Friday, July 08, 2005

Holy Wisdom, Holy Word

I was at first perplexed by the introduction of this phrase, "Holy Wisdom, Holy Word", into the "Renewing Worship" liturgical proposals. It is spoken by the lector after the reading of the lessons. I now realize, after speaking with the Director of Worship for the ELCA, that it was introduced by the Episcopalians into some of their liturgies, and we have borrowed it. I believe the phrasing is probably influenced by certain forms of feminist Wisdom Christology (Elizabeth Johnson's She Who Is, for example, or Fiorenza's Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet).

I have trouble figuring out how exactly this profits us liturgically to make this change to the liturgical response to the readings, emphasizing the conjunction Christ-Sophia rather than the Scriptures being for us the "Word of the Lord". The Word of the Lord, the traditional phrasing, is a confession of faith, "Jesus is Lord" being the primary confession of the church. I don't understand what the statement "Holy Wisdom, Holy Word" means, unless it means something much more second-order and less confessional, like "This is a word that contains wisdom for us."

I'd like to understand this phrase better, since it seems that it will be introduced into the next hymnal and liturgy of the ELCA.

What think ye?


  1. I been there, done that, got the T-shirt when it comes to obsessing over inclusifying liturgical language...there was a time in my life when I wanted every mention of God to be as gender-inclusive as possible. Now that I am older and I hope at least a little wiser, I still affirm gender-inclusivity in our language of worship, but I would prefer that it would be done so in a way that expands our ways of talking about and addressing God while preserving traditional phraseology -- in other words, adding more tools to our toolkit of Godtalk.

    Personally, I don't have a problem with "Holy Wisdom, Holy Word" as another tool in the box. I also don't have a problem with "This is the word of the Lord." (And, in my parish, which uses very truncated canned liturgies that can fit the bulletin, we lectors pretty much preface and end the lessons any way we want -- scary, no?) I don't understand why you would think of the phraseology as "second-order" or "less confessional," unless you think that the Holy Spirit is inferior to the other two Persons of the Trinity, and/or don't identify Jesus as God's Logos, or Word.;-) Which I know that you don't.

    And just an observation -- again, one coming from age and experience -- for me, the most important inclusivity that a church can demonstrate is in a true, observable commitment to women and men as equal partners in the world and equal partners in the Church, in both lay and professional spheres. In a church where women and men are equally respected, given equal access to all ministries, are equally acknowledged (in things like sermons)...there's more room for traditional Godspeak in the liturgy, because it's obvious from the actual life of the church that it's not meant in an exclusionary way.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. No, I'm not against more inclusive language in the liturgy, although as you notice, the term "Lord" does present certain issues regarding language inclusivity. The history of how and why we use the term Lord is itself a study in the issue of naming God, apart from issues of gender inclusivity.

    I came across material just yesterday in my continued reading of Gregory of Nazianzen that may be of help. His references to Jesus as the Wisdom of God aren't in reference to the Holy Spirit, but rather, 1 Corinthians chapter 1.

  3. It would appear to me that this use of "Holy Wisdom" is an echo (if not a conscious borrowing) from the Byzantine liturgies of St Basil and of St John Chrysostom. In the procession at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word, the deacon elevates the book of the Gospels and calls out: Wisdom! Let us attend! And again, just before the Epistle is read: Wisdom! Let us attend! And before he chants the Gospel lesson: Wisdom! Let us stand and hear the holy Gospel. And finally, just before the congregation confesses the Nicene Creed: Wisdom! Let us attend!

    This is not a reference to any personification (feminine or not) of Wisdom, but simply reminding the congregation that the Holy Scriptures are where true wisdom is to be found, and calling them to "pay attention" (which is all that the ponderous-sounding "Let us attend!" actually means. When I was Orthodox I always hoped that a new translation of the liturgy would simply say "Wisdom! Listen up!".)

    Moving this echo (or borrowing) from before the reading to the end, to displace the traditional Western response of the Word of the Lord does rather suggest an attempt to downplay the maleness of Jesus, and to "mine" the Church's tradition for language that will (once removed from its context) better support modern sensibilities and preoccupations.

    I think you are right that it is "less confessional", and right to question how it is profitable to make the change. As a sometime Orthodox (and still Orthodox-friendly) I'm all for changes that bring liturgy more into line with the overall tradition; but this strikes me as a change which strives to conform the tradition to the characteristic ideas of our own time. Even if those characteristic ideas are true, that is still not a good idea.

  4. Chris, thanks for the insights into echoes or borrowings from the Orthodox tradition.

  5. I know this blog is several years old, but a couple of comments. (1) I'm not aware of "Holy Wisdom, Holy Word" in any trial use liturgy in the Episcopal Church. The inclusive alternative to "The Word of the Lord" in "Enriching Our Worship" is "Hear what the Spirit is saying to God's people." But it is an option now in Presbyterian Church (USA) liturgy: the first time I saw it was in the new PCUSA hymnal, "Glory to God."

    It's also true that this is an echo of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, in which the celebrant chants "Wisdom! Arise! Let us be attentive!" before the proclamation of the Gospel. And, of course, honoring Christ as Wisdom as well as Word is biblical theology: "Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God...." (1 Cor. 1:24)