos became the  suitable vessel to hold up Christ, the Light of the world. The sacred number seven symbolizes perfection, and also the meeting between God and the people (7 = 3 Persons of the Holy Trinity + 4 material elements: fire, air, water, earth). 

The prefigurations of the Theotokos in the hymnography of the Nativity season

The Canon of the Nativity is a lengthy poem – made up of smaller parts, the odes – of deep theological meaning, beautiful melody and rich imagery, worthy of the solemnity of the Great Feast of the Holy Nativity. There are two Nativity Canons, written by the renowned hymnographers of the 8th century, St. Cosmas of Maiuma and St. John of Damascus. At the All-night Vigil for the Nativity of Christ, both Nativity Canons are chanted in their entirety.

The Katavasies of the Nativity – the parts of the Nativity Canon at the end of each ode – have a special place in the Nativity season. They are chanted in the Divine Services beginning from the Entrance of the Theotokos (November 21) and until the Apodosis of the Feast of the Nativity.

Both Nativity Canons include numerous references to the Old Testament’s prefigurations of the Theotokos. A few examples from the symbols explored above include: the burning bush; the root of Jesse; the rain (dew) that fell on the fleece; the sealed gate of the temple. 

Icon variations depicting the prefigurations of the Theotokos

There are different types of Orthodox icons depicting the Old Testament prefigurations of the Theotokos. Each was developed at a separate point in Church history, and in the process of clarifying the Church’s theology and teachings about the Theotokos, which were being challenged by a number of heresies.

The Root of Jesse

16th-century icon painted by Theodore Poulakis, in the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, Athens, Greece, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first icon type explored here is called the “Root of Jesse”. It portrays the Theotokos holding the Christ child, positioned on the trunk of a tree. On the branches of the tree, there are the Prophets of the Old Testament who foretold of the Theotokos. Each Prophet is holding a scroll onto which his prophecy about the Theotokos is displayed. Sometimes the Prophet also carries the symbolic item prefiguring the Theotokos.

Jesse, father of King and Prophet David and direct ancestor of the Virgin Mary, is depicted reclining on the root of the tree. An interesting detail is that the tree trunk “sprouts” out of Jesse’s side, a reference to the creation of Eve out of Adam’s side (Genesis 2:18-24;3:20). This imagery reminds us of the Church’s teaching that the Theotokos is the ‘new Eve’ while Christ is the ‘second Adam’. 

This iconographic type was developed in the 13th c. mainly by the Cretan School. It is an imagery of the family tree of our Lord Jesus Christ from His Mother’s side, based on a prophecy from Isaiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1).

The Prophets from above or The Prophets Aforetime

The second icon type we are examining is called “The Prophets from above” or “The Prophets Aforetime”, and again it portrays the Theotokos and Christ child surrounded by the Prophets of the Old Testament. We couldn’t find an image of this icon type with a license allowing us to include it in this post, but you can follow the links provided to see some examples. Sometimes the Theotokos Platytera is shown in the center and the Prophets are placed around her in medallions; in other variations of this type, the Theotokos is sitting on a throne, surrounded by a blossoming branch into which the Old Testament Prophet medallions are woven (good 16th-century examples can be found in this text, on pages 10 and 17). Again, each Prophet holds a scroll displaying his prophecy and/or a symbolic item prefiguring the Theotokos.

This icon variation is based on the liturgical hymn of the 13th c. that begins with the words of its title: “Of old, the prophets aforetime proclaimed thee, the Jar of Manna, the Rod of Aaron, the Tablet, the Lampstand, the Ark, the Table, the Mountain Unhewn, the Golden Censer, the Gate Impassible, and the Throne of the King. Thee did the Prophets proclaim of old.” The melody of the hymn – and perhaps the words – was composed by the “master teacher” Saint Ioannis (John) Koukouzelis (late 13th-14th c.). The hymn is being chanted to this day at the end of the Orthros service, when the Bishop is vested. 

Praises to the Theotokos

15th- century icon, photo by anonymous photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A third icon variation depicting the Old Testament prefigurations of the Theotokos is called “Praises to the Theotokos”, and it was developed after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in the 15th century. This icon is very common in the Russian tradition.

The Theotokos and Christ are shown in the center of the icon, while the Old Testament Saints, full-bodied, are depicted around them, holding scrolls with their prophesies and/or the symbols of the Theotokos. This icon type variation is especially associated with the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos.

EXPLORE FURTHER

Resources for making your own Jesse Tree