This is the first in an Advent sermon series on “The Seven Great ‘O’ Antiphons.”
“O Wisdom, Come” (Proverbs 8:12-31; Colossians 1:15-20, 28; 2:2-3; John 1:1-5, 9)
The Advent hymn we just sang, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” goes back about 900 years, to the 12th century. But the texts on which this hymn is based go back a few centuries before that, even–maybe 1200 years ago or more. They are known as the Great “O” Antiphons, and you can see them printed there on the facing page in your hymnal (LSB 357).
What is an antiphon, you ask? An antiphon is a little framing verse that is sung before and after a canticle or a psalm. These O Antiphons were chanted before and after the Magnificat at Vespers during Advent. There are seven of them, and historically they were used over the last seven days before Christmas Eve Day, in other words, from December 17 through December 23. We’re going to use them before then, over our seven Advent services beginning today, the four Sunday Divine Services and our three Wednesday Vespers. This will give us a continuing theme running through our observance of Advent this year: “The Seven Great ‘O’ Antiphons.”
Now look at the structure of these seven antiphons. Each one consists of three parts. First there is an address to Christ, using the vocative “O” and a biblical title to address him: “O Wisdom”: “O Adonai”; “O Root of Jesse”; “O Key of David”; “O Dayspring”; “O King of the nations”: and “O Emmanuel.” Now of course these O Antiphons originally were in Latin, which was the universal language of the church for most of Christian history. And so you can see the Latin titles on your bulletin insert, in order: “Sapientia”; “Adonai”; “Radix Jesse”; “Clavis David”; “Oriens”; “Rex Gentium”; and “Emmanuel.”
So the first part of each antiphon is the address of “O” and a title. The second part is a description of something about Christ that fits the title–for example, for “O Dayspring,” the words, “splendor of light everlasting,” amplifying that particular term. The third part of the antiphon, then, is a petition, a prayer to Christ, asking him to “Come” and do thus and such, whatever it is, in order to help us.
“Oh, well, now all that’s pretty interesting, Pastor,” you might say. “I learned something new today.” But friends, these O Antiphons are not merely some dusty artifacts from the distant past that you can know something about, in a detached sort of way. No, these are prayers you can use! For they address the living Christ, who still comes to help his people. Through these O Antiphons, we learn to know him more fully and to call upon him in faith.
So with that by way of introduction, let us all pray together the first O Antiphon, which you see printed, either in your hymnal or on your insert, the one addressing Christ as Wisdom: “O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.”
What are we doing addressing Christ as “Wisdom”? I thought wisdom was an abstract concept. Well, that’s part of the intriguing background of this title, and it’s a bit controversial to apply it to Christ. Earlier we read that section of Proverbs 8 wherein Wisdom calls out and speaks. “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,” it begins. This seems to be just a poetic personification of wisdom, as though an abstract concept–a virtue, let’s call it–could speak.
A little later, though, Wisdom says: “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” Now Wisdom seems to have been around from eternity, to have been with the Lord from before the beginning. “When he established the heavens, I was there,” Wisdom declares, and then adds, “when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman.” So now Wisdom appears to have played an active part in the creation of the universe, working side by side with God. And so the identification of this Wisdom with Christ.
But as I say, this identifying of the Proverbs 8 “Wisdom” with the person of Christ has not been without controversy. Some have taken this part about “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work” to mean “The Lord ‘created’ me at the beginning of his work.” Heretics old and new have used this passage to claim that Christ was some sort of created being, not on the same par with God–somewhat higher than the angels, perhaps, but not equal with God, not true God.
So the church, while embracing the identification of Christ with Wisdom, has had to reject the heretical claim that Christ is merely a created being and not true God. Thus the language of the Nicene Creed: “begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made”–this last part, “by whom all things were made,” referring to Christ as actively involved in the work of creation.
And so if Proverbs 8 is properly understood, we can see how this title of “Wisdom” came to be associated with Christ. Because it fits well with what we know about Christ from other parts of Scripture. As it says of Christ in Colossians 1: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
It is this idea of Christ as the divine Wisdom that holds all things together, that holds the whole universe together, that we find also at the beginning of John’s gospel, in the opening verses of chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
Here the Greek term Logos, translated “the Word,” is being used in much the same way as the term Wisdom: Christ as the one who was with God in the beginning, who is true God in his substance, who was active in the work of creation, and who gives order and meaning to all things. The eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the divine source of wisdom and order in creation, who gives meaning to it all.
This, then, is how we are speaking of Christ, and to Christ, in this first O Antiphon: as “Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things.” This is the one whom we are anticipating at Christmas, this is he who is coming.
And so now we can see how much we need him! Because we see a distinct lack of order and wisdom in our world, don’t we? Here is why we need Jesus so much! How disorderly and out of whack everything is! Even the natural world does not work as it should: natural disasters, too much rain, not enough rain, tsunamis and earthquakes and catastrophes of all kinds. Our bodies are breaking down, wearing out, diseased and dying. This is not how creation is supposed to work.
And then there’s the lack of wisdom in how people live. Foolish and downright stupid, people behave. Living on credit. Living for pleasure. Living in sin. Substance abuses of all sorts–marijuana and meth, too much liquor and too many calories–foolish, what people do to their bodies. And their minds and souls, filling them with trash, too.
But what about me? What about you? Haven’t we lacked wisdom in how we live? I’m sure you can think of some examples in your own life. I know I can. Godly wisdom shows up in the fruit of our life, and the converse of that is true, too. Folly bears its bitter fruit. Wisdom is what we need in order to live as God designed us to live, in accord with his good order.
Here is where Christ comes in. He comes into our world as Wisdom in the flesh. He shows us the right way in which to walk. And he not only shows us and tells us, he does something about it! He walks the way of the cross for us, in order to bear the cost for our folly. Think of it: The Lord of creation comes as a little baby at Christmas, in order to suffer and die for his wayward creatures! Amazing and wonderful, beyond measure! As Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. . . . Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Yes, Christ crucified, God’s wisdom, now risen from the dead, and he will come again in glory to restore this fallen creation and set everything right at last.
And in the meantime, Christ our Lord gives his Spirit to his Christians and enables us and shows us how to live in wisdom. And so the prayer of our antiphon: “Come and teach us the way of prudence.” Do you lack wisdom in your life? Do you want wisdom in your life, good, sound judgment for how to live the way your Creator knows best for you to live? Then seek Christ. Learn of him. Hear his word. Listen to his teaching. Rejoice in his grace. Discover what love and forgiveness are from him, in the community of his church.
“O Wisdom, Come!” Today we begin our Advent journey through the Great “O” Antiphons. And the first one is a beautiful prayer for our Lord Jesus Christ to come and teach us his ways: “O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.”