Our Rich Liturgical Heritage

The Right Reverend Dr Peter Brain
The Right Reverend Dr Peter Brain

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A dominant feature of our liturgies is the wide and balanced readings from the Bible. Worshippers experience this every Sunday, and on special occasions like Christmas, thoughtful thematic selections.

The real wonder of Christmas has to do with the second person of the Trinity’s majestic glory and unsurpassed humility. Phillip Hughes captures these paradoxical realities: ‘His Deity was hidden in his riches, his manhood was apparent in his poverty’. The Lord of the universe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, the Saviour of all, lying in a manger expresses this in a Christmas Collect.

The Christmas readings convey real riches. The incarnation was always God’s plan. The Old Testament readings (Isaiah 9:2-7; 52:7-10 and 62:6-12) help us fathom God’s saving purpose through a child, described as ‘Mighty God, everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace’. Not through the nation of Israel, nor an earthly King but the Divine son, graciously give to us. Psalms, 96, 97 and 98 show the splendour of this promised one and of the way in which all people should join creation in joyful applause that the judge is coming to save. There is no sentimentality about Christ’s coming, whether in humility as a child or in splendour as our judge.

The gospel readings leave us in no doubt as to the historicity of our Lord’s incarnation (Luke 2:1-20) or purpose (John 1:1-14). Dr Luke carefully gives us at least seven historical reference points surrounding Jesus’s birth. Christ is historical, not mythical. Earthed in a real place and time in history we can be confident that the incarnation happened. We are a planet visited by its Creator and sustainer. This is not dependant on our faith, instead our faith depends on what God has done. John’s gospel, with the rest of the New Testament, explains why this extraordinary event took place. The Lord of glory ‘became flesh and dwelt amongst us’ because the world had become the dark place it is, when our forebears chose, and like us, preferred darkness over light. There is no room for pride or sentimentality about human goodness at Christmas. We needed Christmas so that Easter could deal with the darkness of our sin.

This theme, taken up by Hebrews 1:1-4, clearly affirms Christ as the unique and final fulfiller of Old Testament revelation and sacrificial redemption. We need no more revelatory prophets or sacrificing priests. Christ has spoken and is now seated, the work of revelation and redemption completed. The readings from Titus 2:11-14 and 3:4-8 are full of promise, reminding us that the richness of salvation available to all whose trust in Christ, depends on God’s grace not our works. This grace is seen in Christ’s incarnation, death and our new birth by the Holy Spirit, who then enables us to say no to wickedness and live upright and Godly lives until our Lord’s return in glory. A return as certain as his coming in humility and going to the cross in love. There are no riches, no dividends, like those that accrue to all who receive the gift of Christ.

+ Peter