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St Paul's Letter to the Colossians

Vespers (Evening Prayer) Wednesday Week 1

Catechesis by Blessed John Paul II
- in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

Col 1,3.12-20

1. We have just heard the wonderful Christological hymn of the Letter to the Colossians. The Liturgy of Vespers presents it in all four weeks in which the liturgy unfolds and offers it to the faithful as a Canticle, returning the text to what was perhaps its original form. Indeed, many scholars think that the Canticle might be a citation from a hymn of the Church in Asia Minor, which Paul inserted into the Letter he addressed to the Christian community of Colossae, then a flourishing and densely populated city.

The Apostle, however, never went to this centre of Phrygia, a region that is now part of Turkey. The local Church was founded by one of his disciples who came from the region whose name was Epaphras. He is mentioned briefly at the end of the Letter, together with Luke the Evangelist, "the beloved physician" as St Paul calls him (4: 14), and another figure, Mark, "the cousin of Barnabas" (4: 10), perhaps the same Mark who was the companion of Barnabas and Paul (cf. Acts 12: 25; 13: 5, 13) and later became the Evangelist.

2. Since we will have several occasions to return to this Canticle, let us be content here with an overview of it, recalling a spiritual commentary on it by a famous Father of the Church, St John Chrysostom (fourth century A.D.), a noted orator who was also Bishop of Constantinople. The grandiose figure of Christ, Lord of the cosmos, stands out in this hymn. Like divine creative Wisdom, extolled in the Old Testament (cf. for example, Prv 8: 22-31), "he is before all things, and in him all things hold together"; indeed, "all things were created through him and for him" (Col 1: 16, 17).

Thus, a transcendent design unfolds in the universe that God puts into practice through the work of the Son. John also proclaims it in the Prologue to his Gospel when he says: "all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (Jn 1: 3). Even matter, with its energy, life and light, bears the imprint of the Word of God, "his beloved Son" (Col 1: 13). The revelation of the New Testament casts new light on the words of the wise man of the Old Testament, who declared that "from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator" (Wis 13: 5).

3. The Canticle in the Letter to the Colossians presents another function of Christ: he is also the Lord of the history of salvation who makes himself manifest in the Church (cf. Col 1: 18) and is fulfilled in "the blood of his cross" (v. 20), a source of peace and harmony for the whole of human life.

It is therefore not only our external horizons that are marked by the effective presence of Christ, but also the most specific reality of human creatures: history. It is not at the mercy of blind and irrational forces, but even in sin and evil is supported and guided toward fullness by Christ's action. This is how the whole of reality is "reconciled" with the Father through the Cross of Christ (cf. v. 20).

Thus, the hymn paints a marvellous fresco of the universe and of history, inviting us to trust. We are not useless grains of dust, irrelevantly scattered in space and time, but are part of a wise plan conceived by the Father's love.

4. As we announced, we will now let St John Chrysostom speak so that he may crown this reflection. In his Commentary on the Letter to the Colossians, he reflects extensively on our Canticle. At the beginning, he underlines the gratuitousness of the gift of God "who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light" (v. 12). "Why does he say "inheritance'?" Chrysostom asks himself, stating: "To show that no one can attain the Kingdom with his own works. Here too, as it does more often than not, the word "inheritance' means "fortune'. No one's behaviour is such as to deserve the Kingdom, but all things are a gift from the Lord. For this reason, [the Lord] says: "When you have finished doing everything, say: We are useless servants. We have done all that we had to do'" (PG 62: 312).

This kind and powerful free-giving comes to the fore once again when we later read that it is in Christ that all things were created (cf. Col 1: 16). "It is on him that the substance of all things depends", the Bishop explains. "Not only does he make them pass from not existing to existing, but it is again he who supports them so that if they were removed from his providence they would perish and be dispelled.... They depend on him: indeed, turning towards him is enough to sustain and strengthen them" (PG 62: 319).

