On December 17th we enter into that final stretch of our Advent preparation. In the Church’s solemn prayer of the hours, at Vespers, the great “O Antiphons” are sung. Today we have the first.
Years ago, I made a little webpage for the O Antiphons. It might be useful.
By way of introduction, here are a few points every Catholic should know.
First, the song Veni, veni Emmanuel is a musical presentation of the themes of the O Antiphons.
Second, the first letters of the “addressee” of the Antiphon, arranged backward spell out “Ero cras… I will be (there) tomorrow”. So, there is a clever “count-down” in the antiphons.
Third, each of the “O Antiphons” carries Old Testament biblical figures. At the same time each one carries an element of the New Covenant. These two characteristics are juxtaposed and a third dimension emerges which serves as a point of meditation when considering the Incarnate Word, the Son of God made flesh.
Today’s O Antiphon is O Sapientia.
LATIN: O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodidisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviter disponensque omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
ENGLISH: O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.
Proverbs 1:20; 8; 9
I Corinthians 1:30
Relevant verse of Veni, Veni Emmanuel:
O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who orders all things mightily,
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
In today’s “O Antiphon” – “O Sapientia” – we are drawn into the Old Testament’s wisdom literature. Wisdom is a divine attribute. The divine Wisdom is personified. Wisdom is the beloved daughter who was before Creation, Wisdom is the breath of God’s power, Wisdom is the shining of God’s (transforming) glory. (See Sirach 24:3 and Wisdom 8:1.)
Wisdom is also something which we deeply desire. It is also a human attribute, not just a divine attribute, though authentic human wisdom is never separated from a relationship with God. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as we learn from the psalms as well as the school of personal hard-knocks. From this convergence of awesome respect for God with the experience of learning through life’s mysterious calendar, we understand (if we are wise) that wisdom is more than mere knowledge. It is something more than love. It is something more than just a special astuteness regarding how to get along in life, a certain kind of savior faire. Rooted as it is in fear of the Lord, true human wisdom is both love and that knowledge of God that seeks to understand, the knowledge that is completed by faith.
The Prologue of John’s Gospel refers to the “Verbum caro factum...the Word made flesh”. He is the divine Logos… the eternal thought/word/reason. Through Him all things were made. Without Him nothing can be. So, the New Testament image in the Prologue of John brings to completion the imagery of Wisdom. He, the Word, is the archetype of the material universe. All things are ordered in and to Him.
Our lives, to be happy, need order. Our individual private lives and our collective lives in larger society must have structure and order. They must be disposed in such a way that the real and genuine good of all is fostered and promoted. Thus, in human governance we struggle to find the proper balance of exercise of power (without which governance and order is not possible) and gentle concern for the individual and community (without which there is mere imposition and tyranny and exploitation for some end material or ideological). Wisdom permits the balance of these.
This first “O Antiphon” shows us the Creator of all that is invisible and visible, the whole of spiritual and material creation. Creation is moving according to an eternally disposed plan of divine Providence toward an inexorable end: that God may be all in all. In this end the blessed elect will participate. We have had the way opened for us toward this end by the Word (divine) made flesh (human). Our humanity now sits in transformed glory at the right hand of the Father in an indestructible bond with the Son’s divinity. The risen Christ is the new Adam…the new Creation. With unspeakable sweetness He orders our salvation. With irresistible power all things exist and move according to His will. Our lives have meaning only in Him, according to His guidance, who handles us “suaviter et fortiter“.
Our Old Testament and New Testament figures and images merge into a new point of reflection for our lives which today’s “O Antiphon” underscores as “prudence” – “Come…Teach us the way of prudence!”
“Prudence” comes from the Latin “to see/look ahead”. It is one of the four “cardinal” virtues, the one upon which the other virtues depend. Prudence is a habit of the intellect that allows us to see in any circumstance what is virtuous and what is not. Prudence helps us to seek what is virtuous and avoid what is not. Prudence perfects the intellect (rather than the will) in practical decisions. It determines which course of action must be taken. It indicates what the golden mean is hic et nunc…here and now. This mean is at the core of every virtue. Without the virtue of prudence courage becomes foolhardiness… rushing in to the wrong danger in the wrong way at the wrong time. Without the governing of prudence mercy devolves into slackness and enervated weakness, spinelessness.
But this is still a kind of prudence which is merely human prudence, not looking beyond the issues of daily life. We must also look beyond this vale of tears. In addition to the prudence which grows out of the school of hard-knocks and which becomes a sound and good habit through repeated acts, there is another prudence, an “infused” prudence. This kind of prudence is a grace given us by God out of His merciful love. This greater prudence, which governs other grace-filled virtues, cannot be separated from the life of grace. It is exercised in the state of grace. Mortal sin is its enemy. This higher kind of prudence helps us to determine the proper things that help us to salvation. It helps us to avoid things that slam the door that Christ opened (mortal sin). Thus, prudence cannot be separated from charity, which is in the soul as a characteristic of sanctifying (habitual) grace.
Today in the opening “O Antiphon” we sing to Emmanuel who is coming. We plead with Him, for He orders all things “sweetly and strongly.” He teaches us how to avoid things that harm us, both in material concerns and in our pursuit of the happiness of heaven. He teaches us true prudence.
Take stock: is there something going on in my life that needs to be examined in prudence? Am I doing something which is going to be an obstacle to the happiness of heaven? Christ is coming, both at Christmas as the infant King and the end of the world as the Judge and King of fearful majesty. This is a cause to rejoice. But it is also cause to prepare prudently and well the way of the Lord and make straight His paths before He comes, as we heard about on “Gaudete” (“Rejoice!) Sunday of Advent.
Listen to the monks at Le Barroux sing this antiphon and the Magnificat with which it is inextricably bound: