Reflection on the Canticle in Colossians 1

Christ Is Lord of Cosmos and of History, Says Pope

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 5, 2004 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to comment on a hymn in the first chapter of the Letter to the Colossians.

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1. We have heard the marvelous Christological hymn of the Letter to the Colossians. The Liturgy of Vespers proposes it to the faithful in the four weeks in which it is articulated as a canticle, a character that it had, perhaps, from its origins. In fact, many scholars believe that the hymn might be the quotation of a song of the Churches of Asia Minor, included by Paul in the letter addressed to the Christian community of Colossae, a city that was then flourishing and populous.

The apostle, however, never went to this center of Phrygia, a region of present-day Turkey. The local Church was founded by Epaphras, one of his disciples, a native of those lands. He appears at the end of the letter together with the evangelist Luke, «the beloved physician,» as St. Paul calls him (4:14), and with another figure, Mark, the «cousin of Barnabas» (4:10), perhaps the same companion of Barnabas and Paul (see Acts 12:25; 13:5,13), who later became an evangelist.

2. As we will have several occasions in the future to return to this canticle, we will limit ourselves now to an overall glance at it and to evoke a spiritual commentary, written by a famous Father of the Church, St. John Chrysostom (fourth century), noted orator and bishop of Constantinople. In the hymn, the grandiose figure of Christ emerges, Lord of the cosmos. Like the divine creative Wisdom exalted by the Old Testament (see, for example, Proverbs 8:22-31), «He is before all things, and in him all things hold together»; in fact, «all things were created through him and for him» (Colossians 1:16-17).

Therefore, a transcendent plan unfolds in the universe which reveals that God acts through the work of his Son. This is also proclaimed in the prologue of John’s Gospel, when he states that «All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be» (John 1:3). Also matter with its energy, life and light bear the imprint of the Word of God, «his beloved Son» (Colossians 1:13). The revelation of the New Testament casts a new light on the words of the wise man of the Old Testament, who said that «from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen» (Wisdom 13:5).

3. The canticle of the Letter to the Colossians presents another function of Christ: He is also the Lord of the history of salvation, which is manifested in the Church (see Colossians 1:18) and is accomplished by the «blood of his cross» (verse 20), source of peace and harmony for all human history.

Therefore, not only the horizon that is external to our existence is marked by the efficacious presence of Christ, but also the more specific reality of the human creature, namely, history. The latter is not at the mercy of blind and irrational forces; instead, despite sin and evil, it is ruled and oriented — by the work of Christ — toward fullness. Through the cross of Christ, the whole of reality is «reconciled» with the Father (see verse 20).

The hymn paints, in this way, a wonderful picture of the universe and of history, inviting us to trust. We are not a useless speck of dust, lost in space and time without meaning, but we are part of a wise plan that stems from the love of the Father.

4. As announced, we now give the word to St. John Chrysostom, so that he will be the one who crowns this reflection. In his Commentary on the Letter to the Colossians he reflects at length on this canticle. At the beginning he underlines the gratuitousness of the gift of God «who has made it possible for us to participate in the destiny of the saints in light» (verse 12). «Why does he call it ‘destiny’?» Chrysostom asks, and he answers: «To show that no one can obtain the Kingdom with his own works. Also here, as in the majority of cases, ‘destiny’ has the sense of ‘fortune.’ No one can have a behavior that is able to merit the Kingdom, but everything is gift of the Lord. This is why he says: ‘When you have done everything, say: We are useless servants. We have done what we should do'» (Greek Patrology 62,312).

This benevolent and powerful gratuitousness re-emerges further on, when we read that all things were created through Christ (see Colossians 1:16). «From him depends the substance of all things,» the bishop explains. «Not only does he make them pass from non-being to being, but it is also he who sustains them, so that if they were removed from his providence, they would perish and dissolve. … They depend on him: in fact, it suffices for them only to incline toward him for him to sustain and reinforce them» (Greek Patrology 62,319).

And an even greater sign of gratuitous love is all that Christ has done for the Church, of which he is the Head. In this connection (see verse 18), Chrysostom explains, «after having spoken of the dignity of Christ, the Apostle also speaks of his love for men: ‘He is the head of his body, which is the Church,’ wishing to show his intimate communion with us. He, in fact, who is so far above and superior to all, united himself to those who are below» (Greek Patrology 62,320).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, an aide of the Holy Father read the following summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s canticle depicts a marvelous vision of the history of the world with Christ at its center as Lord of the cosmos. Through the beloved Son, in whom everything in heaven and earth is created, all people are drawn into God’s transcendent plan for humanity.

Far from being without reason or direction, we are redeemed by Christ and directed to the fullness of life to which the Father, in his love, calls us.

St. John Chrysostom reminds us that it is in the Church — the body of Christ — that we most especially experience God’s providence and gratuitous love for us. Let us respond with joy to that intimate communion which we are privileged to share.

[The Pope then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims here today, especially the Vozrozhdeniye Choir from Moscow and other groups from England, Thailand, Japan and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of the Risen Lord, and wish you a happy stay in Rome.

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