Sunday, January 02, 2005

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Exploring Wisdom - For the Second Sunday of Christmas (1/2/05)

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
"I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway. Among all these I sought a resting place; in whose territory should I abide?
Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, 'Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.'
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion. Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place, and in Jerusalem was my domain. I took root in an honored people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage." (Sirach 24:1-12)

I'm in new territory, at least for me, this week. The book of Sirach hasn't been included in the Jewish scriptures since the first century CE and didn't make it into the Protestant Bible, so I doubt that it's ever had a public reading in my church. But it's part of the Catholic canon, one of the wisdom books of the Catholic Bible, and apparently is utilized frequently in Catholic worship. This reading appealed to me because, like the one I chose last week, it takes our focus away from the nativity stories and into to the broader world into which Christ arrived.

I recognized the figure of Wisdom, which we Protestants usually hear of only through the Book of Proverbs, But, even in readings from Proverbs, our attention is seldom directed to the fact that Wisdom, in the Bible, is characterized as a feminine figure and presence. Most Christians, despite the popularity of The DaVinci Code, are unfamiliar with feminine imagery for the Divine, and struggle to meld it with our familiar masculine conceptions of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It's out there, but we don't know the history, don't have access to the writings, and seldom hear about it from our clergy. You have to be pretty determined to dig deeply behind popular fiction in search of the feminine underpinnings of Holy Wisdom. And that's not somehting I've had the time to do.

I wanted to know more, though, so I turned to the two chapters on Wisdom in Marcus Borg's book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994). Borg writes about Wisdom in two ways: first, about Jesus as a teacher of alternative wisdom and then about Jesus AS wisdom.
In his chapter on Jesus as teacher, Borg distingishes between conventional wisdom and alternative, or subversive wisdom. I suppose that, whether we articulate it or not, this distinction is one of the first things that becomes apparent to us when we become serious students of the Bible. The conventional wisdom, the wisdom of our culture, the "this is how it's done" wisdom that tells us what to think and believe and do because that's what members of our culture think and believe and do, is what we expect to find, in church and in the Bible. What could be a more definitive and upstanding purveyor of how things "ought to be" than the local church?

And we have good reason to expect to find conventional wisdom in the church -- churches tend to reek of it. How well I remember the Valentine's Sunday when some friends of mine, mostly mothers in their thirties and in charge of the coffee hour after the service that week, decided to brighten things up with bright red tablecloths. Just before the service ended, one of the older women glanced into the parlor and reacted with horror. "What will the ladies of the church think?" she exclaimed, and within a matter of minutes had whisked china, silver, and coffeee pots off the tables so that she could replace the offending red tablecloths with the standard white ones.

Now that's conventional wisdom at work. My friends were so dazed by her dismay and speed that it was some time before one of them asked, "But aren't WE the ladies of the church, too?"
As Marcus Borg points out, Jesus stands as the purveyor of alternative wisdom. One of the first things that we notice, upon reading the Bible carefully, is how often things turn out differently from how we expect them to. And in case we don't figure out how things work, Jesus hammers it home repeatedly. The first are always last; the last are always first. The disdained and trampeled upon turn out to be the heroes. The learned are dense; the holy are, at best, confused. The right way is the way that we don't follow. Borg says that the cheif values of our culture are "achievement, affluence, and appearance," and I doubt that anyone would challenge his assessment. But those are never the values of Jesus.

And why not? Who, exactly, is Jesus? Borg offers one answer in the next chapter of his book, entitled "Jesus, the Wisdom of God: Sophia Become Flesh." Jesus is not just the purveyor of alternative wisdom; Jesus IS Wisdom herself.

I won't detail Borg's entire argument, but it's well worth reading for a better understanding of the early chuch's ideas about Jesus and of Jesus as understood by Paul and by the gospel writers. In a nutshell, Borg notes that in the Jewish wisdom writings, we often see the Wisdom Woman, or Sophia as she is known in Greek (and English). Sophia is the first of God's creations and is present with God for the rest (Proverbs). She is a creator herself, a source of life and of all good attributes of life (Wisdom of Solomon). In the gospels and in Paul's letters, Jesus is specifically connected with Sophia. Borg concludes, finally, that Jeses was "the Son of God, the logos of God, and the Sophia of God."

I'm sure, without knowing much about it, that Borg's reading is controversial. I've heard Borg speak several times, but I am sure that I have never heard a sermon on Jesus as Wisdom, or Jesus as somehow encompassing both the masculine logos and the feminine Sophia. It's interesting, though, isn't it, that a reading early in the Christian year, gives us Wisdom as God's first creation, commanded to dwell in Israel among God's honored people and heritage? The reading stands as a bridge between the nativity stories, providing an alternative view as to the identity of Jesus, and the stories of Jesus' teachings that are soon to come, in which Jesus himself will provide his alternative, subversive understanding of Wisdom. Something to think about.

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