What Christ accomplishes for the Church, of which he is the Head, is an even clearer sign of his gratuitous love. At this point (cf. v. 18), Chrysostom explains, "After speaking of Christ's dignity, the Apostle also speaks of his love for men and women: "He is the head of his body which is the Church', desiring to demonstrate his intimate communion with us. Indeed, he who is so exalted, who is above all things, unites himself with those who are beneath him" (PG 62: 320).

JPII - General Audience, Wednesday 5 May 2004

Vespers (Evening Prayer), Wednesday Week 2

Catechesis by Blessed John Paul II
- in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Christ the "First-born" of all creatures and the "First-born" among the dead" - Colossians 1: 3, 12-20

1. We have just heard resound the great Christological hymn that opens the Letter to the Colossians. It exalts the glorious figure of Christ, the heart of the liturgy and centre of all ecclesial life. The horizon of the hymn, however, soon widens to embrace creation and redemption, involving every created being and the whole of history.

In this Canticle we can identify the quality of the faith and prayer of the ancient Christian community; it is the voice and testimony of this community that the Apostle has recorded, although he has set his own seal upon the hymn.

2. After an introduction in which thanks are given to the Father for our redemption, our hymn is divided into two strophes that the Liturgy of Vespers proposes anew each week. The first celebrates Christ as the "firstborn of all creation", that is, begotten before all other beings. Hence, this strophe affirms his eternity which transcends space and time. He is the "image", the visible "icon" of God who remains invisible in his mystery. It was through this experience of Moses, in his ardent desire to look upon God's personal reality, that he heard in response: "You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live" (Ex 33: 30).

Instead, the face of the Father, Creator of the universe, becomes accessible in Christ, the architect of created reality: "All things were created through him... and in him all things hold together" (Col 1: 16-17). Thus, while on the one hand Christ is superior to created realities, on the other hand he is involved in their creation. For this he can be seen by us as an "image of the invisible God", brought close to us through the act of creation.

3. In the second strophe, the praise in Christ's honour reaches to a further horizon: of salvation, redemption, the rebirth of humanity created by him but which, through sin, had been plunged into death.

Now, the "fullness" of grace and of the Holy Spirit that the Father instilled in the Son enabled him, through dying and being raised, to communicate new life to us.

4. He is therefore celebrated as "the firstborn from the dead" (1: 18b). With his divine "fullness" but also by shedding his blood on the Cross, Christ "reconciles" and "makes peace" with all things, in heaven and on earth. Thus, he brings them back to their original condition, recreating the initial harmony that God desired in accordance with his plan of love and life. Creation and redemption are thus connected, like the stages of one and the same saving event.

5. In accordance with our customary practice, let us now make room for the meditation of those great teachers of faith, the Fathers of the Church. One of them will guide us in our reflection on the work of redemption that Christ brought about through his sacrificial blood.

Commenting on our hymn, St John Damascene, in the Commentary on the Letters of St Paul that has been attributed to him, writes: "St Paul speaks of "redemption through his blood' (Eph 1: 7). The ransom given is in fact the Blood of the Lord which leads prisoners from death to life. The subjects of the kingdom of death could not be set free in any other way except through the One who shared with us in death.... By the work wrought by his coming, we became acquainted with the nature of God who existed before his coming. Indeed, it was God who stamped out death, restoring life and leading the world back to God. He therefore says: "He is the image of the invisible God' (Col 1: 15), to show that he is God, even if he is not the Father but the image of the Father and shares the identity of the Father, although he is not the Father."

John Damascene then concludes by giving us an overall picture of the saving work of Christ: "The death of Christ saved and renewed man; and it brought the angels back to their original joy because of the people saved, and combined earthly realities with those above... Indeed, he made peace and took away enmity. Therefore, the angels said: "Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.'"

General Audience - 24 November 2004 - © Copyright 2004 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

"Firstborn of all creation!" - Colossians 1: 12-20 - Benedict XVI

(Evening Prayer, Wednesday, Week 3) - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
General Audience - 7 September 2005 - © Copyright 2005 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

1. We have already reflected earlier on the grandiose fresco of Christ, Lord of the universe and of history, that dominates the hymn St Paul placed at the beginning of the Letter to the Colossians. This canticle, in fact, punctuates all four of the weeks spanned by the Liturgy of Vespers.

The heart of the hymn consists of verses 15-20, into which Christ enters directly and solemnly as the "image" of "the invisible God" (v15).

The Greek term ekon, "icon", is dear to the Apostle: in his Letters he uses it nine times, applying it both to Christ, the perfect icon of God, and to man, the image and glory of God.

However, by sin, men and women "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images representing mortal man" (Rom 1: 23), choosing to worship idols and become like them.

We must therefore continuously model our being and life on the image of that of the Son of God, so that we may be "delivered... from the dominion of darkness" and "transferred... to the Kingdom of his beloved Son" (Col 1: 13).

This is a first imperative in this hymn: to model our life on the image of the Son of God, entering into his sentiments, his will and his thoughts.

2. Christ is then proclaimed the "firstborn" of "all creation" (v15). Christ is before all things because he has been begotten since eternity, for "all things were created through him and for him" (v16). The ancient Jewish tradition also says that "the whole world was created in view of the Messiah" (Sanhedrin, 98b).

For the Apostle, Christ is the principle of coherence ("in him all things hold together"), the mediator ("through him") and the final destination toward which the whole of creation converges. He is the "firstborn of many brothers" (Rom 8: 29), that is, the Son par excellence in the great family of God's children, into which we are incorporated by Baptism.

3. At this point, our gaze turns from the world of creation to that of history. Christ is "the Head of the Body, the Church" (Col 1: 18); he already became this through his Incarnation.

Indeed, he entered the human community to support it and make it into a "body", that is, in harmonious and fruitful unity. Christ is the root, the vital pivot and "the beginning" of the coherence and growth of humanity.

Precisely with this primacy Christ can become the principle of the resurrection of all, the "firstborn from the dead", so that "in Christ all will come to life again": first Christ, the first fruits; then, at his coming, all those who belong to Christ.

4. The Canticle draws to a close celebrating the "fullness", in Greek pleroma, which Christ possesses in himself as a gift of love of the Father. It is the fullness of divinity that shines out, both in the universe and in humanity, becoming a source of peace, unity and perfect harmony (Col 1: 19-20).

This "reconciliation" and "repacification" is brought about through "the blood of his Cross", by which we are justified and made holy. By pouring out his Blood and giving himself, Christ has spread peace, which in biblical language is a synthesis of the Messianic goods and saving fullness extended to the whole of created reality.

The hymn ends, therefore, with a shining horizon of reconciliation, unity, harmony and peace, against which the figure of its architect solemnly rises: Christ, the "Beloved Son" of the Father.

5. Many historians of the ancient Christian tradition have reflected on this important passage. St Cyril of Jerusalem, in one of his dialogues, cites the Canticle of the Letter to the Colossians in response to an anonymous correspondent who had asked him: "So can we say that the Word begotten by God the Father suffered for us in his flesh?".

The answer, echoing the Canticle, is in the affirmative. Indeed, Cyril says, "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature, visible and invisible, for whom and in whom all things exist, was given - Paul says - to be the Head of the Church: he is also the firstborn from the dead", that is, the first in the series of the dead who are raised.

"He made his own", Cyril continues, "all that is of the flesh of man and "endured the Cross, heedless of its shame' (Heb 12: 2). We do not say that a simple man, heaped with honours, I know not how because of his connection with him, was sacrificed for us, but that the Lord of glory himself was the One crucified."

Before this Lord of glory, a sign of the supreme love of the Father, let us also raise our song of praise and bow down before him, in adoration and thanksgiving.

"All the fullness of God" - Colossians 1: 3, 12-20

(Evening Prayer, Wednesday, Week 4) - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
General Audience - 4 January 2006 - © Copyright 2006 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

1. At this first General Audience of the New Year let us pause to meditate on the famous Christological Hymn contained in the Letter to the Colossians which constitutes, as it were, the solemn entrance into the wealth of this Pauline text; it is also a doorway through which to enter this year.

