1. O Wisdom O Sapientia

 

Wisdom

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Have you heard anyone refer to Jesus as ‘Wisdom’ lately? I certainly never addressed him by that name. This is not surprising because I am from the Western Christian tradition. If I had come to faith within the Eastern Christian tradition (The main denominations are the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Eastern Catholic Churches) this would likely be a different matter.

Where does this idea of Jesus being Wisdom come from?

The book of Sirach, part of the Apocrypha, says this:

 ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
    and covered the earth like a mist.’ Sirach 24:3

Here, Wisdom is speaking and describes her creation. Does it remind you of anything? I am reminded of the opening of John’s gospel where Jesus is described as the Word.

Why does this reading from the Apocrypha hold weight? Because Paul also describes Jesus as ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ in 1 Cor 1. 24.

This wisdom is not the philosophical language-type wisdom that was prized by the Greeks (1 Cor 1:22-24) but a practical kind of wisdom that leads to good and ordered judgement. Think of the wisdom of King Solomon as he executed justice for the two women arguing over a baby. (1 Kings 3: 16-28) It is this wisdom of God’s that orders and holds all things together. This antiphon refers to a passage in the book of Wisdom

 ‘She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.’ Wisdom 8:1

But, again, this theme is also taken up by Paul, this time in Colossians 1:17, Jesus holds all things together.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

During Advent, the Church reflects on two interconnected themes; Israel awaiting its longed for Messiah, and our watching and waiting for Jesus to come again in glory. That’s why we sing carols like O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, we are placing ourselves in the shoes of Israel as a way of articulating our deep longing for Jesus to return.

On the face of it, this first Antiphon doesn’t seem to draw on this Advent theme. But, on closer inspection, it draws upon the line of Mary’s Song, the Magnificat (I explain in the introduction how these Antiphons physically fit in);

He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.’ (Luke 1:52)

Mary saw that God exalts not the knowledgeable but instead honours those who trust in God’s promises.

His promise was made to the nomad Abraham. God answered his practical concern of no heir by promising him descendants to number more than the grains of sand. Abraham was not chosen because of his status or learning but because of his faithfulness to God.

We ask Jesus, using this name ‘Wisdom’ to come and teach us the way of prudence.

This doesn’t feel linked to what has come before. Instead we expect ‘teach us your wisdom’ but that’s because we aren’t viewing prudence alongside temperance, courage and justice as the natural virtues. These are the qualities that all humans ought to uphold whether or not they are a Christian. This is in contrast with the theological virtues of faith, hope and love to be pursued by followers of Jesus.

It in context, asking Jesus for prudence or good judgement doesn’t seem quite as cautious or weak, instead it is a strong virtue alongside courage and justice that all humans ought to strive for.

The Sermon on the Mount is full of practical wisdom. That’s one reason the church finds it such a rich text, it speaks into the nitty gritty of our everyday lives. How should we pray? How should we handle money? How should we treat the people we find around us? Jesus wasn’t a sage speaking above the heads on ordinary folk, he spoke directly into practicalities of life.

As with the Lord’s Prayer within the Sermon on the Mount, during these O Antiphons we are asking Jesus to come again. These two themes lie parallel- Jesus teach us prudence here today, and Jesus come again to teach us prudence. This tension is that soon (that’s an Aslan kind of ‘soon’) this world will end but we must also attend to our day-to-day lives. How we pray, handle money and treat others matters, we live with the consequences of these actions every day. But our actions and choices here today have consequences beyond our lifetime. These two themes are linked because how we exercise prudence today will have a direct effect on our position when Jesus comes again. Then, we will see Jesus’ wisdom as he exercises justice and love and unites all things in him.

So today as we struggle to know how we ought to pray, handle our money, or treat others around us, we join together to pray:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.


*** The majority of my reading around these Antiphons has been from William Marshall’s book,  O Come Emmanuel: Devotional Study of the Advent Antiphons. It’s been an invaluable resource. If you’d like to read more about the root and symbolism behind these great prayers do hunt for a copy.***

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