Editor’s note: The author of this series is from Hong Kong, and is an author and teacher who serves the mainland Chinese church. Written while she was studying and serving in the United States, it offers a thorough and useful explanation of Advent. It is a good resource for helping Chinese friends, seekers, and young Christians understand many of traditional meanings and symbols they encounter at Christmas, and can help connect them to the historic global church. For other articles in this series on advent, please see the following: Tradition & Faith, Origins & History, and Symbolism.
1. Using a Jesse Tree/Advent calendar
This is a very common tool used by families that celebrate Advent in their homes. The goal here is to create in us and our children the love of scripture and the awareness of the everlasting covenant. A Jesse Tree is usually a small tree that you put on your table, or some branches, or something made out of cloth. The biblical basis is found in Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch of his roots.” It is like a family tree. Each day, you focus on one part of Jesus’ story and your kids hang a symbol, a drawing, a scripture, or a prayer in response to that day’s message on the tree. Children can also be encouraged to write down something they are thankful for, or a prayer for someone they care, but not something they want for Christmas, to hang on the tree. Parents may even want to collect these prayer cards from their children, so that when they grow up, they can see how the grace of God has been acting upon them.
You can buy ready-made Jesse Trees these days, but the best ones are the ones created yourself. The Jesse Tree can be replaced by an Advent calendar (it is usually a piece of cloth or cardboard with 24 pockets or windows. They are easy to make at home.) The use of a Jesse Tree or Advent calendar usually starts on the first day of December and lasts for twenty four days. Usually, parents use this tool with their smaller children, but the idea can be adopted even for adults, newlyweds, or retired couples alike. I did not grow up in a Christian home and I always envy those Christian couples who do daily devotions together. A newlywed couple could develop such a habit now and during the Advent season, modifying the Jesse Tree idea for their daily devotions. The advantage of this tool is that it can be used with great flexibility and creativity. There is no obligation to repeat the same thing each year. As children grow older, the tree may grow more sophisticated, too.
When the children are younger, you could focus on the Bible stories that tell the genealogy of Jesus. The idea is to help them remember names and events if they are too young to understand more complicated doctrines.
When they grow a little older, you may choose God’s covenantal faithfulness as your Advent theme, i.e., how God delivers his covenant people again and again in the Old Testament and eventually sent Jesus. After all, Jesus did not begin to exist after Luke 1. Here, you may introduce some basic doctrines to the kids and to help them memorize certain important scripture verses. Since this is also story-based, it suits children at a younger age. You can always explain to them the surrounding context of the passage to make the reading time interesting and meaningful. But since there are more than twenty four passages/events you could use, you can repeat the theme with different content in different years.
If you are adults and have no children at home, you could adopt the Jesse Tree idea by exploring the more complicated biblical theological themes of the first Advent. Your guiding passage could be, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1-2). This, of courses, requires more familiarity with scriptures. For example, Christ was the fourth person in the furnace with Daniel’s three friends. Also, Christ is the Passover Lamb. The Old Testament has many of these “types” of Christ – Israel, Moses, David, Solomon, etc. You could focus on one each day or each week, and find new ones to study the following years.
Since Advent is also about anticipating the Second Coming, our passage study could well go beyond the Old Testament and the beginning chapters of Matthew and Luke. Advent is not just about the birth of Christ as a person, but also about the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan through the life and ministry of Christ. Advent season could well be a time to review how redemption is accomplished in Christ. Your guiding scripture passage could be Mathew 1:21, “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This should place the ultimate purpose of Christ’s incarnation in perspective and shift [the focus] to Christ’s accession and his promise to return.
One way for us gentiles to celebrate Advent can be to trace God’s love for the gentiles from the Old Testament to the book of Revelation, with a special focus on the book of Acts. The guiding scripture verse here could be, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Act 1: 8). Since the expansion of God’s love to us involves missions, you and your family could well include a mission dimension to your daily Advent rituals. I know of many Christian families who have developed a family tradition of giving to mission organizations or writing or sending care packages to missionaries during the Advent season. Another thing you could consider is collecting some children’s books about how Christmas is celebrated around the world. Keep the books for only this season for the children to read. As they read about the countries, they are asked to either pray for that country or give to missions if they are old enough to have earnings. I have recently been greatly encouraged by a member of our church, an undergraduate in fact, who has already established a mission organization and started serving in God’s harvest field. When enquiring more, I found that this student actually grew up in a family where supporting missions was part of her family tradition. How precious! Advent is not just about knowing, but also acting.
Jesse Tree scripture reading suggestions
Would You Pray With Us Today?
This is only one suggestion. Its emphasis is on the development of redemptive history, i.e., God promises of a Redeemer and a new creation, and how he unfolds the redemptive plan throughout scripture, with an emphasis on his faithfulness to his chosen ones throughout history, and with the coming (and the Second Coming) of Christ as the apex. You may find some passages easier to follow than others. This is only a guideline. If a passage does not make sense to you, you may skip it and split one of the longer passages into two. This list is aimed for adult use. Parents with small children can simplify it accordingly, by using these scriptures and the context surrounding them to show their children how God deals faithfully with all his people and that Jesus is the ultimate expression of his love and faithfulness.
