God’s wisdom, God’s word

There are two main offerings in the blog this week; the first relates to the Advent antiphons, which traditionally are used from today and on each of the coming seven days; the second focuses on the lectionary Gospel for this coming Sunday, Luke 1.26-38, the annunciation to Mary. I am responsible for the first; I am grateful to Natacha Tinteroff for her reflection on Mary.

I am planning not to produce a blog next week, but to resume in time for a reflection to be offered relating to the readings for Sunday 3 January. Happy and Holy Christmas to all blog readers!

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

The following was originally delivered as an address during a Zoom Eucharist on December 17 celebrating O Sapientia organised by Holy Trinity Geneva.

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 (Advent antiphon for O Sapientia)

If you take a look at the calendar that comes in the Book of Common Prayer, near the beginning, you will find on the December page, on December 16 the words O Sapientia – with no other explanation. It is intriguing that in a prayer book in which many of the pre-Reformation high days and holy days were culled, that the memory of this date as ‘O Sapientia’ ‘O Wisdom’ should be preserved. It is also interesting that the day chosen was December 16th – rather than 17th – but we will come to that in a moment.

It is a reminder that the hallowing of the week before Christmas through a series of special antiphons which were originally used to accompany the Magnificat is an ancient and cherished tradition of the Church. The ‘Advent antiphons’ as they were called, sometimes popularly referred to as the Great Os, can be dated at least as far back as the 8th century, though it is possible that they are even older. ‘O Sapientia’ the antiphon sung in praise of Wisdom was always the first of them. Originally there were seven, which were used consecutively or a daily basis between the 17th and the 23rd December. But a tradition grew up linked to the Sarum rite in medieval England of adding an 8th antiphon, which had the effect of pushing each of the other seven back by a day, although this practice never caught on in continental Europe. But hence the BCP’s choice of 16 December to mark O Sapientia.  In order the antiphons celebrate Sapientia – Wisdom; Adonai – the Lord; Radix Jesse – the Root of Jesse; Clavis David – the Key of David; Oriens – the Dayspring; Rex Gentium – King of the Nations; Emmanuel – God is with us all as figurative symbols and precursors drawing ever closer to Christ.  If you added the 8th antiphon that one honoured the Virgo virginum – the virgin of virgins.

In 1710 the antiphons, or most of them, five to be exact, were turned into Latin metrical verse by Jesuits in Cologne. A century and a half later it was this Latin metrical version that provided the basis for JM Neale’s English translation, famous today as ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’, without which no Advent would be complete. So at two removes so to speak, whenever we sing that hymn we are drawing on these ancient antiphons.  Until very recently that was how they were largely known in most parts of the Anglican church. Perhaps though one of the interesting fruits of recent Anglican liturgical revision has been the increased use of the antiphons in their original form. Which is good for several reasons.

One of them is that in fact I suspect that you will have rarely, if ever, sung a verse of ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’ that celebrates Wisdom. There is a verse, which begins with the line ‘O come, thou Wisdom from on high’ but it has a checkered history. The antiphon O Sapientia was one of the two left out antiphons not included in the 1710 Jesuit Latin metrical version. Since in turn it was this Jesuit version which provided the basis for Neale’s English translation he did not include a verse about Wisdom in what he produced. Though there was a Latin metrical version produced for O Sapientia in the late 19th century and this was later translated into English in the early 20th century, by then Neale’s version had cornered the field and so the ‘new’ verses did not find much of a welcome.  

All this of course begs the question as to why O Sapientia did not appear in the original 1710 metrical version. Though I cannot be sure, I have a strong suspicion that the feminine nature of Wisdom must have played a part in this. In all the biblical languages Hebrew, Greek and Latin, the word ‘wisdom’ is construed as feminine; Hokhma; Sophia; Sapientia, and whenever in the biblical texts, Old and New Testaments, and the Apocrypha, Wisdom is personified she is always personified as a woman. As for example in the final verse of today’s Gospel reading (Luke 7.24-28, 31-35). Sapientia is in fact the only ‘feminine’ figure in the list of the original seven antiphons; all the others are either directly or indirectly linked with a male figure, or are at least grammatically male. So can or should a feminine figure somehow be a precursor of the male Jesus Christ? In fact in the New Testament itself and in early Christian literature this did not seem to be a problem. The identification of Jesus with Wisdom, in terms that seem to intended to link to the feminine personification of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 can be found even in the New Testament, and certainly the early theologians of the Christian East did not find the link between Christ and Wisdom problematic, and employed creative ways of exploring it in iconography, such as is expressed through the icon that is used on the cover of today’s service sheet.  But perhaps it was more of an issue for those 18th century Jesuits.

