For the past few weeks, we’ve been hearing Jesus’ teachings on the theme of the “bread of life”, such as today’s gospel: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." The response of his audience, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" is, frankly, a legitimate question. But, it reveals that these Jewish men were failing to make an important link with some of the key teachings of their tradition -- the wisdom literature (Prv, Jb, Ec, Wis, some Ps, and the apocryphal Sir and Bar). In these, we hear another voice extending to us a strikingly similar invitation: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” (Prv 9:5) and “have life” (e.g., Ec 7:12).
The voice belongs to the Holy Wisdom of God, or Hagia Sophia in Greek. The famous church in Constantinople was named after her, and so was the one in the capital city of Bulgaria Sofia, which became its church’s namesake (nothing to do with Sophia the Martyr). In the Jewish tradition, this is a female voice, and not only grammatically so, despite the attempts to downplay it as such. In later times, Lady Wisdom may have inspired Shekhinah (God’s presence) of the medieval Jewish writings, and possibly influenced the representation of the Spirit of God as the more feminine Person of the Trinity. Initially, however, she may have been inherited from the neighbouring cultures, which had for centuries recognized Wisdom as the force that created and maintained the cosmic order and harmony. It’s hard to tell whether this Lady Wisdom of ancient Judaism sought to subvert the worship of rival goddesses (e.g., Egyptian Isis and Maat, Canaanite Ashera/Astarte, and Babylonian Ishtar), or reflected a complex process of theological convergence, whereby YHWH absorbed these deities. What’s clear is that this mystical, divine force that participated in creation and forever keeps the universe in order, eventually became personified as a woman -- and not merely a desirable, capable, faithful wife, but a prophet to her household as well as the larger community, who guides her men along the path of righteousness and, consequently, immortality.
Of course, the more memorable portions of Prv focus on the age-old contrast between a “good” and “bad” woman. Yes, Dame Wisdom and Madam Folly are literary tools in Prv (Ch 1-9 except 8) that help teach the audience of primarily young men the lesson of choosing not only a good vs. bad marriage, but life over death itself. Lady Wisdom is also that Capable Wife of the memorable concluding chapter of the book -- an acrostic poem -- who embodies practical wisdom in her management of an efficient home and business, literally from aleph to taw (alpha to omega!). Yet, there is more to the Lady Wisdom’s role than being a hard-to-obtain and priceless jewel, or maybe fruit that is sweeter than honey, in the possession of a clever man. These hardly flattering references certainly prevent us from envisioning these ancient, androcentric texts as some early form of feminist writings (and rightly so).
What’s more important for our discussion today is that the Early Christians writers, who emerged from the Jewish tradition, went on to describe Jesus and his work using the language and imagery associated with wisdom (e.g., Jn 1:1-18, Col 1:15-20, Heb 1:1-3), in two principal areas: first, in attributing them a prophetic role, and second, in identifying them with God. Like other OT prophets, Lady Wisdom “calls” and “stretches out her hand” (and is periodically refused) in the street, squares, corners, crossroad, heights and the city gates - that is, everywhere (Prv 1:20–33, 8:1–20). Unlike a prophet, however, she doesn’t call us to God - she is presumptuous enough to call us to herself. What gives her this right? What gave Jesus the right to say that he came from heaven?
When a certain Greek man wrote the mystical prologue to the Gospel of John, he attempted to harmonize Greek platonic philosophy with the Jewish concept of the Holy Wisdom of God. Jesus is the incarnation of the divine Logos, who “in the beginning, was with God”, and then “dwelt among us” (identical to Baruch 3:37!). Likewise, Wisdom is said to be eternally part of God, be present at God’s cosmic throne and at the beginning of creation, participated in creation of all things and thus teaches us about what is crafted, gives people her spirit, guards and delivers us from the way of death, and the reason why one can see the signs of the Creator in all of creation (Job 28, Baruch 3, Sirach 24, Proverbs 8, Wisdom of Solomon 7). In other words, both Jesus and Hagia Sophia personify the divine force, the ordering principle that sustains the world, prevents its plunge into chaos and allows us to recognize the divine Creator in his/her works: indeed, “if you have seen me, you have seen the Father”, as we heard last week.
To summarize, the Jewish wisdom tradition and the Hellenistic NT writings offer us striking parallels. The perfect, capable wife meets all of her family’s material and moral/spiritual needs. Woman Wisdom builds her house (actually, temple), sets her table with meat, bread, wine with the help of the servants, warns us of the consequences of right and wrong choices, and invites us to the table where we can be nourished and taught. Jesus is, “the way, the truth, and the life” and “the bread of heaven”, of whose body and blood “of the new covenant” we partake each time we receive our communion, and whose work we carry out at home and in the world.
Yes, in contrast to the yearnings for Sophia, whom even King Solomon treasured above all else, the quest for the goddesses of today (Science, Education, Growth, and Productivity) is motivated by the desire for power, profit, and self-advancement; and not surprisingly so, as the chief weapon of Lady Folly is, indeed, the appeal to pride. Our culture minimizes the gravity of immorality, which even comes through our everyday vocabulary (e.g., “decadent desserts”). So may we, both women and men, take these old texts for what they are worth, and learn to see ourselves as the prophetic and life-giving source of Wisdom in the lives of our families and communities - with God's help. Amen.
Please click here for an interesting article re. the interpretation of the "Wisdom Banquet" Novgorod icon.