Wisdom’s silent subjugation
Human wisdom is a vacuous proliferation of words, if not ordered to the silent wisdom of the cross of Christ.
Readings: Matthew 11:25-30
The following homily was preached to the student brothers at compline. You can listen here or read below:
‘I thank thee, Father… because thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and hast revealed them to infants.’ (Mt. 11:25) A puzzling case of divine anti-intellectualism it would seem. On the one hand, Solomon is commended for praying for wisdom (Cf. 1 Kg 3:10), yet in Job, on the other hand, the Lord ‘catches the wise in their own craftiness’ (Job 5:13). A distinction is called for.
St Paul draws on it in the First Letter to the Corinthians, ‘among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age… we speak God’s wisdom’ (1 Cor. 2:6-7). And that, for the Apostle, is of course Christ, ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:24). So, to get back to our Lord’s exclamation, we now need to ask why Christ, the wisdom of God (i.e. ‘these things’ in the Evangelist’s words), is revealed specifically to ‘infants’. What is it about infancy that is of such spiritual import?
St Matthew’s word choice for ‘infant’ gives us a clue: nēpios, literally ‘no word’. The contrast then is between worldly verbosity and divine taciturnity. Divine pedagogy has become increasingly laconic, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us: ‘God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son’ (Heb. 1:1-2). St John of the Cross draws out from this the implication that we must clear out our own verbal rubbish, if we are to make a home for the Word of God. “The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul”.
The scribes and chief priests in the Gospels show us how deadly words are in the service of worldly wisdom. ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’ (Jn 5:39-40) This rebuke of Jesus was equally valid whilst he lay a wordless infant in the manger. Neither the Magi nor Herod knew where the Christ was to be born, but the scripture scholars did: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written”. Needless to say that they showed no sign of heading there, full of words and devoid of action, it was the foreign wise men who moved. As for Herod, his wicked response hardly needs to be repeated.
‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’ (Mt. 11:19), so our Lord says a few verses before today’s Gospel. When John the Baptist asked for a confirmation of Jesus’ Messianic identity, he received the reply: ‘tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed’. Actions speak louder than words – is that the conclusion? Only in part. Christ’s earthly deeds all look forward to one supreme act of vindication of wisdom: the deed of the Cross. I think it’s no accident that, at least in St Matthew’s passion, it is an essentially silent deed – at least, until his final cry of abandonment.
‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ Our blessed Lord puts it less opaquely later in the Gospel when he says: ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ (Mt. 16:24) Human speculative insight, no matter how brilliant, no matter how scriptural even, is utterly barren if not ordered to the wisdom of the cross of Christ. Nothing puts an end to an abstract intellectualism as much as suffering, yet nothing brings us nearer divine wisdom than suffering united to that of our Lord by the yoke of his cross.
Sufferings borne in this way become ‘light’. That is, they don’t lead to self-pity, endless grumbling, and anger. They also become ‘easy’ – a more literal translation is ‘useful’, a yoke puts beasts of burden into useful service – they awaken us to the sufferings of others, and impel us to spiritual and corporal works of mercy. St Martin de Porres, whose feast we keep tomorrow, is a truly outstanding model of such missionary charity. Thinking nothing of his marginalised social position, he accepted the most menial work in the convent, and joyfully ministered to the sick, animal and human alike. How salutary it is for the Order of Preachers to hold up, under its motto ‘veritas’, not just the patron of theologians, St Thomas, but also, St Martin, a true Apostle of Charity: ‘if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.’ (1 Cor. 13:2)