Tonight every monastery of the Latin rite will begin singing the great sequence of Magnificat antiphons known as the ‘O Antiphons’, beginning with O Sapientia, ‘O Wisdom’. Every year the antiphons take on a new depth of meaning and relevance and present us with a new challenge.
Our homely word ‘wisdom’ tends to conjure up visions of age and experience — kindly grandmothers nodding in rocking chairs, or elderly men whose mastery of some ancient skill or craft seems effortless. But the Wisdom of God is perennially youthful, ever at play in God’s presence, we are told; and how could it be otherwise when she is a pure emanation of the Most High, endlessly creative? The Wisdom of God turns topsy-turvey all our ideas about how things should be, but few of us have the courage to embrace that wisdom in all its fullness. Tonight’s antiphon turns our need of wisdom into prayer, and it is not one to be uttered lightly:
O Sapientia, quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High. You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle manner: come to teach us the way of prudence.
We find that our idea of God’s wisdom is too tame, too little. No wonder we must ask him to teach us, and the first thing he must teach us is prudence which, as St Benedict says, is the mother of all the virtues. To have a right view of God, the world and our own place in it, to have a right relationship with all these, we need wisdom and prudence, but we need most particularly divine Wisdom and Prudence. There is a danger, of course, that in concentrating on the ‘otherness’ of God, we may forget his tenderness and compassion and be filled with a fear that is not reverent but merely craven. God wants us to come to him as a loving Father, so the antiphon reminds us that the God of infinite strength is also the God of infinite gentleness. Paradox upon paradox, and at its heart, the mystery of love.
To speak of the mystery of love in a world grown cold and cruel seems, at best, ridiculously optimistic. We look at Aleppo, we look at our political parties, we look at the Church, and all we seem to see is bickering and division — and in the midst of it, the result of all that division, we see immense suffering, the suffering from which Christ comes to redeem us. We forget that the Wisdom of God is not like our human wisdom. We forget what I called the perenially youthful, endlessly creative aspects of divine Wisdom. Perhaps we should re-think our view of wisdom, with both a capital and a lower-case ‘w’. As we pray tonight’s antiphon, let us do so with hope in our hearts. His love will never fail or forsake us, and his love comes to us at Christmas not as an abstraction but as Jesus Christ our Lord.
ADVENT O ANTIPHONS
If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here. Flash needed to play the music files as I have not yet replaced the player with HTML5.