- Genesis 49:2, 8-10
- Matthew 1:1-17
Sapientia Altissimi, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentire. The Alleluia Verse
Today’s Alleluia Verse is a condensed version of tonight’s Antiphon on the Magnificat (sung at Vespers on the 17th for both Catholic and Orthodox users of the Western Liturgy). That text in full is:
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.
From 5th Grade, at least, I wanted to be a minister. Our family was Methodist. I’ve no idea what the Methodist “Ordination Process” was like in 1974, but it was probably some low-church version of “lunch with the Bishop.” If the meeting ended with “you’re a nice young man, perhaps you should consider seminary?” You were on you way. That lunch would not happen for me until late in High School when I was Episcopalian, but from fifth grade on I was teaching Sunday School and preaching the “Youth Sunday” Sermon. Pastor Bob was a great encouragement to me in Wurtsboro, NY, as was Pastor Jim when we moved to Acworth, GA. But somehow, 40 years later, I’m not ordained.
This self-evident fact was given to me like a hard face slap a couple of years ago, just after my 49th birthday, as a friend was ordained to the priesthood. I realized that given all the same choices as I, he had taken them differently in several places and his choices had led him to where I had claimed to want to go. Another friend was ordained two Summers ago and his mother commented regarding her pride in the choices he had made to get there. She used the words “Sacrifice” and “Integrity”. These are not words I would be able to use to describe my life’s journey.
The invocation of Divine Wisdom – Sapientia in Latin, Sophia in the Greek – is to a specific end: the inculcation of Prudence in the worshipers. But what is Prudence? It is one of the four Cardinal Virtues which also include Justice, Temperance, and Courage. (There are also three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity.) Prudence is primarily about foresight, about seeing which of several possible choices is the moral choice, the right choice. By the correct actions we can grow the other virtues as well. Prudence is regarded as a prime virtue for this reason: you can’t get the others without it. What is “correct action”?
In Catholic and Orthodox understanding of the human person man’s natural state of being, his φύσις or phusis is according to God’s plan for his life. In this natural state – that state “according to our nature”, the nature God intended for us – man makes prudent (correct) choices and from this correct action flows. Correct action is according to our nature. Our failures are because we are imprudent. We can make a given choice based on other things: and so our choices are then against nature, παρά φύσιν (para phusin) which really means “to the side” of nature. We’re missing the mark. We’re off to the side. Again, that nature is the one God made for us: and all human nature is, shall we say, slightly dented. Some settling has occurred in transit. We’re not measuring up to the serving suggestions on the box.
Paul uses παρά φύσιν in his epistle to the Roman to describe a number of things including same-sex sexual activities and men pretending to be women or vice versa. Our answer to that charge, today, is usually “Yes, but this is my nature. Paul had no idea about my nature. For me to pretend to be something else would be against my nature.” To this individualistic claim, the Alleluia verse, the Antiphon, and Christmas itself is a Divine Slapdown. Human nature is one ontological whole: yes there are many persons who are human, but there is only one Human Nature. Just as there are three persons in the One Divinity, so there are many persons in One Humanity. In the Incarnation at Christmas that one Divinity became One of Us, part of the One Humanity, and so the natures are joined. There is no “my” nature: there’s just nature. “Your” nature is no different from “mine” save in the ways each of us fails in the path of prudence – of making choices based not on the Divine Plan but rather on our own plans, our emotions, or our feelings. We cannot have different natures, different odd quirks or we are not saved because Jesus is not one with us, just another guy.
Human freedom granted us by God lies not in the ability to choose to do anything we want (which is properly called license), but rather our freedom to be the most amazing humanity possible lies in the choice for God’s plan – not our own. That’s the only choice: God’s way or the low way. When we choose otherwise we are not being free: we are led away as slaves to our own reasonings, our body’s cravings, our appetites, our sins, our lusts, or on our Passions, as the theologians would say. When we convince ourselves that This thing in me contrary to God’s plan is really who I am we are exposing our own lack of understanding of our shared human nature. We are rather like a street car refusing to ride on the tracks laid out for it – and insisting that it’s a better street car because of its ability to jump the rails. How many people will die?
The first Great O Antiphon is a prayer for Divine Sophia, to teach us prudence, to show us the way to go. We want her to include our lives in that “all things mightily and sweetly” dance into which she orders the world. We want her to make our lives, to borrow a pun from the Latin, suave. As Sophia is Christ, the Incarnation itself is an answer to this prayer. Jesus becomes man to restore our sanity, to restore to us our natural, inborn ability to make the prudent choices, to have right action, become fully human (like Christ); the first step to becoming divine. We are becoming suave and debonair, that last meaning “meek and humble,” not well-dressed. See what our passions do to even the meanings of words?
To get right action again – after we’ve jumped the rails – requires a metanoia, often translated as “changed mind” or “repentance”, as in “If you sin, you must repent”. But it’s not just a “changed mind” but “beyond mind”. We need to get beyond our own thinking, our own little box of ideas about “who I really am”. Christmas is the only way out: God becomes us so we may join him in the dance. God reveals to us in himself the fullness of humanity and, by becoming man, restores to all of us our natural humanity.
When I look at my life I see that my choices were imprudent because they were para-phusis, where phusis is properly understood as a divine revelation. My choices caused me and others some temporary happiness, but I cannot say that they have made me into the person I wanted to be way back in fifth grade. Nor, to judge by my active life in the confessional, have they made me into the person God wanted me to be. They led to what is called “False Consolations”. I’m not me, I’m a false me, a me created by sins and illness.
A return to the confessional. A return to the Nature God gave me. A return to life. This is the way by to hitting the mark, the path of Prudence.