“From the beginning, and before the world, was I created,” sings Divine Wisdom in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, “and unto the world to come I shall not cease to be, and in the holy dwelling place I have ministered before him” (Ecclus. 24:14 DRA).1 This verse is familiar to all who pray the Divine Office or the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary according to the pre-Conciliar liturgical books of the Roman Rite. There, in the Common of Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, these words rings out at Lauds, at Terce, at Vespers. Like the Angelus bell tolling at morning, noon, and evening, the voice of the Church at prayer proclaims this verse three times on her feasts in honor of the thrice-admirable Mother of God. The liturgy’s implicit identification of Wisdom with Mary continues with her proclamation of vv. 15-162 at Sext, which verses are also prescribed as the lesson of the Mass for “Saturdays of Our Lady,” Salve, sancta parens. The beautiful vv. 19-20,3 a distant echo of the Song of Songs, are read at None. Finally, vv. 23-31 are read as the lesson at Votive Masses of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary; though too long to quote here in full, this passage identifies Wisdom as the vine which has brought forth a pleasant odor and flowers, “the fruit of honor and riches.” She is “the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope,” exhorting all who desire her to “come over to me … and be filled with my fruits” and “have life everlasting” (Ecclus. 24:23-24, 26, 31).
To say that the traditional Roman liturgy exhibits a strong preference for interpreting these verses in a Mariological way would be an understatement. Everywhere that Ecclesiasticus 24 appears in the pre-Conciliar Divine Office or the Mass, it is in the context of a Marian feast or devotion. Fr. Pius Parsch, a leading scholar of the Liturgical Movement, writes that “the liturgy is a master at representing our beloved Mother to us by means of certain figures,” and identifies the figure of Wisdom as one of three, along with the figure of the Spouse and that of the city of Jerusalem, which “recur most frequently and so deserve special consideration.”4 Why? It is worthwhile to quote Fr. Parsch in full on the range of Scriptural senses of the word “wisdom”:
By this ‘wisdom’ the sacred authors mean, first of all, the divine attribute, the wisdom itself of almighty God, whereby He created and ordered all things in the universe. Then, in addition they mean the divine, eternal ideas which in varying degrees of perfection God realized in creatures. The Fathers of the Church saw in this personified wisdom, the Son of God Himself “through whom God created the world.” Lastly, Sacred Scripture has in mind also a created “wisdom,” the virtue of wisdom which God imparted to the Jewish peoples through the revealed religion … It designates a sort of spiritual common sense, holiness and virtue in general, as contrasted with folly and wickedness.5
In the Scriptures, then, “wisdom” is a polyvalent term with a range of related, analogous meanings, first predicated of God’s own eternal, uncreated wisdom, then of His eternal and only-begotten Son, who is called the “Wisdom” of God,6 and then of God’s divine ideas, which are realized in creation.7 The eternal wisdom of God is personified in His Son and expressed, to a greater or lesser degree, in His works. Finally, God’s people are called wise insofar as they conform themselves to God’s own wisdom, as revealed to them in His works and words.
These Scriptural senses of wisdom are clear enough to understand, but it remains to be seen how the first three, at least, relate to Mary. If anything, the person of Wisdom speaking in Ecclesiasticus 24 would seem to be a figure of Christ, and indeed, the revised lectionary of the Novus Ordo Missae presents this text in a more or less exclusively Christological light. The most prominent appearance of this chapter in the new lectionary is the reading of vv. 1-4 and 12-16 every year at the Second Sunday after Christmas. These verses include the passage quoted above which describes Wisdom as uncreated and eternal, taking root in Sion; the liturgy recognizes herein “Jesus Christ as God’s wisdom who has taken flesh and taken root within Israel, growing up into a Tree of Life for all the nations.”8 Likewise, Ecclus. 24:1-22 is read in the revised Liturgy of the Hours at the Office of Readings on Wednesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time. It is paired with a selection from the treatise Against Heresies by Saint Irenaeus, bishop, on the self-revelation of the Son, giving the reading a clear Christological interpretation. Although the post-Conciliar Roman Missal does allow the reading of Ecclus. 24:1, 3-4, 8-12, and 19-21 as an option in the Common of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in continuity with the more ancient tradition, this reading conspicuously omits vv. 13-18, which describe Wisdom’s creation “before the world.” On the other hand, this reading emphasizes the Mariological character of verse 12, “he that made me rested in my tabernacle,” which is strangely absent from the traditional Office or Masses of the Virgin.
What is going on here? Is the traditional liturgy naïve, or simply wrong, in applying a key verse to Mary which implies that she preexisted creation? By no means. As a creature, Mary has a historical beginning in time. The divine idea of Mary as the spotless Theotokos, however, is eternal, and “arrayed thus in all her perfections, Mary took her place before God’s face from all eternity.”9 Furthermore, this divine idea (a term which is convertible with divine wisdom, as we have seen) is more perfectly expressed in Mary than any other divine idea is expressed in all of creation, save the uncreated Logos in the created humanity of Jesus Christ. “As the most perfect image of God in creatures,” argues Dr. Parsch, “Mary is, so to speak, divine wisdom itself.”10 Finally, Mary is the example par excellence of created wisdom, insofar as she conformed herself perfectly to the will of God in her earthly life. Thus the figure of Wisdom is fittingly applied to Mary as well as to Christ. He, the eternal and only-begotten Son of God, is Wisdom incarnate, but “in the liturgy this [title] is applied to the Blessed Virgin because of her constant and intimate association” with her Son.11
- The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
- “I was established in Sion, and in the holy city likewise I rested, and my power was in Jerusalem. And I took root in an honorable people, and in the portion of my God his inheritance, and my abode is in the full assembly of the saints.”
- “In the streets I gave a sweet smell like cinnamon and fragrant balm; I yielded a sweet odor like the best myrrh.”
- Pius Parsch, The Breviary Explained, trans. William Nayde, C.Ss.R., and Carl Hoegerl, C.Ss.R. (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1952), 438-439.
- Parsch, The Breviary Explained, 440.
- Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:24: “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
- Cf. Psalm 104:24: “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all.”
- John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, The Old Testament, vol. 1 of A Catholic Introduction to the Bible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 713.
- Parsch, The Breviary Explained, 441.
- Ibid, 440.
- The Catholic Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990), 845.