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Prayer for the week

06 December 2013

Ann Conway-Jones prays versions of O Sapientia

O 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,  Common Worship

O 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 message.

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 drift".

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 faith.

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.

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