SOPHIA: WISDOM INCARNATE
by Joanna Manning
One of the most exciting recent developments in feminist spirituality has been the rediscovery of the biblical figure of Sophia. The word "Sophia" means wisdom. The gender of the noun in Greek is feminine. But "Sophia" is also the name given by Paul to Jesus in I Corinthians 1: 24 where he refers to Jesus as "the Sophia of God."
So who is Sophia? And how can a noun with a feminine gender be applied to Jesus?
The personification of Wisdom first appears in Hellenistic and Alexandrian post-exilic Jewish writings. Jews who preferred to stay in places such as Alexandria rather than return to Israel became more cosmopolitan and pluralistic in their outlook as they absorbed the influence of the surrounding culture. The Greek author Philo describes a mixed community of men and women in Alexandria who gathered weekly "around the table of Wisdom" in the years immediately preceding the birth of Jesus.
The Alexandrian community was also influenced by the Egyptian cult of universal goddess Isis. The writer of the biblical Book of Wisdom portrays Solomon praying to Sophia in words reminiscent of the cult of Isis. Solomon describes Sophia in erotic terms: if she and he were one then indeed their joint influence would be passionately released.
In biblical literature, Sophia is described many things all at one and the same time. Sophia is cosmic and creative. She’s playful, she’s angry. Sophia is also powerful. God’s saving deeds for the people in Egypt are retold in her name. She is identified with the Shekinah - the presence of God that stayed with the Hebrews in the desert. Presented as a powerful, wise, just and saving woman, in the Book of Sirach, Sophia combines the practical wisdom of women–referred to as ‘Hokmah’ in Hebrew– with the ability to guide and counsel with universal wisdom and knowledge.
Sophia is no rarefied divine being who dwells on high. She goes out into the marketplace and gets her hands dirty. She’s not afraid to go to the centre of the action and step outside conventional female roles by raising her voice. Wisdom sets a table and invites those who love her to partake of her feast.
In the monastic liturgy of the hours of the Catholic Church, the seven days before Christmas have special verses, known as the ‘O’ antiphons, assigned to accompany the reciting of the Magnificat at Vespers. The first one on December 17, invokes the coming of Jesus as Wisdom. "O Wisdom, the Holy Word of God, you reach from one end of the earth to the other and you order all of creation with you tender care. Come and teach us to walk in your ways."
And what was Jesus’ way? To live and walk with the poor, to raise his voice in the temple and in the marketplace, and to set a table for the outcasts. "Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I will give you refreshment." The inclusive meals and banquets of Jesus were the places where he located his most intense teachings. They were also the symbol of his ministry that most irked the Religious Right of his time. The meals of Jesus deliberately transgressed the purity codes of his day and included those who would have been considered ritually and religiously unclean.
The early Christian community continued Jesus’ tradition of celebrating inclusive community meals. Then over the centuries the church set more and more exclusive boundaries, even altar rails, around who could sit at the table, up to and including Rome’s latest liturgical directives banning lay people from cleaning the wine cup.
It seems that if we take Sophia’s way –which I believe is the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church today– the contemporary struggle for equality and inclusion within the Church cannot be divorced from the marketplace where Sophia is crying out. Wherever there is injustice, violence, poverty and discrimination in society, women are the prime victims, and often doubly victimized by the churches. A resurgence of fundamentalism in all major three western religions threatens to reverse previous progress towards women’s equality and self-determination.
It was a joint alliance of expediency between the religious and the political right, between the Jewish religious establishment of Jerusalem and the power of Rome that killed Jesus, Sophia’s prophet and messenger. With the Bush regime in the U.S. we now face another union of religion with empire where patriarchal politics in the U.S. and patriarchal religion in Rome have linked arms against women’s equality. Poor women do not have the luxury of separating politics and theology, church and the marketplace, or the personal and the political. On the international stage at the United Nations, the Catholic Church and its Muslim allies continues to place obstacles in the way of alleviating the poverty of women, domestic violence and women’s’ access to family planning and AIDS prevention. The Bush government plans to fight terrorism not by eliminating poverty and discrimination, two of its root causes, but by spending more on the military.
Sophia/Jesus once again cries out in the global marketplace to challenge us to find a way a way out of this patriarchal world order based on more dominance, power, and death into a new cosmic order based on universal justice, inclusiveness, playfulness and creativity.
Joanna Manning’s new book Take Back the Truth: Confronting Papal Power and The Religious Right (Crossroad Publishing) will be available in July.
Manning has been a teacher in high school and university for 30 years. In 1995, she received the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association’s Marion Tyrell Award for outstanding contribution to Catholic Education. She also runs a weekly breakfast for homeless and poor people in Toronto.