On Christ as Head

«The Whole Cosmos Is Submitted to Him»

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 14, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered during today’s general audience in Paul VI Hall.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

Among the letters of the Pauline collection, there are two, those directed to the Colossians and the Ephesians, that to a point could be considered twins. In fact, both have ways of speaking that are only found in those two, and it is calculated that more than a third of the Letter to the Colossians is found also in Ephesians.

For example, while in Colossians the invitation is read literally to «admonish one another in all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God» (3:16), in Ephesians, it is similarly recommended to «address one another (in) psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts» (5:19).

We could meditate on these words: The heart should sing, and also the voice, with psalms and hymns, to enter into the tradition of the prayer of the whole Church of the Old and New Testament. We thus learn to be united among ourselves and with God. Moreover, in both letters is found a «domestic code,» missing in the other Pauline letters, that is, a series of recommendations directed to husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves (Cf. Colossians 3:18-4:1 and Ephesians 5:22-6:9).

Even more important is to see that only in these two letters is confirmed the title «head,» kefalé, given to Jesus Christ. And this title is used on two levels. In the first sense, Christ is understood as the head of the Church (cf. Colossians 2:18-19 and Ephesians 4:15-16). This means two things: above all, that he is the governor, the director, the one in charge who guides the Christian community as its leader and lord (cf. Colossians 1:18: «He is the head of the body, the church.») And the other meaning is that it is as the head that he raises and vivifies all the members of the body of which he is head. (In fact, according to Colossians 2:19, it is necessary to «stay united to the head, from which the entire body, through ligaments and joints, receives nutrition and cohesion.») That is, he is not just one who directs, but one who is organically connected to us, from whom comes also the strength to act in an upright way.

In both cases, the Church considers itself submitted to Christ, both to follow his superior leading — the commandments — and to welcome all of the vital flow that come from him. His commandments are not just words, mandates, but are vital forces that come from him and help us.

This idea is particularly developed in Ephesians, where even the ministries of the Church, instead of being attributed to the Holy Spirit (as in 1 Corinthians 12), are conferred on the Risen Christ. It is he who «gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers» (4:11). And it is because of him that «the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament … brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love» (4:16).

Christ in fact is dedicated to «present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish» (5:27). With this he tells us that the strength with which he builds up the Church, with which he guides the Church, with which also he gives correct direction to the Church, is precisely his love.

Therefore the first meaning is Christ, Head of the Church: be it in regard to the leading, be it above all in regard to the inspiration and organic vitalization in virtue of his love.

Then, in a second sense, Christ is considered not only as head of the Church, but as head of the celestial powers and the entire cosmos.

Thus in Colossians, we read that Christ, «despoiling the principalities and the powers, made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph» (2:15). Analogously in Ephesians, we find that with his resurrection, God put Christ «far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come» (1:21).

With these words, the two letters bestow us with a highly positive and fruitful message. It is this: Christ need not fear any eventual competitor, because he is superior to any type of power that would try to humiliate man. Only he has «loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God» 5:2). That’s why, if we are united to Christ, we should fear no enemy and no adversity; but, this also means that we should remain closely united to him, without letting go!

For the pagan world, which believed in a world full of spirits, mostly dangerous and against which one had to defend oneself, the proclamation that Christ is the only victor and that he who is united to Christ did not have to fear anyone, appeared as a true liberation. The same is true also for the paganism of today, because also the current followers of these ideologies see the world as full of dangerous powers. To these people, it is necessary to announce that Christ is the conqueror, such that one who is with Christ, who remains united to him, should not fear anything or anyone. It seems to me that this is also important for us, who should learn to face all fears, because he is above every domination, he is the true Lord of the world.

Even the whole cosmos is submitted to him, and to him it converges as to its own head. Well-known are the words of the Letter to the Ephesians that speak of the project of God to «sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth» (1:10). Analogously in the Letter to the Colossians, it is read that «in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible» (1:16) and that «through the blood of his cross, he has reconciled all things for him and through him whether those on earth or those in heaven» (1:20).

Therefore, there is not, on one hand, a great material world and on the other hand, this small reality of the history of our land, the world of people: Everything is one in Christ. He is the head of the cosmos; also the cosmos has been created by him, it has been created for us insofar as we are united to him. This is a rational and personalistic vision of the universe. And I would add that a more universalistic vision than this one, it was not possible to conceive, and this converges only in the Risen Christ. Christ is the Pantokrátor, to whom are submitted all things: thought goes toward Christ Pantokrátor, who fills the apse of Byzantine churches, sometimes presented seated on high over the entire world, or even above a rainbow to indicate his comparison with God himself, at whose right hand he is seated (cf. Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1), and therefore his unsurpassable role as conductor of human destinies.

A vision of this type is conceivable only by the Church, not in the sense that it wants to wrongfully take for itself that which does not belong to it, but rather in another double sense. On one hand, the Church recognizes that Christ is greater than she is, given that his lordship also extends beyond her limits. On the other hand, only the Church is classified as the body of Christ, not the cosmos. All of this means that we should consider positively earthly realities, because Christ recapitulates them in himself, and at the same time, we should live our specific ecclesial identity in plenitude, which is the most homogeneous to the identity of Christ himself.

