Commentary on Canticle in Letter to the Colossians

Christ, «Image of the Invisible God,» Says John Paul II

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

VATICAN CITY, NOV. 24, 2004 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to reflect on a canticle in St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (1:3,12-20).

* * *
<br> 1. The great Christological hymn, which opens the Letter to the Colossians, has just resonated. Prominent in it is the glorious figure of Christ, heart of the liturgy and center of the whole of ecclesial life. However, the hymn’s horizon immediately extends to creation and redemption, encompassing every created being and the whole of history.

In this song is found the living faith and prayer of the ancient Christian community, whose voice and witness the Apostle takes up, imprinting at the same time its stamp on the hymn.

2. After an introduction in which gratitude is expressed to the Father for the redemption (see verses 12-14), this canticle, which the liturgy of vespers proposes every week, is articulated in two strophes. The first celebrates Christ as «the firstborn of all creation,» that is, begotten before every being, thus affirming his eternity which transcends space and time (see verses 15-18a). He is the «image,» the visible «icon» of that God who remains invisible in his mystery. This was Moses’ experience who, in his ardent desire to see the personal reality of God, heard this reply: «You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live» (Exodus 33:20; see also John 14:8-9).

Instead, the face of the Father Creator of the universe becomes accessible in Christ, author of created reality: «all things were created through him … in him all things hold together» (Colossians 1:16,17). Therefore, on one hand, Christ is superior to created reality, but on the other, he is involved in his creation. For this reason, he can be seen by us as «image of the invisible God,» brought close to us through the creative act.

3. The praise in honor of Christ proceeds, in the second strophe (see verses 18b-20), toward another horizon: that of salvation, of redemption, of the regeneration of humanity created by him but which, by sinning, was plunged into death.

Now, the «fullness» of grace and of the Holy Spirit that the Father has placed in the Son is such that, by dying and rising, he can communicate a new life to us (see verses 19-20).

4. Therefore, he is celebrated as «the firstborn from the dead» (1:18b). With his divine «fullness,» but also with his blood shed on the cross, Christ «reconciles» and «pacifies» all realities, heavenly and earthly. Thus he returns them to their original situation, recreating the primitive harmony, willed by God according to his plan of love and life. Creation and redemption are, therefore, linked between themselves as stages of the same history of salvation.

5. As usual, we now make room for the meditation of the great teachers of the faith, the Fathers of the Church. One of them will lead us in reflection on the redemptive work accomplished by Christ in his sacrificial blood.

When commenting on our hymn, St. John Damascene, in the Commentary attributed to him on St. Paul’s Letters, writes: «Saint Paul speaks of ‘redemption through his blood’ (Ephesians 1:7). In fact, the blood of the Lord was given as ransom, leading prisoners of death to life. Those who were subjected to the reign of death could only be liberated by Him who made himself participant with us of death. … With his coming we have known the nature of God that existed before his coming. It is, in fact, the work of God to have extinguished death, restored life, and lead the world back to God. That is why he says: ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15), to manifest that he is God, though not the Father, but the image of the Father, and has his same identity, though he is not Him» («I Libri della Bibbia Interpretati dalla Grande Tradizione» [The Books of the Bible Interpreted by the Great Tradition], Bologna, 2000, pp. 18,23).

John Damascene then concludes with an overall view of the salvific work of Christ: Christ’s death saved and renewed man; and restored to angels their original joy, because of the saved, and united the lower realities with the higher. … In fact, he made peace and removed enmity from their midst. That is why the angels said: ‘Glory to God in the highest heavens and peace on earth'» (ibid., p. 37).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, a papal aide read the following summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In the great Christological hymn from the Letter to the Colossians, we extol the glorious figure of Christ, heart of the liturgy and center of the entire life of the Church. In this canticle we recognize the living faith and prayer of the ancient Christian community regarding the Lord Jesus, celebrated as the «firstborn» of all creation and of those who are raised from the dead (see Colossians 1:15,18).

With his divine «fullness,» but also through shedding his blood on the cross, Christ «reconciles» and «restores» all things in heaven and on earth. He thereby brings them back to their original condition, willed by God in accordance with his loving plan of life.

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

I extend a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present here today, including groups from England, Denmark, Australia, and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the peace and joy of our Lord Jesus Christ and I pray that your stay in Rome will bring you abundant blessings.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation