[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
“Because of her pureness [Wisdom] pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entry into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God [Wisdom 7: 24-26].”
So reads the text from which this evening’s Magnificat antiphon derives (page 16 of this booklet). It appears at First Vespers of the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time because we Benedictines are in the midst of reading through the Old Testament book known as The Wisdom of Solomon. We read a chapter each day at the office of Vigils (which begins here each morning bright and early at 3:30 a.m.) over the Thirtieth and Thirty-First weeks of Ordinary Time in even-numbered years.
Before I say more about the placement of this reading in the liturgy, let me call attention to the excellence of this oft-neglected Book of Wisdom, as it is often known. The sixteenth-century Protestant reformers eliminated it from the Old Testament because it was composed in Greek and not Hebrew. Indeed, in spite of the traditional authorship of King Solomon (ca. 990-931 B.C.), the Book of Wisdom was almost certainly written in the two generations before the birth of Christ. While the focus is on the children of Israel (the second half of the book is a retelling of the Exodus), it was composed in the diaspora, probably in Hellenistic Egypt. As a result, Greek culture deeply pervades the author’s outlook.
It is worth recalling that the academic discipline that we call “philosophy”
(literally “the love of wisdom”) begins in Athens around the time of the beginning of the Jewish dispersion. While later sparring between the Jewish Maccabees and the Greek Seleucid overlords of Palestine might make it appear that Jerusalem has nothing to do with Athens, Greek thought and culture was an everyday part of the Holy Land in the centuries before the birth of Christ. We need only consider that the New Testament is entirely written in Greek to appreciate this.
The Book of Wisdom is an extended mediation on the love of wisdom, but told from a distinctive Jewish perspective. We get a glimpse here and in the earlier book of Proverbs of Christ “the power of God and the wisdom of God [1 Corinthians 1: 24].” The Book of Wisdom had a profound effect on the thought of Saint John the Evangelist, whose prologue [John 1: 1-18] is a deepening of the insight found in the Wisdom 7, the context of the opening quote of this essay.
The debt of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is even more striking. “[The Son] reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature [Hebrews 1: 3].”
This is all to say that the advent of Greek philosophy has typically been regarded by the Church as a praeparatio evangelica, a preparation for the gospel, a fertilizing of the great field of humanity into which was sown the Word of God by the Apostles. Fittingly, when Saint Paul visited Athens, he could urge the citizens there by pointing their nearness to the Son of God, even if they were unaware: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious…What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world….made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth…that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him [Acts 17: 22b, 23b, 26a, 27].” This seeking after God took the form, in the Graeco-Roman world, of the love of Wisdom, revealed by the Apostles as the Son of God Himself.
It is for this reason that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his important “Regensberg Address,” warned us about the “de-Hellenization” of Christianity. “The fullness of time” always includes the Providential speculations of the followers of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the other great schools of Stoicism. Salvation is from the Jews, but we rely as well on the Greeks to help us “give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope [1 Peter 3: 15].”
We should note that the Latin terms of the Magnificat antiphon point as well to the person of the Holy Mother of God. In the Litany of Loreto, Our Lady is called the “mirror of justice,” a direct reference to Wisdom 7: 26 in which the female figure of wisdom is called a mirror without stain (sine macula). The absence of any stain (immaculata), and the fact that “nothing defiled gains entry into her,” is seen as a prophecy of the Incarnation and Immaculate Conception.
These weeks of November serve many functions in the liturgy, but a dual aspect is of particular importance. They prepare for Christ’s coming, both in the Incarnation, and at the end of time for judgment. It is, then, a fitting time to read the Book of Wisdom, to meditate on the way in which the wisdom and power of God purifies our souls, frees us from the disturbances of anger and anxiety, and prepares us for the sober joy of eternal life. It is fitting as well that these meditations should include the exemplar of this purity, the Queen of Heaven and Immaculate Virgin Mary, the seat of Wisdom, who cradled the very wisdom and power of God, veiled in the apparent folly of the Incarnation, to her stainless heart.