In the liturgical calendar, the first of the eight days before Christmas is marked by a short hymn to Wisdom and known as ‘O Sapientia’.
‘Give me Wisdom, O Lord, that sitteth by Thy Throne, that she may be with me and labour with me’. I have these words, in what is now very faded writing, on a card on my desk. The card is positioned so that my eyes alight on it whenever I take them off the computer monitor. On the reverse of the card, less faded, are the words ‘Joy be always with you’. The person who gave me the card, and wrote out the words, died many years ago. I did not know her all that well, so the fact that I think of her when I look at the card is of some significance. She must have known something about me, that I wanted something that these words could supply.
Today, I find myself wondering what on earth I could possibly ‘want’ for Christmas, given that kind family members have been asking. I feel almost embarrassed to own to the one or two little practical things that it might be nice to have, but by no means essential. The truth is, I want for nothing. And yet I still want.
The wanting seems to have something to do with the words on the card, which are taken from the book of the Wisdom of Solomon. I want that Wisdom – not cleverness, or common sense, or even a more agile and creative mind. I want something that defies description. On the inside of the card is a painting of the Virgin and the child Jesus. The genre of the painting is not one I particularly like. It is a little too mannerist, too florid. But it serves as a pointer to what it is I think I want. I also think that my own ‘wanting’ is part of a far greater wanting that we all share but can seldom name.
This, I think, is the point of the Christmas season. It has to do with owning a need, or want, that is unnameable because it encompasses human destiny, holds it in some way, so that we don’t slide into chaos and oblivion, even if in a couple of centuries or so, we will have ceased to exist altogether as a species and as a planet. Christmas is about paradox. It is about frailty and innocence holding together what is brittle, broken and spoiled.
The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew describes how the infant Jesus was given his name. It is told entirely from the vantage point of Joseph, the man chosen to be his earthly father and protector. We are told that Joseph is a righteous man, but what matters most to us is not his righteousness so much as that he should have agreed to the child being given the name Jesus, or Yeshua, which means saviour. We are told that this Yeshua ‘will save his people from their sins.’
Christmas reminds us of the paradox of joy that seems to sit alongside sin, and of the suffering that sin brings with it. Christmas is often far from happy. So it is essential that we understand these two concepts of ‘saving’ and ‘sin’ anew if we are to make sense of the joy of Christmas. Irrespective of the way sin manifests itself, it is invariably about separation and brokenness, the tearing apart of the human person, through addiction, or the ‘drivenness’ of the need to succeed at all costs. Sin is about the breaking, or rendering brittle, of good relationships, and of the things that make for a compassionate society, and it is about the brittle relationships that persist between nations and peoples who are unable to forgive one another as they remember and hold on to a shared history of war or injustice.
At Christmas we are invited to contemplate innocence, even as we are experiencing or remembering suffering. The innocence we contemplate in the face of the Christ child is not sentimentality, neither is it peculiar to a particular style of painting. It is not necessarily pretty. In fact, it is best seen in people and circumstances that are ugly and dirty – in the refugee, the child (poor or wealthy) growing up in a violent or abusive home, in the lonely of all ages, in the addict. All of these situations return us, inexplicably, to the face of innocence as we see it in the infant Christ. And that face returns us to Wisdom.
Wisdom is ‘Sapientia’, or pure intelligence as we see it manifested in this royal baby who, as the result of some bureaucratic edict, has been born in a cattle shed. It is about being willing to come to terms with the reality of our spiritual poverty, when we want for nothing, so that we can also come to terms with the reality of the love of God, and of our own need for it.