There is however also another reason why I believe that O Sapientia should appear in this list of Advent prefigurings. And it is linked to the special place that Wisdom has within the biblical, and especially, Old Testament literature, and the unique role she plays within the story of salvation.

There are a variety of genres in the Bible. These include Law or Torah, prophecy, history, psalms, and what are called the ‘wisdom writings’, focused on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. When I did my university studies in theology the wisdom writings were somehow the odd-man, or should one say odd-woman, out.

One of the interests of Old Testament studies back in the 1970s was to explore what was the central core and focus of the Old Testament. It was a rather Germanic thing to do and various different German Old Testament professors each had their own idea what that ‘focus’ consisted of. Eichrodt for example thought it was the idea of ‘covenant’ while Von Rad believed it was the idea of God working in history.

But whatever idea was the preferred one, wisdom tended to spoil the nice neat pattern that the professor wanted to construct. Because, for example, unlike all the other parts of the Old Testament, the wisdom writings don’t mention the covenant, and they don’t seem to be remotely interested in the idea of God working in history. Indeed all three key Old Testament wisdom books feel strangely ahistorical. What in fact marks them out from most of the rest of the Old Testament corpus is their sense of universalism, their understanding that God relates to all humanity, and requires from all humanity ‘wisdom’ and ‘wise behaviour’. They stand as a challenge to the rest of the Old Testament in which divine revelation is normally linked to the particularity of God’s relationship with one people and their particular history and story. By contrast the Old Testament wisdom literature builds bridges to other cultures and peoples of the ancient Middle East where the quest for wisdom was also pursued assiduously. Indeed the Old Testament itself acknowledges that Israel owed a lot to both Egypt and the people of the east when it came to exploring wisdom, and there is even a section of the Book of Proverbs which many scholars believe uses an Egyptian wisdom text, the Wisdom of Amenope as a direct literary source.

It is however interesting – and telling – to follow the fate of wisdom in later writings – in what we call the Apocrypha. There are also at least two major Wisdom books in the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus. Sirach was probably written about 200 BC, the Wisdom of Solomon somewhat later. What one discovers is that in both cases, and especially Sirach, wisdom is no longer simply universal as something shared among all humanity, but rather has been nationalised or domesticated. Although Sirach contains quite a number of passages that would have fitted in with the ideas of the older wisdom tradition, the end of the day Sirach makes it clear that he considers that the most perfect wisdom is to be found in Israel, in the city of Jerusalem, which Wisdom describes as her home, and that the completion of wisdom is to be discovered in Israel’s revealed Law and Covenant. There is quite a contrast between Sirach 24’s presentation of Wisdom which eventually sums up Wisdom as ‘the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us’, and Job’s earlier longing question ‘Where shall wisdom be found’. And it is no accident that I asked for Job rather than Sirach to be read today (Job 28.12-28).

What has all this got to do with O Sapientia and the Advent Antiphons? It is this. The antiphons take us on a journey in which we encounter a variety of key Old Testament passages, images, events and personalities somehow foreshadowing the coming of Christ and gradually helping us to draw closer to him. We hear of David and Jesse, of Adonai the divine lawgiver at Sinai, of the coming of a ruler of the nations, of a mysterious Dayspring, and of the pledge of ‘Emmanuel’ the one prophesied by Isaiah to be ‘God with us’. All of these images spring from the particularities of the Old Testament story of God’s engagement with a particular people, in particular places and times. It is good and right that we do see the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of all these particular hopes and longings. But to begin the sequence with O Sapientia, Wisdom, sets the coming of Christ in a still wider compass, relating this to God’s dealings with all humanity, and the universal human quest for wisdom, ‘Where, indeed, shall wisdom be found?’ And I think that is important, because it reminds us that  the Christian faith is rooted not only in our shared heritage with the Jewish people, but even more widely still in the aspirations of human beings of other religious traditions – or indeed of those who do not think of themselves as overtly religious. As someone who is professionally interested in both the biblical tradition and in interreligious dialogue I think there is probably an important task, which has I think been begun but not completed, to explore the biblical ‘wisdom tradition’ as a resource for interreligious engagement.

