Commentary on Canticle in Colossians 1

“Christ Is the Principle of Cohesion”

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 7, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience, held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope dedicated his talk to a reflection on the canticle found in Colossians 1:1,3,12,15,17-18.

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1. In the past we already reflected on the grandiose portrait of Christ, Lord of the universe and of history, which dominates the hymn at the beginning of the Letter of St. Paul to the Colossians. This canticle, in fact, dots all the four weeks in which the Liturgy of Vespers is articulated.

The heart of the hymn is composed of verses 15-20, where Christ, described as “image” of the “invisible God,” appears in a direct and solemn manner (verse 15). The Greek term “eikon,” icon, is dear to the Apostle: He uses it nine times in his Letter, applying it either to Christ, perfect icon of God (see 2 Corinthians 4:4), or to man, image and glory of God (see 1 Corinthians 11:7). The latter, however, with sin “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Romans 1:23), choosing to adore idols and becoming like them.

We must, therefore, constantly model our image on that of the Son of God (see 2 Corinthians 3:18), as we have been “delivered from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).

2. Christ is, then, proclaimed “firstborn of all creation” (verse 15). Christ precedes the whole of creation (see verse 17), having been begotten from all eternity: because of this “all things were created through him and for him” (verse 16). Also in the ancient Jewish tradition it was affirmed that “the whole world was created in view of the Messiah” (Sanhedrin 98b).

For the Apostle, Christ is the principle of cohesion (“in him all things hold together”), the mediator (“through him”), and the final destiny toward which the whole of creation converges. He is “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29), namely, the Son par excellence in the great family of the children of God, in which baptism inserts us.

3. At this point our gaze moves from the world of creation to that of history: Christ is “the head of the body, the Church” (Colossians 1:18) and he is so already through his Incarnation. In fact, he entered the human community, to rule it and constitute it in one “body,” namely in a harmonious and fruitful unity. The consistency and growth of humanity have their root in Christ, the vital pivot, “the principle.”

Precisely with this primacy Christ can become the principle of the resurrection of all, the “firstborn from the dead,” because “in Christ shall all be made alive … Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22-23).

4. The hymn moves to the conclusion celebrating the “fullness,” in Greek, “pleroma,” which Christ has in himself as gift of love of the Father. It is the fullness of the divinity which shines whether in the universe or in humanity, becoming source of peace, unity and perfect harmony (Colossians 1:19-20).

This “reconciliation” and “pacification” is effected through “the blood of the cross,” by which we are justified and sanctified. By shedding his blood and giving himself, Christ has diffused peace that, in biblical language, is synthesis of messianic goods and salvific fullness extended to the whole of created reality.

The hymn ends, therefore, with a luminous horizon of reconciliation, unity, harmony and peace, on which arises solemnly the figure of its author, Christ, “beloved Son” of the Father.

5. The writers of the ancient Christian tradition have reflected on this profound hymn. In his dialogue, St. Cyril of Jerusalem quotes the canticle of the Letter to the Colossians to respond to an anonymous interlocutor who asked him: “We say then that the Word begotten by God the Father suffered for us in his flesh?”

The answer, following the line of the canticle, is affirmative. In fact, Cyril affirms, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creatures, visible and invisible, by whom and in whom everything exists, was given — Paul says — as head to the Church: He is moreover the firstborn from the dead,” namely, the first in the series of dead who rise again. He, Cyril continues, “made his own all that is proper to man’s flesh and ‘endured the cross, despising the shame’ (Hebrews 12:2). We do not say that a simple man, full of honors, I know not how, by his union with Him was sacrificed for us, but it is the very Lord of glory who was crucified” (“Perché Cristo è uno: Collana di testi Patristici” [Why Christ is One: Collection of Patristic Texts], XXXVII, Rome, 1983, p. 101).

Before this Lord of glory, sign of the supreme love of the Father, we also raise our song of praise and prostrate ourselves to adore and thank him.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father read this summary in English:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s catechesis focuses on the canticle found in the first chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. There Christ is presented as the “icon,” the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” He is the one upon whom we all must model our own lives.

St. Paul also speaks of the Lord Jesus as the one who is “before all things,” the one through whom and for whom “all things were created,” and the one in whom “all things hold together.” Thus Christ is our principle of cohesion, our Mediator and all creation’s final destination. In the great family of God’s children, Christ is the Son par excellence.

The canticle also reminds us that by means of his Incarnation, Christ is the head of the body, the Church. He is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,” and in him the “fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” That “fullness” of divinity shines in all creation and in all humanity, and consequently is the font of all peace, unity and perfect harmony.

We meditate today with joyful hope on this beautiful text of St. Paul, which is for us an opportunity to thank the Lord Jesus for freeing us from the darkness of sin. Let it also be for us an encouragement to strive to become true disciples of Christ, “the firstborn of all creation.”

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

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present in today’s audience, including the group of priests from Scotland, the Capuchin Friars from Indonesia and the Lutheran pilgrims from Sweden. I also greet with affection the groups from England, Denmark, Malta, New Zealand and the United States of America. I wish you all a pleasant stay in Rome!

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