Beware of the root fallacy, my son! The root that bites; the core that catches. For instance, consider the root “anti.” It means to be “opposed to” or “against.” And if you read that meaning into the word “antiphon” (since it most clearly contains the word “anti”), then you are going to hear this song being sung throughout this entire series. Take it away, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff:

I don’t know what they have to say; It makes no difference anyway; Whatever it is, I’m against it. No matter what it is or who commenced it. . . . I’m against it.

 Your proposition may be good; But let’s have one thing understood: Whatever it is, I’m against it. And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it. . . . I’m against it.

Ah, but beware of the root fallacy, for the “anti” in antiphon has nothing to do with being against anything, but with something being sung antiphonally where one group sings or recites the first line and another group sings the second. Now, I know you knew that, but I was pretty sure that you didn’t know the song or the movie from whence it came, and I had to correct that (Horse Feathers, Marx Brothers, 1932—one of the great films of all time). Go ahead and watch it now, I’ll wait (think of it as my Christmas gift to you. You can thank me later.)

In any case, the Greater Antiphons (also known as the seven “O Antiphons” or the “Major Antiphons” or even the “Great O’s” are prayers that the church used at Vespers on the last seven days of advent.  Some scholars date the Greater Antiphons to the sixth century, others feel more comfortable dating them sometime before the eleventh century. In either case, these seven antiphonal prayers are old.  But they are very relevant to us today because these lines have come down to us as the basis of a very popular Christmas hymn. You’ve probably already guessed.  The “Great O’s” may have given it away. Yes, the hymn is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

The seven Greater Antiphons are seven prayers, each one asking God to come, to reveal his character to us and to provide for us something that we desperately need. And what we desperately need is not more information about God, but God himself. We need him to come and teach us. We need him to come and fill us, and we need him to come and transform us. We desperately need God. And these prayers are designed to lead us to God. You can see that in the first antiphon:

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High;
you are before all things, and in you all things hold together.
Come, and teach us the way of wisdom.

Years ago, we did a series on ten of my favorite prayers from the Book of Common Prayer (I think we ended up with closer to 14 or 15 prayers, but who’s counting). In that series, we noted how the BCP was very careful about how its prayers addressed God, always choosing one that would best fit the request. Yes, any address will do (“all prayers go to heaven”), but some addresses are better suited than others. Think of it this way: should your prayer address God as the sovereign king or as your heavenly father? I think your choice says a lot about the nature of your prayer and your request. The first antiphon cries out to God the Messiah and implores him to come as wisdom to give us wisdom.  And we desperately need wisdom. Consider these words from Ephesians 5 (15-17):

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise,
making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.
Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

 In all ways and at all times, we desperately need wisdom. And this is a prayer for wisdom.

But what I love about all the seven antiphons is that they are rooted in Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments for the Bible testifies that Jesus is the incarnate wisdom of God.  For instance, consider Isaiah 11:1-4:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.”

We see this theme again in Proverbs 8:27-31.  Here wisdom makes this declaration:

“I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1, proclaims:

“It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

 And Paul, in Colossians 15-17, reminds us:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

 Can I just say it: I love a good prayer that is rooted in Scripture. It smells like wisdom.

Now, we often downplay the importance of knowing God as wisdom, but the antiphon gets it right. Jesus is the incarnate wisdom of God and in him all things hold together, and that is good news for those of us who are close to falling apart. What do we need? We need Jesus, the wisdom of God. We need Jesus, speaking to us through the word of God. We need Jesus, the grace of God who forgives all our sin. And we need to pray that he would come into our lives and fill us this advent season because if there is anything we need this Christmas, it is true wisdom.

But this blog should be more than an analysis of what this first antiphon includes, but should also ask questions about how it should move from the page and into our lives. So, where does this antiphon speak into our lives? Here are five questions to think about as we approach Christmas.

  1. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:24-29), Jesus asks if we are like the wise person who puts his words into practice or are we the fool who is only interested in hearing what Jesus says. Here’s the question: Are we doers of the Word or are we hearers only? Are we wise or are we foolish?
  2. Deuteronomy 4:5-7 calls Israel to obey but for a surprising reason. The text reads: “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lordmy God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” Are you living in such a way that outsiders are drawn to you because you are a wise and understanding person? And what do you think a wise and understanding person would look like today?
  3. In Colossians, Paul prays (Col. 1:9-11), “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.” Where is wisdom bearing fruit in your life today? How is wisdom leading you to growth? How is wisdom empowering you to stand firm in your faith?
  4. James writes (James 3:13): “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” How could your life right now display more wisdom?
  5. What is wisdom calling you to do right now?

Maybe facing those questions will lead us to this one conclusion: We need to pray this first prayer now more than ever:

O Wisdom, you came forth from the mouth of the Most High;
you are before all things, and in you all things hold together.
Come, and teach us the way of wisdom.