Linked to this there is one other thing it is important to say. As you may have already noticed the order of the original antiphons is quite different from the order in which the images appear in the metrical version of ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. In the original antiphons ‘Emmanuel’ comes last and is the culmination of the sequence. In the Jesuit and Neale metrical adaptation it has been transferred to the beginning. Whether intentionally or not I think that negatively undermines the Old Testament images and symbols that follow in the second and following verses. It is almost as though having introduced ‘Emmanuel’ at the beginning we need somehow to fast-forward to the end of the Old Testament story without pausing appropriately to explore God’s coming at Sinai, coming in the Davidic royal theology, coming in the biblical hopes of justice for all people, taking account of the centuries of God working in and through a particular people. I think it weakens the sense of a constructive relationship both between the Old Testament and the New, and in fact between Christians and Jews. I think this somehow links with the fact that the metrical version contains language which has been faulted for the derogatory tones with which it seems to refer to the Jewish people of post-biblical times. That plea of the first verse:

‘O come, O come Emmanuel
redeem thy captive Israel,
that into exile drear is gone,
far from the face of God’s dear son’

Plays very readily into the idea of the ‘wandering Jew’, popular throughout out most of Christian history, which understood the dispersion of Jewish people, especially after 70AD, as a ‘punishment’ for their ‘rejection’ of their Messiah, and is widely believed to have exacerbated antisemitism in the Christian world.  The tone of the original Emmanuel antiphon – which normally comes last in the sequence is quite different – O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God, and in fact throughout the whole sequence of the antiphons there is no negative reference to ‘Israel’ or the Jewish people. Of course we are touching upon a vast subject, which we can’t really get into here – but the difference in feel between the original 8th century antiphons and the well known version we so often sing is remarkable and it is a salutary reminder of the way that language and social realities can impact upon and shape each other.

And there is one final delight which O Sapientia and the original Advent antiphons of which she is first in the sequence offers us. Whether or not it is accidental, but it is certainly providential, the first letters of each of the antiphons fit together to make an acrostic. You need to start at the end and work back to the beginning:

Emmanuel E
Rex – King   R
Oriens O
Clavis – Key   C
Radix – Root  R
Adonai – A
Sapientia – Wisdom S

And you come up with ‘Ero Cras’, a Latin phrase which translates into English as ‘Tomorrow I will be there’. It is God’s promise to us. So with an exquisite and punning irony, this week of beautiful short and allusive prayers which speak of our longing for God’s presence and which begin today with our invocation to ‘Wisdom’ contain their own answer. ‘Tomorrow I will be there’.

Clare Amos

*****

The poet Malcolm Guite initially became known by the wider public due to his exquisite sonnets exploring each of the Advent antiphons. Malcolm generously makes his work available on the web and his sonnets can be accessed via Advent Antiphons | Malcolm Guite (wordpress.com)

*****

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.(Luke 1.26-38)

Throughout the generations, few women have been more significant than Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Widely represented by artists, sung by musicians, glorified by poets, for some Christians, she incarnates a compassionate and holy intercessor embodying the paradigm of motherhood. For others, she symbolizes an over-mythologized and erroneous model of womanhood.

While Mary is the most popular patron of English parish churches and while since the 16th century there has been within the Church of England a continuous reference to her culminating in the recitation of the Magnificat at Evensong each day, she has not been a central figure in the lives of most mainstream and evangelical Anglicans for years. For some people, Mary is closely associated with superstition as is sometimes also the event of the Annunciation,  which can be controversial. Yet as we are close to completing our journey through the contrasted landscapes of Advent, the experience of Mary can be quite enlightening and uplifting to us in those troubled times.

If usually the season of Advent is a time of joyful expectation during which we long for the glimpses of the light to come, this year, many of us walk in the darkness without seeing any thinning. The darkness of COVID 19, the darkness of lockdown, the darkness of loneliness, the darkness of unemployment, the darkness of evil, the darkness of Brexit, the darkness of faith, which tends to blacken everything.

Like us today, when Mary assented to the Angel Gabriel, she had to exercise a wholly dark faith, believing the certainty of God’s gift without anything to support or interpret it.  God came to her, a  young peasant hidden from the lights of Jerusalem, invisible in the darkness from Galilee, lost in the middle of God’s chosen people of Israel. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there ? ” (Jn 1, 46) were often asking the Jews. That is God made himself visible to someone of no apparent significance. Thus, the « God of surprises », by the words of the Jesuit Gerald Hughes (G. Hughes,  God of Surprises, London : Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd, 2008) comes where he is logically not expected.

For various reasons, some justified, some less so, the issue of Mary’s virginity is often avoided or approached from a physiological point of view. Yet in the Old Testament,  virginity is primarily understood in terms of novelty as a new inception, a renewed relationship…..The visit of  the Angel Gabriel to Mary marks a new beginning.  God creates something completely extraordinary through a most ordinary person, surpassing human rationale. This paradox characterizes the life of Jesus and will culminate with the Resurrection when life comes out of death.

Despite the current crisis, Advent is still a season of surprises. Like for Mary, God is at hand for us, trying to surprise us in the middle of our daily lives, where we are now.  Although pursuing  a circuitous way to  avoid the darkness  can seem to be a very attractive option, we can be pretty sure such a tortuous path will lead us to a dead end. On the contrary,  if we accept to walk in the shadows, to  cross the boaders of the night and to navigate on the rough waters of its raging sea,  then we may be able to discern the glimmer of dawn climbing slowly. Actually,  the Spirit may very well be guiding us individually as Christians and corporately as the church to birthing something completely new.

The course of history has been determined by life-changing episodes among which the current outbreak of the Coronavirus will inevitably find a place on the charts of historians to come. There will be a before and after.  The pandemic is not behind us yet but the world has already changed, socially and economically. Interviewed for the BBC Andrew Marr Show, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, commented : “once this epidemic is conquered we cannot be content to go back to what was before as if all was normal….”. In the words of Pope Francis a few years ago, we are not living through an era of change but a change of era. Then how shall the church respond to that evolution ?  Is mere survival simply our aim or are we willing to engage with the God of surprises through the darkness to be true to our vocation ?

During the lockdowns, being prevented from “going to church” in our usual church buildings brought lots of suffering to many worshippers. However, those same buildings can be temples to the past hindering our calling, not only keeping us emprisoned in our certitudes but preventing us from “ building the house” (HG 1, 8) as well. Archbishop William Temple is commonly acknowledged to have said that “ the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members”.

As Christians, whether we like it or not, we have to admit the evidence for secularization, or at least for the decline of Christianity. In the UK, Christian affiliation fell from 66 percent to 38 percent over 25 years. Before the pandemic, only 12 percent of the national population (1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds ) identified themselves as belonging to the Church of England. Weekly attendance at Anglican services had also fallen down to an average of 57 people. In comparison, a study at the Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University has found that during the first lockdown one in four people across the UK have regularly engaged in some form of online worship. In real term figures, 19 millions of people  attended church online each Sunday, with a record set in London where  46 % of the population went to online church every week. Another key finding is that half of 18-34 years  indicated that they regularly engaged in online faith-related activity.

 (https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/digitaltheology/PressReleasereOnlineChurch.pdf)

Those findings reveal among other things a strong belief in the power of prayer to bring positive change. They also lay bare the thirst for God of many explorers. In the night of  COVID 19, there is light and an opportunity for the church to grow that shall not be missed. Those statistics about online worship  show God calls us beyond our church buildings and the familiar, so that all barriers that prevent all those who aspire to find God and to be a part of His earthly community can  be removed. As Paul noticed, “ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (GA 3, 28). In other words, the Christian community, also called the mystical body of Christ, is intended to serve the whole and firstly those who do not belong yet or are at the margins.  Covid 19 has cleared a space for us to embrace  a renewed way of being church, creating an incredible chance for us to liberate oursleves from our prisons, despite the temptation of many to go back to “ the good olden days”.

As Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians, the church is a body whose life depends on its members  who contribute to its good heath (Eph. 4, 16). Each baptised Christian is deemed and called to be a living stone of God’s house. Consequently, the renewal depends of our free consent to God’s calling following the example of Mary. The answer  she gives to the angel Gabriel is a very specific act by which she accepts to open herself to the full action of God the Word to receive  within her a reality independent of her, in the blindness of an unsupported faith.

Because of the darkness of the present time, of the increased fragmentation of our societies, we may very well be in the process of  becoming frightened creatures that intent to assure their own security by trying to make themselves invulnerable both individually and collectively through the illusion of self autonomy. But as a result, we may not able to see God at work within us and around us. What is supposed to bring us security makes us more insecure than ever ! When our human self are distorted by such illusions,  the Word is not free to enter within us. Indeed, true security enables us to journey through the chaos and help to spot God’s presence in uncertainty.

 Mary embodies a crucial truth about our response to God in Christ in the present context. Even in those circumstances, when all our worldly support is flying away and with the eyes of understanding darkened, we can say yes to God. This movement supposes we accept letting go the forces that prevent us from receiving the creative power of the Word. The central act of this movement is our acceptance of appearing naked before God, like Mary at the Annunciation. Nakedness as expectation, argument and evidence completely give way  to the unknowing. Like Mary, we are not only invited to express our unconditional consent to God but also to welcome fully and actively his mysterious and transformative Word within us, in a way our discipleship can be wholly suffused by it. 

The angel Gabriel came to Mary “in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy”. In the Bible, only one other text mentions this length of time. In the second year of King Darius,  in the sixth month, through Haggai’s voice, speaking of the reconstruction of the temple, the Lord of hosts asks : “ Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? ” (Hg 1, 4). It is during the sixth month that God underlines that our minds are being kept busy by our own houses while his is failing apart. It is in the sixth month that Mary welcomes God within her house and begins a work of edification. It is just xhat we are called to do now, for the first Christmas of the Covid era.

The spanish mystics Teresa of Avila memorably spoke of what that means : “Christ has no body but yours/ No hands, no feet on earth but yours/Yours are the eyes with which he looks/Compassion on this world” (quoted by Fr. Richard Fermer on Monday 26th October 2020 at Grosvenor Chapel, London).Of course only God can incarnate Himself, which he did once and for all” (Heb 10,10). This incarnating of Christ in us comes from the Spirit who makes Christ present in us, like he did with Mary. This power of the spirit will form us in holiness, as an acceptance of and a willingness to further what we already are in Christ. In order to do so, in the depth of the greatest intimacy of our inner being,  we constantly need to let it be with us according to the word, so that our own growing will contribute to the body’s growth in building itself up in love (Eph. 4, 16).

On Christmas Eve, we will remember that the light is full of surprises and often unexpected, even if the night seems to be endless. Like Mary,  we will look forward  to love in darkness,  finding our way through the ordinariness of our lives while being suffused by Christ so that our world can be saturated with his Gospel, permeated with his presence and his House reshaped, more glorious than ever.

May the God of Surprises delight you, inviting you to accept gifts not yet imagined.

May the God of Transformation call you, opening you to continual renewal.

May the God of Justice confront you, daring you to see the world through God’s eyes.

May the God of Abundance affirm you, nudging you towards deeper trust.

May the God of Embrace hold you, encircling you in the hearth of God’s home.

May the God of Hopefulness bless you, encouraging you with the fruits of faith.

May the God of Welcoming invite you, drawing you nearer to the fullness of God’s expression in you.

May God Who is Present be with you, awakening you to God in all things, all people, and all moments.

May God be with you.

Amen.

Natacha Tinteroff is a theologian with special interests in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy.  She lives in Paris and worships in Anglican churches in Paris and London. 

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