O Sapientia: Meditations on the O Antiphons

The O Antiphons comprise a liturgical chain of ancient Latin Christian poetry. Their purpose is to tell us who is incarnate as we prepare for the feast of Christ’s birth. They are rich with the messianic imagery of the scriptures, each structured around a title of Christ, respectively, Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Dawn, King of Nations, and Emmanuel.

We do not know exactly how old these antiphons are, but the evidence suggests sixth century at the latest, and quite possibly earlier. In the Western Church, they are still used at vespers with the Magnificat for the last seven days of Advent (December 17-23, though many Anglicans follow the English tradition of using an eighth antiphon to the Virgin on the 23rd, and thus start a day early). The Christmas hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel is an adaptation of the whole set.

I believe these antiphons present us with a complete orthodox Christology. I believe they also image a kind of cosmic descent, illuminating various aspects of the mystery of the incarnation. Meditating on the O Antiphons may be helpful in preparing to celebrate the coming of our Lord.

This year I have been almost completely distracted from Advent. Nevertheless, this last week, I plan to post a short meditation each day on each of the antiphons. The most likely exception will be December 22, when I am traveling to the United States, and a day of flights and airports may prevent me from so much as accessing the internet.

* * *

The first O Antiphon is to Wisdom.

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, which comes forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from end even to end,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
come to teach us the way of prudence.

We begin the antiphons with an acclamation of Christ as Wisdom. By this, the hymnist does not mean simply that Christ is all-knowing, but that he is the Wisdom of the cosmos, the Wisdom personified in Proverbs 8 as well as the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, and Sirach.

These Jewish writings introduce Wisdom as a power preexisting the world and participating in the work of creation. When St. John the Evangelist opened his Gospel with a hymn to the Word, he appears to have deliberately paralleled the depiction of Wisdom in Proverbs. Subsequent Christian theology identified Wisdom (Sophia) with the Word (Logos), who is Christ, much as St. Paul seems to do in 1 Corinthians 1-2.

This antiphon starts the octave at the highest point revealed to us of the Son’s transcendent Godhood, within the mysteries of the Trinity. It proclaims the dogma of the divine Wisdom/Word. The first line of the verse describes Christ’s eternal begetting before all things were made. The second and third lines describe the ministry of the Word in Creation. We see Christ-as-Wisdom encompassing all things, and governing the cosmos with strength and graciousness.

The last line audaciously petitions this glorious being to teach us the “way of prudence.” Prudence in the classical understanding is not simply discretion or cautiousness; rather, it is the ability to govern according to reason. Prudence is is the ground of all the virtues, the special gift of Wisdom.

What does it mean for us that Christ is the Wisdom/Word, in light of Christmas?

In the Old Testament scriptures, we see that God creates the world through his Wisdom. Genesis 1 shows a great ordering of chaotic matter, and with each day of creation the temple of the cosmos comes closer to completion. In the incarnation, this Divine Wisdom descends into the cosmic temple of its own fashioning, into the ark of Mary’s womb. Through the immaculate temple of his body, Christ works the cleansing of the cosmic temple.

We therefore begin the final leg of our journey to Christmas with the truth of O Sapientia that the baby in Mary’s womb is the Wisdom revealed in creation, from eternity, at all times and at all places. It is the Christ whose song, according to Clement of Alexandria, “composed the universe into melodious order, and tuned the discord of the elements to harmonious arrangement, so that the whole world might become harmony.”

He Himself also, surely, who is the supramundane Wisdom, the celestial Word, is the all-harmonious, melodious, holy instrument of God. What, then, does this instrument–the Word of God, the Lord, the New Song–desire? To open the eyes of the blind, and unstop the ears of the deaf, and to lead the lame or the erring to righteousness, to exhibit God to the foolish, to put a stop to corruption, to conquer death, to reconcile disobedient children to their father. The instrument of God loves mankind.

We speak of Christ leaving his celestial throne to become human, but this is not strictly accurate, as Christ in his self-emptying never for a moment ceased to be the Wisdom in whom all things live and move and have their being. The divine order from which we fell was embodied as a human to restore us to that order, harmonize us with it, and to heal it within us.

This first O Antiphon thus reminds us that everything we see exists by the same Christ who lay as an infant in the Bethlehem manger. It also reminds us that universal wisdom, the end of all spiritual searching, is found infinitely in Christ.

Christ sits enthroned among the stars even within the womb

Theotokos of the Sign


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