O Sapientia


The culmination of Vespers (Evening Prayer) every day of the year is the singing of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, beginning ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. In the Roman Rite, and now optionally in many Anglican Prayer Books as well, this canticle, like all canticles and Psalms, is framed by an antiphon – a short text sung before and after, pointing out some particular theme of the canticle or of the feast or season. A special series of antiphons to the Magnificat, belonging to the oldest extant layer of the chant repertory, is used on the days leading up to Christmas, summarizing the purpose of the season of waiting and preparation. Each of these, known as the ‘O Antiphons’, names an attribute or historical name of God, such as ‘O Sapientia [O Wisdom]...’, the first of them. (In fact this mini-season is often known as ‘O Sapientia’ or ‘Sapientiatide’, a term so important that although these antiphons, like all others, had been stricken from the reformed English liturgy with the first Book of Common Prayer [1549], the title ‘O Sapientia’ returned to the Kalendar in 1561, and it remains in the 1662 revision, which is still the official Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England.)

The hymn ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ is based upon these ‘O Antiphons’. A Latin hymn based upon five of them appeared in 1710, though claims have been made that it is much older; it has been translated into English many times, with additions to match the rest of the antiphons.

Through ‘Sapientiatide’ we will consider each of these antiphons in turn.

O Wisdom,
that proceedest from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from end to end mightily, 
and sweetly disposing all things:
come and teach us the way of prudence.

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist.
     Si 24.3

She [Wisdom] reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well. 
     Ws 8.1

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
     the first of his acts of long ago. 
Ages ago I was set up,
     at the first, before the beginning of the earth. 
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 –
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
     or the world’s first bits of soil. 
When he established the heavens, I was there,
     when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, 
when he made firm the skies above,
     when he established the fountains of the deep, 
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
     so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, 
     then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
     rejoicing before him always, 
rejoicing in his inhabited world
     and delighting in the human race. 
     Pr 8.22–31

He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…
     Cl 1.15–19

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 into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
     Jn 1.1–5

Wisdom is a central figure in several books of the canonical and deutero-canonical Scriptures, where she is said to have existed before the world, to dwell with God, and to act as God’s agent in creation. She appeared among humans, revealing God or reflecting God’s image, glory, and goodness, and inviting men to feast at her table.

In the Septuagint – the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Hebrew word for ‘wisdom’ is translated as sophía, and this word does appear in the Christian Scriptures. However, Philo of Alexandria (ca 20 bceca 50 ce), a Hellenized Jew influenced by Platonic and Stoic philosophy and seeking to explicate Jewish theology in terms of Greek philosophy, used the word lógos (‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘account’, ‘reason’; ‘reasoned discourse’, ‘order’, ‘knowledge’, which the Septuagint in fact used for the ‘word of the Lord’ through which creation was accomplished in Ps 33.6) for this concept. For Philo, the Lógos was a sort of demiurge or divine intermediary, identified with what Hebrew Scriptures often called ‘the angel of the Lord’ through which creation had been accomplished, and was ‘the first-born of God’. Philo also wrote that ‘the Lógos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated.’

Both the Hebrew and Greek understandings of Sophía / Lógos underlie its usage in the Christian scriptures, where Christ is identified with this figure – though orthodox Christian teaching of course asserts that the Son, though ‘begotten’ of the Father, is nevertheless coequal and coeternal with Him. This concept frames the Advent season; the passage from the Epistle to the Colossians quoted above is read on the Last Sunday after Pentecost (‘Christ the King’), and the Prologue to St John’s Gospel is read at the III. Mass of Christmas Day and on the I. Sunday after Christmas.

Wisdom is the dedicatee of the famous Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagía Sophía) in Constantinople as well as many others.