There is also a special concept that is typical of these two letters, and it is the concept of «mystery.» Once the «mystery of the will» of God is spoken of (Ephesians 1:9) and other times, the «mystery of Christ» (Ephesians 3:4; Colossians 4:3), or even the «mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge» (Colossians 2:2-3).

This makes reference to the inscrutable divine design over the destiny of man, of peoples and of the world. With this lan
guage, the two epistles tell us that it is in Christ where the fulfillment of this mystery is found. If we are with Christ, even though we cannot intellectually understand everything, we know that we are in the nucleus and on the path of truth. He is in his totality, and not only one aspect of his person or one moment of his existence, he who gathers in himself the plenitude of the unsearchable divine plan of salvation.

In him takes shape what is called the «manifold wisdom of God» (Ephesians 3:10), since in him «dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily» (Colossians 2:9). From now on, then, it is not possible to think of and adore the approval of God, his sovereign disposition, without confronting ourselves personally with Christ in person, in whom the «mystery» is incarnate and can be tangibly perceived. Thus one comes to contemplate «the inscrutable riches of Christ» (Ephesians 3:8), which is beyond all human understanding.

It is not that God has not left the mark of his passing, since Christ himself is the footprint of God, his maximum mark, but rather that one realizes «what is the breadth and length and height and depth» of this mystery «that surpasses knowledge» (Ephesians 3:18-19). Mere intellectual categories here prove insufficient, and recognizing that many things are beyond our rational capacities, we should trust in the humble and joyful contemplation, not just of the mind, but also of the heart. The fathers of the Church, on the other hand, tell us that love understands much more than reason alone.

A last word should be said on the concept, already indicated before, concerning the Church as spouse of Christ.

In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul had compared the Christian community to a bride, writing: «For I am jealous of you with the jealousy of God, since I betrothed you to one husband to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ» (2 Corinthians 11:2). The Letter to the Ephesians develops this image, specifying that the Church is not just a fiancé, but the real spouse of Christ. He, we could say, has conquered her for himself, and he has done this with the price of his life. As the text says, he «handed himself over for her» (Ephesians 5:25).

What demonstration of love can be grander than this one? But moreover, he is concerned for her beauty, not just that already acquired in baptism, but also that which should grow each day thanks to a blameless life, «without wrinkle or spot» in her moral behavior (cf. Ephesians 5:26-27).

From here to the common experience of Christian marriage, the step is a small one; conversely, it’s not even clear what is the author’s point of initial reference — whether it is the relationship Christ-Church, from whose light the union between man and woman should be conceived; or if instead it is the datum of the experience of conjugal union, from whose light the relationship between Christ and the Church should be conceived.

But both aspects mutually enlighten one another: We lean what matrimony is in the light of the communion between Christ and the Church; and we learn how Christ unites himself to us thinking of the mystery of matrimony. In any case, our letter is situated almost at the halfway point between the Prophet Hosea, who indicated the relationship between God and his people in terms of a wedding that has already occurred (cf. Hosea 2:4, 16, 21); and the prophet of Revelation, who will announce the eschatological encounter between the Church and the Lamb as a joyful and indestructible wedding (cf. Revelation 19:7-9; 21:9).

There is much more to say, but it seems to me that, from what I have presented, it can be understood that these two letters are a great catechesis, from which we can learn not just how to be good Christians, but also how to come to be truly persons. If we begin to understand that the cosmos is the footprint of Christ, we learn our right relationship with the cosmos, with all of the problems of its conservation. We learn to see [the problems] with reason, but with reason moved by love, and with the humility and the respect that permits acting in a correct way.

And if we think that the Church is the body of Christ, that Christ has given himself for her, we learn how to live with Christ in reciprocal love, the love that unites us to God and that makes us see the other as an image of Christ, as Christ himself.

Let us pray to the Lord so that he helps us to meditate well on sacred Scripture, his Word, and thus truly learn to live well.

[Translation by ZENIT] [At the end of the audience, the Holy Father greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Continuing our catechesis on Saint Paul, we turn to the «twin» letters: Colossians and Ephesians. Similar in language, they are unique in developing the theme of Christ as «head» – kephalé – not only of the Church, but also of the entire universe. These letters assure us that Christ is above any hostile earthly power. Christ alone «loved us and gave himself up for us» (Eph 5:2), so that if we remain close to him, we need not fear any adversity. It was God’s plan to «recapitulate» all things in Jesus «through whom all things were created», so that «by the blood of his Cross» we might be reconciled to the Father. Christ’s headship also implies that, in a certain sense, he is greater than the Church in that his dominion extends beyond her boundaries, and that the Church, rather than the entire cosmos, is referred to as the Body of Christ. These letters are also notable for the spousal image they use to describe how Christ has «won» his bride – the Church – by giving his life for her (cf. Eph 5:25). What greater sign of love could there be than this? Christ thus desires that we grow more beautiful each day through irreproachable moral conduct, «without wrinkle or defect» (Eph 5:27). By living uprightly and justly, may we bear witness to the nuptial union which has already taken place in Christ as we await its fulfilment in the wedding feast to come.

I extend a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s audience. May your time in Rome strengthen you to imitate Saint Paul in «giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father» (Eph 5:20)!

© Copyright 2009 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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