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December 17: O Wisdom

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O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation (Christian Prayer, 118).

As we reflect on this first of the great “O Antiphons” of Advent, it is worth restating what was noted in yesterday’s reflection: each of the “O Antiphons” is both a title of the Messiah and denotes the fulfillment of one of the Prophet Isaiah’s prophecies. With that in mind, it is not an exaggeration to say that this first of the “O Antiphons” of Advent sets the tone for all that will come after by calling out attention to both the purpose for the Messiah’s arrival and the manner in which He will accomplish that purpose. If we were to paraphrase its two lines, we might very well say that this “O Antiphon” alerts us that God will save His people through His Wisdom.  

That paraphrase would get us into a bit of theological hot water if understood incorrectly. You see, Wisdom here is not in the first instance an intellectual quality, for Christianity is not Gnosticism. According to Christianity, we do not achieve salvation simply by gaining the right knowledge, though this is not to say that right knowledge and wisdom are unimportant, as we will see momentarily. Instead, Christianity is first and foremost relationship, relationship with God through Christ. Therefore, Wisdom here is appropriately understood as a Person. And the Person Who is Wisdom, is likewise the Word of God, as the “O Antiphon” immediately clarifies for us. The idea that the Son of God is also the Wisdom of God has very ancient roots. The reason for this is seen more clearly if we begin by considering Christ described as the Word of God in the Prologue of John’s Gospel. There, the Evangelist starts:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life… (John 1:1-4a).

There are two important reasons John begins His Gospel in this way. The first is to forcefully state the eternal existence of Christ. The Word was God. Accordingly, the Word is Creator. More specifically, the Word is the One through Whom and in Whom all things came to be. This is seen in the earlier written Letter of St. Paul to the Colossians. There, St. Paul writes:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17).

Paul and John have the same thing in mind here, which is a bit clearer in John. What they have in mind is creation. It is no accident that in the span of two verses John uses the phrase “in the beginning” twice (John 1:1 & 2). These are the very first words of Genesis: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1). And how does God create? By speaking, i.e., through His Word. “Then God said…” is the way each day of creation begins in Genesis 1.

Having this in mind when reading Scripture, early Christian thinkers would come across passages such as found in Proverbs Ch. 8. There, Wisdom, speaking personally, says, “The Lord begot me, in the beginning of his works…From of old I was formed, at the first, before the earth…When he fixed the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him as artisan; I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while…” (Proverbs 8:22, 23, 29-30). Similarly, in the Book of Wisdom we read that Wisdom “is the reflection of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness…Indeed, she spans the world from end to end mightily and governs all things well” (Wisdom 7:26 & 8:1). Notice, please, that Wisdom is here described in a similar manner to which Paul describes Christ above. Above, St. Paul calls Christ the “image of the invisible God,” and here in the Book of Wisdom, Wisdom is described as the “spotless mirror of the power of God.” Taking all of this together, the idea being expressed is that the One Who is Born on Christmas is none other than the very Creator of all things.

That said, Christ is not only the Creator, He is the Savior. Indeed, in the Book of Wisdom we also read that Wisdom “renews everything while herself perduring” (Wisdom 7:27). Therefore, by penning the phrase “in the beginning” twice at the beginning of His Gospel, John the Evangelist wants to tell us that salvation can be appropriately described as a re-creation which takes place through the Word of God, Who is the very Wisdom of God. This is seen in many ways in the Gospel of John which would take us far beyond the bounds of this discussion. And, it also appears in the Book of Revelation, also attributed to John the Evangelist. There “the one who sat on the throne,” also referred to as the beginning and end of all things, the Alpha and Omega, says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5; cf. Revelation 21:6).

To be sure, these words from Revelation refer explicitly to the end of time, the ultimate renewal of all things in the Heavenly Jerusalem. However, the message of the New Testament is that that renewal of all things has begun with the Incarnation of Christ and His subsequent saving Passion, Death and Resurrection. And the process of that renewal we know as the ongoing experience of salvation in our lives, communities, and indeed, the world.

Today, we might dwell a bit on the personal experience of God’s ongoing work of creation. How does this come about? Often we think of salvation in legalistic terms. The lifting of a debt or the vicarious punishment of Christ on our behalf. There is some truth to all of these ways of thinking, however they do not quite get to the very heart of the matter. Above we stated that Christianity is about relationship with God in the first instance. Therefore, salvation, in the first instance is about the re-establishing of relationship with God, a relationship that had been broken by the Fall.

The idea that salvation is about relationship is found already in the Prologue of John’s Gospel. There, the Evangelist tells us that the Word of God became flesh so that those who “believe in his name” might be given the “power to become children of God” (John 1:12). The idea that salvation means becoming part of God’s family is prevalent in the New Testament, in the writings of Paul (e.g. 2 Cor. 6:18) and elsewhere (e.g. 1 Peter 1:14). This, then, brings us to our final consideration for the day. If salvation means entering into a familial relationship with God, by entering into that family we ought become like our Father.

