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.
For the next seven days, the week leading up to the solemnity of Christmas, the universal church prays these antiphons — popularly referred to the O Antiphons — before and after the Gospel Canticle of evening prayer, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). The first use of these antiphons within the Liturgy of the Hours is not entirely clear, but it can be traced back to the fifth century and perhaps even earlier. The origin of these antiphons is the book of the Prophet Isaiah. Each term will come to be a title for the Messiah and find their fullest meaning in the birth of Christ.
This first title, Wisdom, has one of the most rich and yet overlooked histories of all the messianic titles. It is Wisdom — Saptientia (Latin), Sophia (Greek), Hokmah (Hebrew) — that is the symbol of divine immanence that first enters the scriptural tableau of the Creation myths in Genesis. It is Wisdom that appears with God and is God’s creative power found in the Psalms, the book of Proverbs, the book of Wisdom and all of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is Wisdom that the early Church fathers will associate with God’s ability to reach out beyond God’s self into the economy of salvation.
What is most powerful, for me, about the title Wisdom being the first of the O Antiphons is its close association with the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy as proclaimed by Jesus in the synagogue at the beginning of his public ministry as portrayed in the Gospel of Luke. That passage, Luke 4:18-19, comes from Isaiah 62, but it reflects the sense of God’s unique relationship to all of creation found in Isaiah 11:1-5. It is no coincidence that this is the reading for morning prayer on this same day:
A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor be hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afllicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips. (Is 11:1-5)
The prophecy announces the coming of God’s Wisdom, the Creator who knows creation, whose power is not that of destructive force or violence, but of justice and faithfulness. The poor and afflicted, the marginalized and abandoned will not be left to suffer the injustice of the power of the worldly, will instead see the justice of God’s in-breaking Kingdom in the birth of a child and the words and deeds of that child’s ministry in this world.