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O Sapientia: O Wisdom

30 November 2018

In Advent, Jane Williams explores four of the prophetic titles ascribed by Isaiah to the coming King of Kings, ‘The Great Os’, on which the Magnificat antiphons used at vespers on the last seven days of Advent are based

Holy Wisdom (icon, 1670s)

Holy Wisdom (icon, 1670s)

IN THE last few days before Christmas, the custom is to praise the child who is about to be born, highlighting aspects of his character as they have been known throughout the ages. The child of Bethlehem is not a new God, but the one, true God, our creator, who has been calling human beings from the moment we were made. What we see in Jesus is the fullness of the character of God.

This icon praises the wisdom of God, through which creation came into existence, and which is found, personified, in Jesus. It is unusual to find a depiction of it, but the title is one that is often ascribed to Jesus. When the earliest Christians were searching back through scripture for references to Jesus, the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and in the Wisdom of Solomon 7 resonated.

Proverbs 8 describes Wisdom’s role with God in creation, and the joy that they share; Wisdom is God’s “darling and delight”, “playing over his whole world” (Proverbs 8.30-31, REB), and the Wisdom of Solomon says that Wisdom is “the flawless mirror of the active power of God, and the image of his goodness” (Wisdom 7.26, NEB). The similarity to the Christian understanding of the relationship between Father and Son made these obvious texts to go to.


IN THE icon, the figure of Jesus stands just above Wisdom, claiming and affirming her as an insight into his own character. Mary and John the Baptist stand either side of Wisdom, and also attest to her as the likeness of Jesus, with all the authority of the mother and the forerunner.

Wisdom sits on the seven pillars on which the universe is founded; she is dressed in vivid colours, making herself available to us, full of energy and passion. There is nothing insipid about Wisdom: she is forceful and attractive.

The attention and praise that are given to her are channelled upwards to the figure of Christ, and from him still farther up to the Father’s throne, where the angels echo earth’s praise.

There is no embarrassment at all about the identification of the feminine Wisdom with Jesus — that seems to be a relatively modern preoccupation. Augustine talks easily about the “breasts of the Father” from which we are fed; Julian of Norwich describes Jesus as a mother pelican, tearing her own breast to feed her children; Jesus describes himself as a mother hen; Hosea pictures God as a mother helping her infant with its first toddling, unsteady steps. The images that best help us to catch glimpses of the character of God are used without gender distinction.


IN ADVENT, we are encouraged to meditate on the wisdom of God, recognising that it is both deeply engrained in the universe and yet also alien and elusive. It is God’s wisdom that is coming to birth in a baby who has no power and no status, who will live a short, unsuccessful life and die a painful and shameful death.

This is the wisdom of God at work. We trace its contours in the life of Jesus: the little boy who understands the scriptures better than the experts in the Temple; the young man who unerringly calls a motley crew of disciples to him, entrusting them with the good news for the world; the teacher who sees into the heart of the rich young ruler, of Zacchaeus, of the woman at the well; the fierce opponent, who challenges all those who try to keep God boxed in; the strategist, who avoids capture and death until the perfect moment.

This is wisdom embodied. It can be misunderstood, ignored, rejected, but it cannot be defeated, as the resurrection shows. It is the reality of the universe.

Learning to live in the wisdom of God is learning to attend to and trust what God has made. There is no conflict between “knowledge” and “wisdom”: both are about what is true, and how to honour it and live in tune with it. The early Christians called Jesus both “wisdom” and “word”, Sophia and Logos.

The universe is rational; it is meant to be open to our exploration and delight, and we flourish when we live by its rhythms and needs. The universe, like us, takes its character from the one through whom it came into existence. At its heart, there is delight, joy, generous communication. Now, in Advent, we respond with praise and find ourselves living in wisdom. God is coming to invite us to play in the presence of the Son, for the joy of all that is made.


For reflection or discussion

Do you believe yourself to be a source of joy to God?

Why do you think we have become uncomfortable with feminine descriptions of God?


Come, Holy Spirit, and lead us in the ways of wisdom, that we may live with you and the Lord Jesus Christ, delighting in the presence of the Father. Amen.


The text is from The Art of Advent: A painting a day from Advent to Epiphany (SPCK Publishing, 2018, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)).

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