This happens in natural families by the sheer force of living with one another. We may rebel against our parents, but their mannerisms, way of talking, and way of doing everything forms us. As Aristotle says, the human person is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns from the beginning of its life by imitating those around them (Poetics, 1448b). Or, as my niece once told me, “I can tell your Papa’s son, you stand just like him,” from the mouths of babes, as it were. We find the very same idea throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament we are exhorted to be holy as God is Holy (Leviticus 11:44), an idea echoed by Christ (Matthew 5:48). And, finally, in his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul brings these two ideas together, saying this to us: “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

God, however, cannot be imitated from the outside, as it were. Rather, when it comes to imitation of the Divine Life, imitation always happens via participation, and can happen in no other way. Therefore, to imitate God is nothing less than by God’s grace to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as St. Paul calls us to (Philippians 2:12), and as we do, we enter deeper into relationship with God, which is at once fuller participation in His very life. The term for this is deification. People are sometimes afraid of this term because they think it means we become God, but this is too simple. Instead, to be deified is to share in the life of God in accordance with our nature as human beings, and to so share in God’s nature constitutes our salvation. As St. Peter says in his second epistle, God “has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion,” “through knowledge of him” so that through these we “may come to share in the divine nature…” (2 Peter 1:3-4; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 460). By no coincidence, this is precisely what the Church prays for in the Collect of the Eucharistic Liturgy for today:

O God, Creator and Redeemer of human nature, who willed that your Word should take flesh in an ever-virgin womb, look with favor on our prayers, that your Only Begotten Son, having taken to himself our humanity, may be pleased to grant us a share in his divinity. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever (Saint Paul Daily Missal, 99).

So, how do we come to share in the divine nature? The Collect points the way. In a way analogous to which it was done in Mary. Mary was told that the very Son of God would be conceived in her, i.e., become incarnate in her by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). In us too, the only way we gain a deeper participation in the life of God is by having the life of Christ grow in us by the working of the Holy Spirit within us. The Holy Spirit, we might say, has only one valence, one direction towards which It moves, i.e., towards Christ. Thus, when the Holy Spirit dwells in us, It moves us interiorly towards Christ to thereby give us a greater unity and share in the divine life of Christ. This is why St. Thomas Aquinas refers to the gifts of the Holy Spirit as Divine Instincts (Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 68.1). When the Holy Spirit infuses us with His gifts, we instinctively move toward Christ and thereby become like Christ.

Accordingly, today’s “O Antiphon” is drawn from Isaiah Chapter 11, which describes the characteristics of the Ideal Davidic King, bestowed upon Him by the Spirit of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2). These characteristics are known today as the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. Notice the first listed, wisdom. Each of these divine instincts, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, moves us to the perfection of the intellect and the perfection of the will. In other words, they lead us to virtue (Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 68.1).

For the sake of simplicity, then, we might say for now that the action of the Holy Spirit gives us an ever-increased participation in the life of Christ, called by Saint Paul the Virtue and the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). We see this pairing in the Old Testament as well. In the Book of Wisdom, we are told that Wisdom’s “works are virtues,” and that “she teaches moderation and prudence, righteousness and fortitude” (Wisdom 8:7). In other words, Wisdom teaches the cardinal virtues: temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude or courage.

According to Saint Augustine, to so share in the Virtue and Wisdom of God in Christ is to begin to overcome the two primary ramifications which the Fall instilled in our lives, i.e., ignorance and weakness (see De Trinitate, 15.P.50-28,51). After the Fall, we know neither what is our Good and lack the ability to get there or obtain it, and it is only in Christ that our Good is fully revealed and we obtain the strength, i.e., the virtue, to participate in it. Moreover, to participate in the Virtue and Wisdom that is Christ, is to participate in the Good Itself, the Good which is nothing else than the life of God. Accordingly, such participation denotes God’s ongoing work of salvation within us. Thus, it is through the cultivation of Wisdom and Virtue that we ought to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ as well, both at Christmas and the end of time.

This is why it was mentioned yesterday that the five virgins who were prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom were appropriately described as wise. You see, their wisdom not only made them able to make practical decisions so that they would be ready when the Bridegroom appeared, but their wisdom denoted the presence of the Bridegroom already growing and living within them before His final arrival. And how did this take place? The virgins carried oil, a symbol used in the sacramental life of the Church to denote the seal of the Holy Spirit. It is only because the five virgins were open to the inner working of God in their lives that they had enough oil to keep their lamps afire and see their way to the coming of the Bridegroom. And so it is with us. Only by allowing the flame of the Love that is the Holy Spirit within us to grow to fever pitch will we be able to work out our salvation with fear and trembling by growing in the Wisdom and Virtue of Christ. When we do, not only will we be prepared for His arrival, but we will unleash the fire of His saving Love into the World, just as Mary once did (Luke 12:49).

And thus, at the end of Mass today, we pray: “Nourished by these divine gifts, almighty God, we ask you to grant our desire: that, aflame with your Spirit, we may shine like bright torches before your Christ when he comes. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever” (Saint Paul Daily Missal, 102).

Your servant in Christ,