Journeying with Wisdom in the Great Fast
During Great Lent the lectionary - the calendar of daily readings - of the Church turns from its usual schedule of Epistle and Gospel readings to readings from the Old Testament. This reflects the fact that, in the ancient Church, Lent was the season par excellence for preparing catechumens for Baptism at Pascha. This preparation consisted, among other things, in daily instruction from the clergy of the church in the basic matters of faith and Christian living. Much time was given, for example, to the opening chapters of Genesis which taught that God the Holy Trinity is the creator of all things and that the world is created good, though it now suffers the terrible effects of the fall of Man into sin. This going back to the beginning of the story - Genesis - was essential if the catechumens were to understand the climax of the story in the Holy Pascha and in the Lord’s suffering, death, burial, and resurrection, the Mystery into which they would be baptized. Another of the Old Testament books to which the Church turns in Lent is Proverbs. Proverbs is concerned, as you probably know, with wisdom (the word appears over 40 times in the book). The search for wisdom has been a perennial pursuit for humanity, reflected in the fact that what is believed to be one of our highest pursuits is philosophy, which means "the love of wisdom."
This connection between wisdom and philosophy leads many to think of wisdom as something abstract, an idea, the kind of thing philosophers spend their time thinking about. It is interesting, then, that in Proverbs wisdom is not presented as something abstract - an idea, or an ideal - but as a woman. Yes, a woman. In Proverbs wisdom is Wisdom, God's companion, who calls out to human beings to hear her and follow her ways, inscribing them on their hearts. Wisdom in Proverbs (and elsewhere in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament) is the very personification of the Way of God which, far more than simply a set of laws or rules, is the way of God, the Way of Life. We might wonder why Wisdom in Proverbs is portrayed as a woman and, in fact, a lot of ink has been spilled on this topic over the centuries. At least a beginning of an answer can be found in the world in which Israel lived and the religions and cultures that surrounded her. These cultures were, what we would call today, pagan. And while that can mean a lot of different things, one thing that they shared in common was a belief that the high god had a consort, a female companion, a sort of earth-mother goddess. In fact, if you read the historical books of the Old Testament you will find that Israel was often falling away from the worship of the One True God into pagan worship of the gods of the surrounding nations and their female consorts. What is fascinating about Proverbs is that it indicates that God - the One God! beside Whom there is no other! - does Himself have a companion whose name is Wisdom. Only Wisdom is not like the consorts of the false gods, a sexualized mother-earth goddess. Rather, Wisdom, the companion of God, is the teacher of God's commandments. Wisdom is the way of God, not only a “way of life” but “The Way of Life”. If that sounds familiar, well, it should. For the Wisdom of God, as we know, is Christ Himself. God attempted to turn Israel from pagan worship of the false gods and their consorts by instructing them in Wisdom, His companion. And Christians know that this companion is not a mother-earth goddess at all, but the Father’s eternal Son, who is Himself the “the Power…and Wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1.24). Our lenten journey, friends, places us in the company of Wisdom, the eternal Son of the Father. He has come among us who have lost the way and sojourned among us in the flesh to restore us to the path of Wisdom. In this holy season let us -
seek [Wisdom] as silver and search for her as treasure,
Then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from His face come knowledge and understanding; And He stores up salvation for the upright; He will protect their journey, That He might guard the ways of His ordinances; and He will carefully guard the way of those who reverence Him. (Proverbs 2.4-8)
With love in Christ, Fr John