Wisdom, coming forth from
the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
from The Advent Antiphons,
come, O come, thou wisdom strange
from deep within God's womb to range
the earth at midnight's hour of fears
to make us wise beyond our years.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Our God shall leap
with light that rouses us from sleep.
Jim Cotter, Expectant: Verses for Advent (Cairn Publications, 2002)
NOTHING evokes Advent
better than the hymn "O come, O come, Emmanuel": its haunting tune
encapsulates the season of longing. It was a favourite of mine,
until I became involved in Jewish-Christian relations, and
realised how problematic are the lines "ransom captive Israel, that
mourns in lonely exile here". They fly in the face of the vitality
and vibrancy of Judaism, whether in the first century or today.
Jews are not lost and desolate until they embrace the Christian
The hymn is based on the
Advent antiphons - known as the Great "O"s - which, from at least
the eighth century, were sung before and after the Magnificat at
Vespers on the seven days before Christmas Eve. I was delighted to
discover that the version of these antiphons in the Church of
England's current provision for Advent does not reproduce the
anti-Judaism of the hymn. A medley of vivid Old Testament imagery
is used to express Christian hopes, but without disparaging Jews.
And the ancient poetry is still fresh.
The first antiphon prays
for wisdom, a universal concept: people of all faiths value wisdom.
Both the Hebrew and Greek words for wisdom are feminine,
encouraging intriguing imagery. In Proverbs 8, wisdom is said to
be the first act of creation, rejoicing before God always. She is
the creative life-force, establishing beauty and harmony, both in
nature and in the conduct of human affairs.
This picture is taken up
first by the apocryphal books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, and
then by the prologue to John's Gospel. Wisdom coming forth from the
mouth of the Most High (Ecclesiasticus 24.3), reaching mightily
from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things
well (Wisdom 8.1), becomes the Word through whom all things were
made (John 1.1-3).
The antiphon calls on
this wisdom, which upholds the universe, to come and guide us in
the daily decisions of our lives. She dances to the beat of
creation, so she can realign us in accordance with God's purposes.
Prudence is part of what we need - the ability not to rush into
things, not to get carried away by emotion. But, on its own, it
seems a somewhat restrictive word with which to describe wisdom.
She ranges far more widely.
Jim Cotter has written
new words for the tune of "O come, O come, Emmanuel": one verse for
each day of December. He suggests singing them while waiting for
the kettle to boil or the computer to wake up. Some verses take
inspiration from the traditional antiphons; others offer new
imagery, such as "thou wounded stag, at home on rugged ridge and
crag", or "thou salmon, swift to leap the ladder 'gainst our
Here is his take on
wisdom. I like his characterisation of her as strange - for wisdom
can sometimes seem like foolishness - and as emerging from deep
within God's womb, a reconnection with the roots of our lives and
As a sufferer from
insomnia, I know about the panic that takes hold at midnight,
when anxious thoughts can spiral out of control. That is when I
most need wisdom - I think of her as a calming presence, able to
put things back into perspective. She speaks soothing, sensible
words, re-establishing the rhythms of sleeping and waking.
She returns in the
morning, with encouragement to rejoice at the promise of a new
day. She is the true light, there in the beginning with God, and
here with us today. May she illuminate your life.
Dr Ann Conway-Jones
is a freelance writer, and Honorary Research Fellow at the
University of Birmingham.