Wednesday, December 19, 2012

O Wisdom!

The incipit of a medieval
copy of the Book of the
Wisdom of Solomon.
 The Church is coming close to Christmas—on Monday we started the O Antiphons.  The O Antiphons are a series of seven antiphons sung at the Magnificat of Vespers from December 17 to the 23rd.  They build in drama until the final:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster
           O Emmanuel, our king and giver of the law,
hope of the gentiles and their Saviour:
Come to save us, O Lord our God.

I love these antiphons and look forward to them each year.  In the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council they are also used as the alleluia verse at Mass.  Some priests adapt them for the strophes of the penitential rite.   And of course the hymn Veni, Veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come Emmanuel) is based on a very close adaptation of these marvelous hymns. 

The antiphons themselves go back at least to the eighth century where it is recorded that they were sung at Vespers both at Rome and at the Abbey of Fleury in the Loire Valley.  This indicates that their usage was widespread in the western Church pretty early on and some claim that they may even come from the fifth century.  On the other hand, as there is no trace of them or their influence in the Eastern Rites, it is not likely that they were much  earlier than the fourth century.   

The first of the O Antiphons is O Sapientia

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.


O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High,
Stretching  from one end (of the earth) to the other,
powerfully yet gently ordering all things:
Come to teach us the path of prudence.

 This morning I heard Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, say that he would prefer to see teachers and school administrators armed (with guns) in the classroom as a means of preventing the sort of violence we saw last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut.  Dr. Land is not a stupid man—he holds a D.Phil. from Oxford—but obviously neither is he wise.  Wisdom and Knowledge are not one and the same thing, and neither, for that matters, is wisdom and intelligence.  Nor, to be honest, is intelligence and knowledge.  Intelligence is a capacity for knowledge but does not itself fulfill the potential it offers.  It is not enough to be intelligent, one still has to acquire the knowledge. Knowledge, for its part, is something that we acquire, hopefully to whatever capacity our intellect gives us.  Wisdom, on the other hand, is—at least in our Catholic tradition—an infused gift.  It is something that only God can give. 

I would not be inclined to look to the Southern Baptist tradition for Wisdom—nor for that matter, ethical gravity—as it is a denomination historically founded on the most base racist principles.  The congregations  associated with the SBC certainly did not do themselves gospel-proud during the Civil Rights movement and the SBC distinguished itself in advocating racism when according the theologian Stanley Hauerwas it excommunicated Clarence Jordan, one of the most saintly evangelicals in the history of American religion.  Of course, to be fair, Jordan brought down censure on himself when in his popular telling of the Gospel story relocated from the first-century Holy Land to the twentieth-century American South, he has Jesus not crucified but lynched by the Church leaders.  Dr. Land, for his part, has a history of making comments that if not deliberately racist certainly betray an ignorance of racial sensitivity.  He also was vocal in his support of George W. Bush’s bringing the nation to war against Iraq.  His comments today on NPR show a consistency with his views of an America that fits H. Richard Neibuhr’s Christ of Culture model in which religion sells itself out to support a prevailing socio-economic and political culture rather than challenge that culture with the Gospel.   In other words, Dr. Land is one of those “let’s make the good news bad news” sort of people.  But then again, as this blog has pointed out, we have plenty of “Bad-News Christians” in the Catholic Church too.  Calvinists and Jansenists drink from the same poisoned well.    

Let’s give some meditation time to the First of the O Antiphons

O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High,
Stretching  from one end (of the earth) to the other,
powerfully yet gently ordering all things:
Come to teach us the path of prudence

And ask Wisdom how best to order all things in this world of violence and human anguish so that teachers don’t have to carry guns for children to learn in peace and safety.

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