O Sapientia: Wisdom 2015

Today we begin a week of proximate preparation for Christmas. This morning some churches will be celebrating a Rorate Mass, often known as the Missa Aurea (Golden Mass), while tonight every monastery of the Latin Rite will begin the sequence of special antiphons known as the Great or O Antiphons. For more information about these, and to listen to the antiphons being sung, please go to this page of our main website (you will need Flash to play the recordings) : http://bit.ly/1roZnkA. You will find several posts about each of the O antiphons in this blog — a search in the sidebar search box should give you some of them.

So much for mere information, but this post is about wisdom and the prayer for Wisdom contained in the first of the antiphons we sing tonight, O Sapientia. It is an urgent prayer and one that should transform our whole being. Indeed, it is the kind of prayer that makes one tremble. Can I really pray this? Am I ready to pray this? At first sight, it is not so very terrible.

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.

But consider that first sentence and the Wisdom that comes forth from the mouth of the Most High: it is an emanation of God himself. How often we forget that! His power is infinite, yet we often assume that he exists to do our bidding. We shrink the Creator of the Universe down to a Fairy Godmother. Our mouths ought to be purified with living coals before we dare to take his name on our lips, but we ignore God’s infinite holiness, his utter transcendence, because it is too vast for our minds to take in.

We seem to have got it all wrong. 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. 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.

The Second Preface of Advent used from today onwards gives us the theology of these last days of Advent in a nutshell. (I have already said what I think about some elements of the translation so won’t go over them again.)

It is truly right and  just,
our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father,
almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

For all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy . . .

We have moved beyond prophecy and foretelling to celebration of the wonder of the Incarnation — ‘already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity’ — and our response must be prayer and praise. We have a whole week in which to explore the way in which God in Christ comes to us; a whole week in which to make our own the prayer of every generation for a Redeemer and Saviour. However busy we must be, let’s not waste this opportunity. The Lord is very near.

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Hovering on the Brink

Tomorrow everything changes. We begin the last few days of Advent with a new Preface and the magnificent series of ‘O’ antiphons at Vespers which chart the final steps of our journey. (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.)

I think there can be no better meditation for today, no better preparation for the remaining days before Christmas,  than praying the Second Preface of Advent. It is ‘theology in a nutshell’; so, if you can, take the time to let the phrases sink in and do their work in you:

It is truly right and just,
our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father,
almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

For all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy . . .

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Our Need of Wisdom

Tonight we begin singing the special sequence of Advent invocations known as the O Antiphons. (If you would like to know more about them and hear them sung, go to our main website here.) I love the fact that we begin with O Sapientia, asking for the Wisdom that comes from on high. A couple of years ago, I contrasted the way in which exposure to God’s wisdom tends to show up our own half-truths and shabby accommodations, our inability to live with real integrity (see this post). Today I would like to single out another aspect of Wisdom: the way in which the Wisdom of God fills the whole universe and holds all things in being.

There are times when, as individuals, we can feel completely helpless. Disasters, natural or man-made, remind us how vulnerable we are; economic forces beyond our control have consequences that touch the lives of us all; illness, bereavement, even a family row can destroy our sense of well-being. We can’t dodge these things, they are part of what it means to be human. Would you be very shocked if I were to say they are also part of what it means to be divine? They are not just points where the divine interacts with humanity. God is there all the time, in all of them.

Some people have a very strange idea of God. God is to be always what they desire. They get hold of some important attribute of God, for example that he is infinitely loving, and then decide that if God doesn’t ‘love’ in the way they think God should, then God either doesn’t exist or is somehow wrong (which is a bit awkward, if you think about it). The fact is that God transcends our ideas about what he is or should be. The language we use about God is itself inadequate (neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ can convey more than a part of what God is — try interchanging them as Professor Denys Turner often does, and you’ll see what I mean). We are left baffled and bemused, yet all the time the Wisdom of God is there, in every corner of the universe, involved in every  moment of our lives, holding everything in existence, not a God afar off but a God close at hand, one with us in all things.

Tonight, when we ask the Wisdom of God to delay no longer but come and show us the way of truth or prudence (via prudentiae), we are asking God to transform our way of seeing so that it is the same as his. It is a dangerous prayer because if answered — and it will be, one way or another — it will turn our world upside down. It will knock us off our pedestal and ground us in God instead. To acknowledge our need of Wisdom is the first step towards attaining it.

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O Radix Jesse: hope that does not disappoint

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, who stand as an ensign to the peoples, at whom kings stand silent and whom the gentiles seek, come and free us, delay no longer!

Some scripture texts worth pondering as we listen to the antiphon are Isaiah 11.1; Isaiah 11.10; Jeremiah 23. 5-6: Micah 5.1; Romans 15. 8-13; Revelation 5.1-5; Revelation 22.16

 

We all have a tendency to believe in D.I.Y. salvation or, if not that, to put our hope in political/economic solutions. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ opened up the hope of greater freedom and self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East, but the latest news from Syria and Egypt, as well as disturbing reports from Libya, suggest that we may have been over-optimistic. The death yesterday of Kim Jong-il, while welcomed by some as removing a tyrant, has raised the spectre of an unstable nuclear power. Add to that the fragility of the Eurozone, the British economy in the doldrums and the prospect of a rather bleak New Year, and one can see why some fear the emergence of new dictatorships in place of the old. It is in this context that we sing O Radix Jesse. It reminds us that Christian values are never the world’s values; that the promise we rely on is one that will transform the world; that our hope and trust are in a Saviour who will be given to us, not in anything we can do ourselves*.

