For 2021’s Advent season, we’re sharing curated collections of art, short essays, music, and more each Monday. This week’s Advent collection includes a poem & short essay by Malcolm Guite called “O Sapientia” from his Advent book Waiting on the Word; an ink painting by Kyra Hinton called “Resonance”; and a nativity song from the perspective of Joseph called “Son of David” by Graham Jones, taken from his new Advent album Good News, Great Joy.
“O Sapientia” by Malcolm Guite
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
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.
“O Sapientia” by Malcolm Guite
I cannot think unless I have been thought, Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken. I cannot teach except as I am taught, Or break the bread except as I am broken. O Mind behind the mind through which I seek, O Light within the light by which I see, O Word beneath the words with which I speak, O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me, O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me, O Memory of time, reminding me, My Ground of Being, always grounding me, My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me, Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring, Come to me now, disguised as everything.
This is the first sonnet in a sequence of seven I have written in response to the seven Advent prayers known as the ‘O Antiphons.’ In its first centuries the Church developed a custom of praying seven great prayers, calling afresh on Christ to come, addressing him by the mysterious titles found in the Old Testament, particularly in Isaiah: ‘O Wisdom!’ ‘O Root!’ ‘O Key!’ ‘O Light!’ ‘O Emmanuel!’
These prayers were said ‘antiphonally,’ as the name suggests, either side of the Magnificat at Vespers from 17 to 23 December (although in some places they begin a day earlier, on 16 December). Each antiphon begins with the invocation ‘O’ and then calls on Christ, although never by name. The mysterious titles and emblems given him from the pages of the Old Testament touch on our deepest needs and intuitions; then each antiphon prays the great Advent verb, Veni, ‘Come!’
The whole purpose of Advent is to be for a moment fully and consciously Before Christ. In that place of darkness and waiting, we look for his coming and do not presume too much that we already know or have it. Malcolm Guite
There is, I think, both wisdom and humility in this strange abstention from the name of Christ in a Christian prayer. Of course, these prayers were composed AD, perhaps around the seventh century, but in another sense, Advent itself is always BC! The whole purpose of Advent is to be for a moment fully and consciously Before Christ. In that place of darkness and waiting, we look for his coming and do not presume too much that we already know or have it. Whoever compiled these prayers was able, imaginatively, to write ‘BC,’ perhaps saying to themselves: ‘If I hadn’t heard of Christ, and didn’t know the name of Jesus, I would still long for a saviour. I would still need someone to come. Who would I need? I would need a gift of Wisdom, I would need a Light, a King, a Root, a Key, a Flame.’ And poring over the pages of the Old Testament, they would find all these things promised in the coming of Christ. By calling on Christ using each of these seven several gifts and prophecies we learn afresh the meaning of a perhaps too familiar name. It might be a good Advent exercise, and paradoxically an aid to sharing the faith, if for a season we didn’t rush in our conversation to refer to the known name, the predigested knowledge, the formulae of our faith, but waited alongside our non-Christian neighbours, who are, of course, living ‘BC.’ We should perhaps count ourselves among the people who walk in darkness but look for a marvellous light. In making these seven sonnets in response to the antiphons, I have tried to do that, looking at both my own deepest needs and our common needs, to inhabit some of the darkness that waits for a light.
The first antiphon is ‘O Sapientia,’ ‘O Wisdom.’ It draws on two passages from the Apocrypha praising wisdom. And it is clear from these passages that the wisdom described in this antiphon is not the private capacity of an individually wise person or the accumulated prudence of a human ‘wisdom tradition;’ it is a primal, almost pre-existent, quality of order and beauty out of which all things spring. Though they speak of wisdom in the feminine, a divine being delighting before God and with him ordering the cosmos, it is clear that for the writer of this antiphon, Sapientia is part of what John means by the Logos, ‘the Word [who] was with God’ (John 1:1), the coming Christ. In Wisdom of Solomon 8:1 (AV), we read: ‘Wisdom reacheth from one end to another mightily: and sweetly doth she order all things.’ And then in Ecclesiasticus, the beautiful extended passage:
Wisdom shall praise herself, and shall glory in the midst of her people. In the congregation of the most High shall she open her mouth, and triumph before his power. I came out of the mouth of the most High, and covered the earth as a cloud. I dwelt in high places, and my throne is in a cloudy pillar. I alone compassed the circuit of heaven, and walked in the bottom of the deep. In the waves of the sea and in all the earth, and in every people and nation, I got a possession. With all these I sought rest: and in whose inheritance shall I abide? So the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and he that made me caused my tabernacle to rest, and said, Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thine inheritance in Israel. He created me from the beginning before the world, and I shall never fail. —Ecclesiasticus 24:1-9, AV
It is this Wisdom we address, and for whose advent we pray when we look for the coming of Christ.
Wisdom is both hidden and gloriously apparent. Malcolm Guite
In my sonnet I wanted to convey this sense of the underlying and underpinning order of things, the ‘Mind behind the mind through which I seek … Light within the light by which I see.’ Writing the poem led me in the end to a strange paradox. The psalmist is taunted by the question, ‘Where is now your God?’ And it’s a question that some more militant ‘scientific’ atheists of our own day still use to taunt Christians. And in one sense we cannot directly point to God because Sapientia, this underlying coherence and beauty, is not to be found anywhere as an item in the cosmos; it is not a single being, but the ground of being itself—not a single beauty but the source of all beauty. And yet, for the very same reason, there is a real sense in which we can point to everything, ‘from one end to the other’ of the cosmos, and say, ‘There, can’t you see?’ For wisdom is both hidden and gloriously apparent.
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.
“Resonance” by Kyra Hinton
“This piece is another ‘double exposure’ where layers of my ink paintings mix with each other to create something new. ‘Resonance’ captures the feeling of the warm light from an open door cast across a stone street, of campfire sparks rising to mingle with cold stars, of solo wafting notes finding consonance with unfamiliar melodies. Longing meets connection. Just a bit further up. Just a little further in.” —Kyra Hinton
“Son of David” by Graham Jones
O God, what do I do with this horrible news? What do I do with a girl who is due To give birth months before we are to wed?
Why me? For so long I waited for someone who is right Who tries to live blameless in your sight But now it seems that hopeful dream has died
Still I don’t want to bring her further shame I need to end this and send her away But I don’t know if it’s the right thing
Is everything that’s happening really happening for a reason? Where are you in this brokenness? Will you help this son of David? This son of David
“Joseph, son of David, Do not fear to wed young Mary For that which is conceived in her Is from the Holy Spirit”
O what a mystery you have revealed Apparent failure turned to God’s own will The ancient prophets’ words are now fulfilled
For everything that’s happening is happening for a reason “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear Emmanuel”
For everything that’s happening is happening for a reason You’re working in our brokenness to send your promised Savior The Son of David, Son of David