- December 1 – Genesis 3:1-24 (fall of man and redemptive plan foretold for the first time)
- December 2 – Genesis 6, 7, 8:1-19, and 9:8-17 (the flood and covenant with Noah)
- December 3 – Genesis 12: 1-3, 15 and 18:10-13 (covenant with Abraham, promise of an heir)
- December 4 – Genesis 22:1-18 (Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac – Christ, the sacrificial lamb)
- December 5 – Genesis 25:23; 28:10-22; 32, Romans 9:8-13 (God chose Jacob, Jacob’s dream, Jacob is named Israel)
- December 6 – Genesis 37:3-4 and 12-28 (Joseph favored and sold to save Israel)
- December 7 – Exodus 2:23-24 and 3, and 4:1-20 (God calls Moses, remembering his promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob)
- December 8 – Exodus 12-13 (killing of Egyptians’ first born, Christ, the Passover Lamb)
- December 9 – Exodus 14 (parting of the Red Sea), or Exodus 16:1-36 (God provides Mannah)
- December 10 – Exodus 19 and 20 (the Law given, inauguration of the covenant community)
- December 11 – Joshua 2, 6:22-24 (Entering promised land, Rehab, first gentle saved and became Jesus’ ancestor)
- December 12 – Ruth 1-4 (Ruth accepted into God’s people, genealogy leading to Jesse)
- December 13 – I Samuel 16:1-13; 2 Samuel 7:4-17 (Jesse’s family chosen to be the Messiah’s ancestors; and God establishes covenant with David)
- December 14 – I Samuel 17:1-54 (David, a Christ figure, represents God’s people defeats Goliath, God’s enemy)
- December 15 – I Kings 3:3-28; 1 Kings 5 (Solomon, a Christ figure, king of peace, rules his kingdom with wisdom)
- December 16 – Hosea 1-3 (God’s unfailing love for his unfaithful, fickle people)
- December 17 – Jeremiah 52:4-34; 31:14-18, 27-33; Ezekiel 11:16-21 (the fall of Jerusalem, but a promise of a new covenant and a new heart made of flesh, and a restoration of Israel)
- December 18 – Daniel 3, 6:1-28 (Son of God in the furnace with Daniel three friends, Daniel in the lion’s den, God is with his people in exile)
- December 19 – Jonah 1 & 2, Matthew 12:39-41 (Jonah in the whale for three days, Christ’s death and resurrection)
- December 20 – Micah 4:1-7; Isaiah 7:14; 53 (Savior promised, virgin birth foretold; Messiah will come to take away our sin)
- December 21 – Luke 1:5-24, 57-80; Isaiah 40: 1-5 (Birth of John the Baptist before Jesus, preparing the way for the arrival of Christ)
- December 22 – Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:18-25 (Angle’s annunciation to Mary about Christ; God speaks to Joseph in a dream about Mary and who Jesus will be)
- December 23 – Micah 5:2; Luke 2 (Jesus born in Bethlehem, the apex of the first Advent)
- December 24 – Matthew 2:1-12 (Magi follow the star–first gentiles come to Jesus)
- December 25 – John 1:1-14; Acts 1:11; Matthew 25; Revelation 19: 1-17 (the Incarnation of Christ; the promise of Second coming; Second Advent begins; the Wedding of the Lamb)
3. Building crèche a home
A crèche is usually another tool for Advent celebration, especially for smaller children. Many Christian families build their own crèches and each year they add something new to them. When I studied in the south of France, I learned that the French had a custom that when a daughter got married, her mother would give her a crèche with some basic characters in it. She would then spend the rest of her life building that crèche. Sometimes, the crèche they built could be as big as a village scene. It is a fun thing to do! To use a crèche for Advent celebration, put certain figures in it each day and review the relevant scripture passage with the kids. Since the crèche figures are pretty standard, you could make the activity more challenging by asking them to memorize the relevant scriptures and recite them as they put out the characters. On Christmas Eve, place baby Jesus in the manger.
Like all family religious activities, there are always right ways and misguided ways to use the activities. Some parents, with all good intentions, like to make use of such opportunities to educate (discipline or reward) their children. They let the child add [something to the crèche] each time he does something good. Others, while recognizing the theological error in such a way of thinking, may choose do it the opposite way. Perhaps, a more proper way to do this is to direct our attention away from what we do (be it “naughty or nice”) and toward Christ himself. After all, Advent is not about us. [The crèche should be added to] each day as part of the daily Advent ritual irrespective of what the child does that day. It does not mean we do not remind our children they are sinners. It is just that using the manger for such purpose might not be appropriate.
Some might worry that you do not know the Bible well enough to do all these activities. Well, we can only teach our children what we know. If you know very little, then teach them that very little thing you know. Children often know if you are telling them something you either do not believe or do not understand. If no one understands the activities, it will soon become a meaningless ritual. Whatever you teach them, you must understand and hold it dear for yourself first. Cornelius Van Til grew up in a Christian home where his parents were simple farmers. He remembered growing up with his parents reading scripture at meal times daily. He said when he was little, he could understand very little of some of the Bible passages, such as the genealogy, etc. But his parents never skipped a passage. He grew up knowing the Bible from cover to cover. He said he learned one thing from his parents: that the Bible is the holy word of God and no part of it can be disregarded. Such an understanding eventually shaped his theology and apologetics. If you think you do not know enough, then at least let your hunger for more and deeper knowledge of the Bible be passed on to your children.