Layers of Meaning

23 December 2018

Layers of Meaning

Written by John Baxter-Brown,CEO of Global Connections

For the first time in many years my two daughters will not be around to help with decorating our family Christmas tree. They are away at university so my wife and I revert to our pre-children practice of doing the tree ourselves. We will miss them.

Our family ritual will be different. We will not be taking them to the garden centre to choose the tree, nor will the four of us take out the decorations and ornaments and talk about them. Each decoration has a story behind it: some were made by the girls in school; some by friends or family; I have made some from drift wood or cross-stitch; some were brought home from exotic places (like Lapland or Africa – and even from the White House); some were gifts, some from long-dead friends. Each story has some significance for us, some memory attached, some sentimental value.

Buying and decorating the tree is, for us, a special and lovely time, but this year tinged with a smidgeon of sadness. But then the girls will return from university, and will come home to find the house bright, cheerful and decorated. The significance changes to one of welcoming the children home and celebrating being together again. It will still be a wonderful and special time of year for us, but different from previous years – and better for the anticipation of reuniting.

Another layer of meaning is being added to our Christmas this year. Yet a significant dimension of each Christmas is to reflect on all these layers of meaning, being thankful for them and the memories and people associated with them. As we dig down through these layers and memories so we come at last to the bedrock, the story that gives Advent and Christmas itself true meaning: that of a long-awaited child being born into an occupied country run by a military dictatorship; a story of hope growing amidst excruciating darkness; of a small family fleeing as refugees; a story of deep, deep grief as we recall the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ caused by the jealous narcissism of a despotic puppet-king who was driven by fear.

The bedrock itself is deep, and lying within we find treasures of anticipation hidden away in the ancient Jewish texts. These are the promises of God to his people, offering them resolution, restoration and recreation. Their troubled history of shame and splendour, exhilaration and exile, of dirty glory, was to be resolved by this ‘long expected Jesus.’ And, of course, these promises as we now know, are not limited to Israel alone: all nations, people and persons are invited to gather around the wooden crib of the incarnation, the wooden cross of the crucifixion and the stone, cold – and above all, empty – tomb of the resurrection.

Likewise, all are invited – you included – to participate in Pentecost and the life of the Spirit who is ‘the Lord and giver of life.’ The challenge that Paul left with the early church in Rome remains however. How can all people RSVP to the invitation to Jesus’ messianic banquet if they are not delivered? And how can they be delivered if we, Jesus’ followers, refuse to go?

This bedrock is the base layer upon which Christmas is built, with all the cultural and religious trappings that we take for granted. But these trappings remain just that – empty wrapping – if we do not take some time during Advent to reflect and pray, to seek Jesus – and hope for our and all nations.


John Baxter-Brown, or JBB as he is usually known, has previously worked as consultant to the World Council of Churches (on evangelism), World Vision International (on Church Partnerships) and Compassion International (on children and youth in mission). In addition to his role with Global Connections, he serves as Senior Advisor in Evangelism for the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance and occasionally lectures in mission and evangelism at universities and colleges. Throughout his ministry, JBB has worked in evangelism, youth and children’s work, theological education and training, and ecumenism, at local church through to global levels. He has edited and authored numerous books, chapters, journals and articles. He is married with two teenage daughters and two dogs and lives in Wiltshire.