The symbolism of the antiphon is beautiful. We think of Jesus as the flower that blossoms on Jesse’s ancient stem and fills the whole world with its scent. Paul helps to articulate the theology underpinning it, especially in Romans 15. 8-13. He says Christ became a servant of the Jewish people to maintain God’s faithfulness by making good God’s promises to the patriarchs and by giving the gentiles cause to glorify God for his mercy. He quotes Isaiah also, for Christ is that scion of Jesse who will rule over the gentiles and in whom they will place their hope. The promise to Israel, the mercy shown to the gentiles, the hope we all share is freedom from sin and death and the enjoyment of eternal life made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. The Messiah for whom Israel has prayed and longed is become the Saviour of the World. All the jangling discordances of humanity are quieted, the divine harmony restored; but here on earth we have yet to experience the fullness of redemption. So we pray, ‘Come and free us; delay no longer!’

* That does not mean we need do nothing. On the contrary we must do all we can to bring about the Kingdom.

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O Adonai: the holiness of God

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm.
 

I suggest we read Exodus 3; Isaiah 11:4-5; Isaiah 33:22 and spend a few moments thinking about the holiness of God.

Recently, I’ve had people ticking me off for various things. One which comes up again and again has to do with what, in the ticker-offer’s view, religion should be about. For example, a number of people took me to task yesterday for being critical of David Cameron’s ‘vaguely practising’ Christian. Quite apart from the fact that, rightly or wrongly, I suspect a political agenda was being piggy-backed onto faith and that some of the Prime Minister’s other statements are difficult to square with a Catholic understanding of Christianity (redefining marriage, for example), what really stung me was the idea that God is rather like the ‘poor relation’ who is indulged with a remembrance at Christmas and ignored at other times.

That is not the God of infinite holiness in whom I believe, the God whose presence makes the whole earth holy ground and whose glory blazes forth from all that is. Religion can, indeed, be a great comfort but it is more often, in my experience, anything but comfortable. The holiness of God sears the soul. It is no accident that God is likened in the Old Testament to refining fire, that the Letter to the Hebrews describes God as a consuming fire, to obey whom is life, to disobey whom means death. God is infinite Love and Compassion, our Saviour and Redeemer, yes, but he is also infinite Holiness: the Mystery at the heart of being whom we adore and whom we await in his coming as Man at Christmas.

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The O Antiphons

Every day at Vespers (Evening Prayer), the Magnificat (Canticle of Mary) is accompanied by an antiphon or refrain which gives a particular focus to the celebration. From the 17 to 23 December a special sequence of antiphons is used known as the O antiphons (all begin with the word ‘O’) or Greater antiphons. They are of ancient origin although no one is quite sure when they were first used. Boethius (fifth century) mentions them, and by the eighth century the abbey of St Benoît sur Loire had elaborated a solemn ritual which most Benedictines still use today.

The antiphons are sung by different members of the community (usually the seniors), and ‘care’ is taken to ensure that certain officials receive antiphons appropriate to their office. Thus, the gardener is thought a good choice for O Radix Jesse, while the cellarer (bursar) is considered a fitting match for O Clavis David.

The Stanbrook O Antiphon Book
The O Antiphon Book used at Stanbrook Abbey
 

A specially grand book is used for the antiphons and the singing of them is accompanied by the ringing of all the church bells. In former times there were pittances in the refectory to mark the day. Thus, the gardener might give the community a few dried plums or raisins; the cellarer might add an extra allowance of wine, and so on. The intention was to mark these days out as days of proximate preparation to Christmas, at once solemn and joyful.

At present, there are seven O antiphons in use. Each addresses Christ using a Messianic title drawn from the prophecies of the Old Testament. Read backwards, the initials of each title in Latin form the words Cras ero or ‘Tomorrow I shall be (with you)’.

Sapientia (Wisdom)
Adonai (Holy Lord)
Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)
Clavis David (Key of David)
Oriens (Dayspring or Morning Star)
Rex Gentium (King of the Nations)
Emmanuel (God-with-us)

In the Middle Ages not only were different melodies sometimes used (the Worcester Antiphoner, for example, has some very elaborate settings for the antiphons) but even the number of antiphons varied. According to the Sarum Use, eight antiphons were sung so the whole sequence began a day earlier and ended on 23 December with O Virgo virginum. That made the initials read Vero cras. ‘Truly tomorrow (I shall be with you).’

The structure of the seven antiphons we now use is essentially the same. After the invocation of Christ as Messiah comes the plea: come and show us the way of prudence, come and save us with outstretched arm, and so on, and all the antiphons follow a similar musical pattern. The music for the first of the antiphons is shown below, but you can hear each being sung if you click on the player button beneath the texts. The melody ducts and weaves around what our oblate, Fr Alex Lane, describes as ‘an unstable note in the Second Mode, which suggests just how fragile we are.’

O Sapientia: music and text
 

If you want to follow the antiphons through the week, I’ll give the texts each day in Latin and English, with a few suggestions about the scriptural texts you might ponder in connection with each. Probably the best-known version in English is the hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’.

17 December
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 truth.
Have a look at Isaiah 11:2-3; Isaiah 28:29 and think about the parallel between Wisdom and the Word of God, endlessly creative. Now listen to the antiphon being sung:

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