The hymn proposed for our reflection is framed by a rich expression of thanks. It helps us to create the spiritual atmosphere required to live well these first days of 2006 and our long journey throughout the new year.

The praise of the Apostle, together with our praise, rises up to "God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ", the source of that salvation which is described using negative and positive images: first as having "delivered us from the power of darkness", that is, as "redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (v14), and then re-presented as "the inheritance of the saints in light" (v12) and as the entrance "to the Kingdom of his beloved Son" (v13).

2. At this point the great and full Hymn unfolds: its centre is Christ and it exalts his primacy and work both in Creation and in the history of Redemption. Thus, the Canticle has two movements. In the first movement, Christ is presented as the Firstborn of all creation, Christ "generated before every creature". Indeed, he is "the image of the invisible God" and this expression has the same impact that the "icon" has in Eastern culture: it is not only the likeness that is emphasized but the profound intimacy with the subject that is represented.

Christ visibly re-proposes among us the "invisible God". In him we see the face of God through the common nature that unites them. By virtue of his most exalted dignity, Christ precedes "all things", not only because of his eternity, but also and especially in his creative and provident work: "in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible... and in him all things hold together." Indeed, they were also created "for him" (v16).

And so St Paul points out to us a very important truth: history has a destination, a direction. History moves toward humanity united in Christ and thus moves in the direction of the perfect man, toward the perfect humanism.

In other words, St Paul tells us: yes, there is progress in history. There is, we could say, an evolution of history. Progress is all that which brings us closer to Christ and thus closer to a united humanity, to true humanism. And so, hidden within these indications there is also an imperative for us: to work for progress, something that we all want. We can do this by working to bring others to Christ; we can do this by personally conforming ourselves to Christ, thereby taking up the path of true progress.

3. The second movement of the Hymn is dominated by the figure of Christ the Saviour within the history of salvation. His work is revealed first of all in his being "the head of the Body, the Church" (v18): this is the privileged salvific horizon that manifests the fullness of liberation and redemption, the vital communion that joins the head and the members of the body, that is, between Christ and Christians. The Apostle's gaze extends to the ultimate goal towards which history converges: Christ, "the first-born from the dead" (v18), is the One who opens the doors to eternal life, snatching us from the limits of death and evil.

Here, in fact is that pleroma, that "fullness" of life and grace that is in Christ himself and that was given and communicated to us. With this vital presence that allows us to share in his divinity, we are interiorally transformed, reconciled, and peace is reestablished: this is the harmony of the entire redeemed being, in whom henceforth God will be "all in all" (I Cor 15: 28). To live as Christians means allowing ourselves, in this way, to be interiorly transformed into the likeness of Christ. Here, reconciliation and peace are achieved.

4. Let us now give this grandiose mystery of Redemption a contemplative look, borrowing the words of St Proclus of Constantinople, who died in 446. In his First Homily on Mary, Mother of God, he presents the mystery of Redemption anew, as a consequence of the Incarnation.

Indeed, God, the Archbishop recalls, was made man in order to save us and thus to snatch us from the powers of darkness and bring us back to the Kingdom of the Beloved Son, exactly as this Canticle of the Letter to the Colossians recalls: "The One who redeemed us", Proclus observes, "is not purely human; indeed, the whole of the human race was enslaved to sin; but he was also not merely a God deprived of human nature: he actually had a body. If he had not been clothed in my flesh he would not have saved me. Having been formed in the Virgin's womb, he was clad in the guise of one condemned. In a wonderful exchange, he gave his spirit and took on flesh."

We therefore stand before the work of God who brought about Redemption precisely because he was also a man. He was at the same time the Son of God, the Saviour, but also our brother, and it is with this closeness that he pours forth in us the divine gift.

It is truly God-with-us. Amen!