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.
Those who are most familiar or, perhaps, only familiar with the O Antiphons from the popular Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, might be surprised to see the terms “creation” and “salvation” appear in the actual Magnificat antiphon for today. Two of the most popular settings for this verse include one of these sets of lyrics:
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
Or, the more classical translation from the Latin verse:
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
The interpretation of the meaning of Wisdom in the musical adaptation, which dates back in this form to the early-19th century, is that what the first line of the antiphon is really about is God’s order in the universe. One can think of the scholastic notion of order or of Divine Providence in some general way, but what appears to be celebrated is might and control and structure and order.
But, what’s odd about that view, the one expressed in our sung recounting of this O Antiphon, is that the passages from scripture that talk about Wisdom, from which the Prophet Isaiah gleans this term of divinity, suggests something else. Order is a part of the picture, as we see in the first book of Genesis — chaos, disarray, the tohuwabohu ( תהו־ובהו) is what existed and from it, God’s Wisdom (hokmah, חוכמה), seen here as God’s Breath or Spirit (ruah, רוּחַ), is what encounters the tohuwabohu and enters into relationship with the messiness of life. It is this relationship with the divine wisdom, the spirit of God that does bring about order, albeit the order isn’t what’s the most important thing here.
That God is immanently present in creation, that God’s spirit — personified as Wisdom — is in and among creation is the most important detail to take away from this first creation account. Yet, it isn’t a feature of just the first creation narrative. Even in the second account, the one when God creates women and men ha-adamah (פי האדמה), which means “from the earth,” it is God’s ruah or Spirit that is what animates (from the Latin: anima, or spirit) humankind. We forget that these are the creation accounts and, as the O Antiphon today calls us to remember, it is God’s very self — God’s wisdom, breath, spirit — that “governs all creation with…strong yet tender care.”
There is a powerful sense of divine immanence in today’s O Antiphon, one that does anticipate the fullness of God’s revelation in the Incarnation, which we will celebrate this week. However, this is not the only way that God enters our world, nor is it the only way that God remains close to all of creation.
We can look to one of the great creation Psalms to see how it is this absolutely immanent presence of God, depicted in this Wisdom tradition by ruah, spirit. After twenty-six verses of description about the wonders of God’s glory in creation, manifested in myriad ways through animals and insects and plants and natural elements, the psalmist turns to recount again how this is made possible:
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath (ruah, רוּחַ),
they die and return to their dust (adamah, האדמה).
When you send forth your spirit (ruah, רוּחַ),
they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
It is the Spirit of God in the world that gives life, sustains life, and renews the life all creation shares. The ruah of our human breath is the same ruah that governs all creation, that brings order out of the tohuwabohu. Today’s O Antiphon brings us back to the beginning to understand what is to come.
For the Wisdom, the Word of God, that governs all of creation with strong and tender care is also what shall show God’s “people the way to salvation.” One of the ways we come to see the way or path to salvation is through the recognition of our interconnectedness with the rest of the created order. That we, human persons, are not other-than or apart-from the rest of creation, but we are creation, made of the some physical matter that fuels stars and creates animal life.
Part of our sinfulness, I believe, is a forgetfulness of what it means to be governed by the word, wisdom, breath, spirit of God, just as the rest of the created order is. Part of what we might call “original sin,” our human hubris that leads to wanting to “be like God” — for God is truly the only real Other-than-creation, and the forgetfulness or denial of our creatureliness is, I believe, a form of wanting to be God without God.
As St. Paul in his writings, the early Fathers and Mothers of the Church in their writings, and so many theologians over the centuries in their writings have continually pointed out, salvation is not just for human persons. It is the returning of all of creation back to the Creator. It is the cosmic exitus-reditus of creation-salvation, one singular act in accord with history. The path upon which that journey of salvation takes place is the real history of our time and space.
What this O Antiphon reminds us and what the Incarnation indicates in the most perfect way, is that God encounters us, enters into relationship with us, and is present among us through creation. But do we recognize the Spirit of God in the world?
Our prayer today, especially in light of the darkness of tragedy in our world — in places as close in the United States as Newtown, CT, and as far as Syria — is the prayer of the last line of this antiphon: “Come and show your people the way to salvation.” Come, come Lord Jesus — open our eyes to our interrelatedness with the rest of the created order, open our eyes to our interdependence on the whole human family, open our eyes to see your Spirit in the world.