Thursday, December 17, 2009

O Sapientia

Today marks what we might think of as the “home stretch” of the season of Advent, the final run-up to Christmas. It’s the day when, in the great western liturgical tradition, we begin to include the Great ‘O’ Antiphons in our prayers—classically framing the singing or recitation of Magnificat (Song of Mary, Luke 1:46-55) at Evening Prayer (Evensong, Vespers).

These texts are veritable treasures of concise spiritual insight. They are compelling expressions of the barely-contained yearning for the revelation of God’s glory and God’s kingdom that is the Church’s corporate formal mood and attitude during the days prior to the feast.

Today’s antiphon is O Sapientia:

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

Or, in the form in which we know it from the familiar hymn to which all seven have been adapted:

O come, thou wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily; to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.

At one level, wisdom is standard equipment to human nature. The taxonomical name for our species, indeed, is homo sapiens, which might plausibly be paraphrased as “Wise Guy.” It’s part of the mark that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. It testifies to the imago dei—the image of Godwhich we all bear by default. We are able to contemplate our own identity, and integrate our past, including the past of our forebears that we experience only vicariously, with the present and the future. This is beyond the reach of the canines and felines that share our homes with us, and even beyond the great apes who are our closest biological relatives.

At another level, however—and obviously—we are anything but wise. The imago dei is severely damaged by the primordial act of imprudence that is represented by the tale of a serpent and a piece of fruit. At this level, wisdom is some dynamic combination of innate gift (have we not all known children who are “wise beyond their years”?) and acquired virtue (itself the product of another dynamic combination of “hard knocks” experience and infused divine grace).

Never has information been as readily available as it is today. Wisdom involves knowing what to do with the information we have. And never, it seems, has wisdom been in such short supply. As a child in Sunday School, I was taught to admire the young King Solomon for choosing the gift of wisdom over the gift of wealth, and reminded that, because he chose wisdom, he was given wealth as well. In middle age, I see the … well, the wisdom of Solomon’s choice ever more clearly. Mine is the generation that said, “Never trust anybody over 30.” Until we all turned 30, that is. Then it was quickly, “Never trust anybody under 30.” And that threshold keeps getting raised the older I get!

Alas, I am lately aware that my world and my country (and, to a lesser extent, my church) are being run by people who are significantly younger than I am. This is scary. I’ve always thought it was the “grownups” who are in charge, and the “grownups” are older than I am. They have the wisdom to know the answers, to be able to use information properly. But the “grownups” are mostly now either pushing up daisies or playing Bingo in Florida.

So this prayer for the wisdom of the Most High to come and take charge is probably more palpably important to me than ever. There’s an awful lot that needs to be “mightily and sweetly” ordered.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

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