In the final days of Advent, the Church recites the Great O Antiphons at Vespers each evening. In this blog extracted from Praying the Great O Antiphons, Katy Carl reflects on the first of these O Antiphons: O Sapientia or O Wisdom.
Wisdom of the Most High, ordering all things with strength and gentleness, come and teach us the way of truth.
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. O come teach us the way of truth.
Reflection on O Sapientia
The central image of the story of Christmas is the image of Mary holding the newborn Christ under the star in Bethlehem. We do not tend to think of a newborn as inspiring terror and awe. Yet many parents report the experience of total wonder at the birth of a child as nothing less than cataclysmic. This experience can bring a complete reconstruction of our way of seeing the world, a radical rearrangement of priorities. In this way it is not unlike our experience of turning towards God and beginning to centre our lives on him rather than on ourselves. In a world not particularly welcoming to new life, both experiences can seem like an illustration of the way in which “the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19). Still, even many nonbelievers recognise the necessity, for a happy life, of living for a purpose beyond our own pleasure and satisfaction.
We see ourselves correctly when we see ourselves as essentially small in proportion to the rest of the world: not insignificant, not worthless, but not the centre of all things, either. Many people have this experience for the first time when facing a monumental task that both offers great joy and demands full attention: a life’s work. This perspective characterises the voice of Mary’s Magnificat, in which she looks at herself and at the work of God in relation to one another. Although her role is undeniably, overwhelmingly great, the highest given to any human ever born, she sees herself as essentially small – not bad, not meaningless, but small – in relation to the broader story in which she is participating. This is what our tradition means by humility; it is also the beginning of what our tradition means by wisdom.
This perspective is also the genius of St Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little way,” which allows us to see our human business and human preoccupations as at once deeply important to ourselves and to God – as important as the details of a child’s life to a good parent – and at the same time pallid in significance beside the grand scheme of the cosmos. A perspective like this allows us, in the popular phrase, to “pray as though it all depends on God and work as though it all depends on us,” while also holding our lives with a light touch, ready to let go of what God wants us to surrender when it is no longer ours to hold.
To see ourselves this way, in right perspective and right relation with the rest of creation, also places us into relation with the wisdom of God who made us as we are. In the Catholic tradition, created wisdom is personified in the Book of Proverbs. Chapter 8 enters into the point of view of this person as it speaks in a voice attributed to Wisdom (8:24-26, 29-31):
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world…
When he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.
Who is the speaker here? The verse has been taken in different contexts to refer to Christ, the “master workman” “without whom was made nothing that was made” (cf. John 1), but many saints have associated the speaker’s voice here with Mary’s voice, as well. This speaks to the close co- operation of Jesus and Mary in the work of the Incarnation. It supports the thought that Mary was present in the divine plan for salvation from its inception. God chose to ask the consent of a woman to give him his humanity, in a unique meeting of the natural and supernatural orders, rather than to arrange this creation for himself in some other way, as he certainly could have done.
That created wisdom is personified in the Psalms and thus in the Catholic tradition as female tends to strengthen this interpretation. God is pure spirit, existing beyond gender: although in a way it is proper to speak of him as masculine, this is only an analogy. In himself, God contains and creates and provides all the perfections of every human person without exception, male and female, as all are made in his image (cf. Gen 1:27). And while God the Son undoubtedly came to earth as a human male, in his identity as Divine Wisdom he transcends his human nature without destroying or denying it. He already contains in himself the source of all the graces given to Mary to empower her to become the mother of the Word Incarnate. Both Mary and Christ are, in different senses, the model for all who desire to give themselves fully to God.
Human wisdom’s fullest expression is found in this self- gift, in our openness to the meeting of nature with grace. Divine Wisdom picks up the thread here, as it takes in hand the whole picture of our lives: what we can control and what we cannot, what is given to us to accept and what is given to us to change, from the beginning of time to its end, and spanning the whole of the cosmos. The original Latin text of this antiphon reflects this aspect of wisdom: it reaches ‘a fine usque ad finem,’ ‘from end to end,’ ordering all things ‘fortiter suavitate’–‘mightily and sweetly.’6 Hold on to these two ideas: both the thought of the totality of God’s ambit and the thought of how God unites power with beauty, order with awe.
For now, we can observe that we traditionally associate wisdom not only with Christ but also with the life and person of Mary, especially under her title Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom. This title evokes images of Mary holding the infant Jesus as well as depictions of the Pietà, the moment when the crucified Jesus is taken down from the Cross and his body is given to Mary to hold one last time. Not only in these literal senses, though, is Mary truly said to be the Seat of Wisdom, as the one person who was most especially given God’s human nature to care for and love in the order of nature as well as of grace. In whom she is, in who God made her to be, Mary incarnates created, human wisdom; she instantiates it. Her wisdom lives both in what she says and in what she does.
To see this reality in action, think of Mary “travelling in haste” to the hill country of Judah to be with Elizabeth for the birth of John the Baptist. This journey showed Mary’s exercise of agency and her innate practical wisdom. Caryll Houselander describes the surprising nature of Mary’s decision in this way:
Many women, if they were expecting a child, would refuse to hurry over the hills on a visit of pure kindness. They would say they had a duty to themselves and to their unborn child which came before anything or anyone else. The Mother of God considered no such thing… Although Mary’s own child was God, she could not forget Elizabeth’s need – almost incredible to us, but characteristic of her.
This concern for the other is characteristic, too, of Christ, who at this point in the story is incarnate already in Mary’s womb and who has saved Mary from Original Sin by a special grace. Houselander explains that in this moment, we see Christ’s action in Mary’s: her will in his and his will in hers. Her free decision is enlivened and encouraged by Christ’s presence and that of the Holy Spirit. When we are aligned to the will and wisdom of God, our lives can mirror this dynamic, as Houselander writes:
If Christ is growing in us, if we are at peace, recollected, because we know that however insignificant our life seems to be, from it He is forming Himself; if we go with eager wills, “in haste,” to wherever our circumstances compel us, because we believe that He desires to be in that place, we shall find that we are driven more and more to act on the impulse of His love.
And the answer we shall get from others to those impulses will be an awakening into life, or the leap into joy of the already wakened life within them.
This readiness to act boldly, with reason and justice, when called by life and love, has its root in Mary’s deeper spiritual wisdom: in her recognition of her smallness balanced against the greatness of God. And it is no accident that, in the middle of this practical journey, Mary will deliver her great spiritual text, the Magnificat.
Notice that, in the Magnificat, Mary does not talk about how worthless or how insignificant she is; on the contrary, the line feels almost like a boast: “All generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:48-49). Yet most of the poem, for we can call it that, is not about Mary at all but about God. Mary describes the action God is beginning to take in and through her, which he will continue beyond and beside her, and which will eventually fill all of creation. The Magnificat, then, tells a story about salvation history, as expressed in the life of Mary. The O Antiphons, in their way, also tell this story, as expressed in the life of God’s people, in his covenants, and in the Church.
Mary’s preparation to receive Christ has been, first of all, a spiritual preparation. In one sense, she has been preparing for it her whole life. Tradition tells us that she was conceived without sin, that Anne and Joachim were the parents of a child who had received a completely unprecedented grace, totally unique in history (and I don’t know what will make you a saint faster than parenting a child who is totally unique in history). Next, tradition also has it that from early childhood, Mary spent time being educated in the Temple; she would have been deeply familiar with the Scriptures. St Augustine tells us that she conceived Christ in her heart and mind before she conceived him in her body. Her education blossomed into her yes to God at the Annunciation.
In the great hymn of the Magnificat, whose tones will influence how we read the O Antiphons in this book, we hear Mary’s voice: profoundly original and yet deeply formed by what has come before her. Her hymn draws on the voices of women in Scripture, particularly on the speeches of Eve, Sarah, Hannah – those women who did not expect to give birth but who were surprised with a child by the grace of God. Yet what Mary says, like the manner of her conception of Jesus, is completely new. With total justice, she makes claims no other woman of the Chosen People has been able to make. The impossible has become possible for Mary not only because of her faith but also because of her reason:
Her inner life was crucial: her consent, above all, to the divine plan, to bear a child, but also her possession of the intellectual virtues – thoughtfulness, wisdom, understanding – that made that consent possible. In the face of everyday pressures and demands to the contrary, she chooses the most important things. Therefore her image was drawn to reflect the highest development of a human being, humanity in its full dignity and splendour, an actor at the crucial moment in the history of the world who was at the same time held up as a model for anyone to imitate.
And if Elizabeth had not been there to hear and receive the words in which Mary celebrates God’s wisdom, her own consent, and God’s reciprocal, superabundant response, how would these words ever have been recorded? To her active receptivity, too, we owe one of the greatest prayers Scripture has given.
On the purely practical side, Mary would have learned from her visit to Elizabeth what she could expect in childbirth, the stages of labour for which she would need to prepare her mind and body, and the supplies she would need to carry with her: blankets, linens, the swaddling clothes we hear about in the Gospel of Luke. (Could these clothes have been John’s newborn hand-me-downs?) Remember that she and Joseph were starting out together on a worker’s wages. They could not afford thoughtless spontaneities. They would have talked and worked and planned together to be ready for the child’s arrival. They would have trusted in Providence, yes, but this very trust would have driven them to be provident, an old word expressing a sense of care and diligence. Their practical preparation would have been lending itself to a deeper spiritual preparation.
Next, when she received the news of the requirement to travel for the census, Mary must have begun thinking about the journey to Bethlehem. She must have packed supplies; she must have planned on a place to stay. She likely had reason to trust that it would be simple to find space. How else would a woman, nine months pregnant, approach travelling near her due date? Yet, again, Mary does not exempt herself from the common lot, or ask God (as most of us surely would ask God) to spare her the journey.
This transition is where the story turns towards surprise. That we all know it turned out just as prophecy predicted, and as we feel it should – the Holy Family being refused room at the inn, the Christ Child’s birth in a stable – can obscure this surprise. Many writers point to the contrast between the dignity and glory of Jesus, the Son of God, and the humble, gritty setting of the story of his human birth. Still more surprising is that the Seat of Wisdom was, despite her best planning, faced with the unexpected. Here Mary shines as a model of what we are to do when human wisdom has done all it can do. At this stage, divine wisdom must be invited to take over, and divine wisdom is always a gift, a grace.
Practical wisdom, in the Catholic tradition, also carries the name phronesis or prudence. Here I would like to reclaim the word “prudence” from some ill-deserved negative cultural associations. Many people tend to think the word implies either prudery, a fearful shrinking from facts and details, or else an excessive and self-absorbed caution that fails to account for the goodness of creation and the love of God. Instead, prudence is simply an ability to do the things that bring peace to our existence. In prudence, knowledge meets ability; being meets doing. Prudence takes what is given and turns it into what is both possible and beneficial for human life. Prudence lends itself to our full flourishing.
No question, this is one reason why Mary, as well as being called the Seat of Wisdom, is also called the Queen of Peace: because of her ability to perform acts and habits shaped by wisdom, to relate human wisdom to divine wisdom, and to help us form these same tendencies in ourselves. Most of all, she carries these titles because she brings us into relation with the source of all wisdom, of all peace: Christ himself. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10). This fear should not be taken as aversion or horror, but as the awestruck wonder that floods the nerves and splits open the hearts of new parents. The attitude suggested by this image of a mother lost in adoring wonder before the marvellous reality of a newborn is a good one to carry with us as we approach these days of intense preparation for Christmas. God accepts us just the way the mother accepts the newborn, in this way may he teach us to accept him when he comes to us as a human child.
Image copyright Fr Lawrence Lew OP.
This blog is extracted from our book Praying the Great O Antiphons. In the final days of Advent, the Church recites the Great O Antiphons at Vespers each evening. Katy Carl contemplates each of these antiphons, drawing on art, literature, and Sacred Scripture to show how they tell the story of Jesus Christ, the Babe of Bethlehem.
To learn more about the O Antiphons, order your copy of Praying the Great O Antiphons today.