Saint Colm Cille (Columba), Abbot – First Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:24-29

A story is told of a woman who went to one of Shakespeare’s plays for the first time.  Asked her reaction, she responded: “It was full of quotations!”

Sometimes one gets the same feeling reading the letters of Paul.  Scattered through what were simply letters to Christian communities, with no thought that they would ever be part of the inspired word of God, are gems of sayings which have become the very fabric of our Christian culture and spirituality.

Right at the beginning of today’s reading there is such a gem.  Jesus tells the Colossians:

It makes me happy to suffer for you,
as I am suffering now,
and in my own body to do what I can
to make up all the hardships
that still have to be undergone by Christ
for the sake of his body, the Church.

In his preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles, Paul experienced all kinds of affliction, but here he is probably referring especially to the imprisonment he is experiencing at the present time.

In saying that, through his own sufferings, he is trying to make up what is lacking, he does not mean that there was a deficiency in the sacrifice of Christ.

Jesus suffered in order to establish the Kingdom of God, and anyone who continues his work must share in this suffering.  Paul is not saying that he thinks his own sufferings increase the value of the redemption (since that value cannot be increased).  The sufferings of Christ were of infinite value and did not need to be filled.  But Paul is saying that he shares, by his sufferings as a missionary, in those that Jesus had undergone in his own mission. These are the sufferings predicted for the messianic era, and are all part of the way in which God had always intended the Church to develop. Paul feels that being the messenger Christ has chosen to send to the pagans, he has been specially called on to experience these sufferings.

For Paul, too, the Body of the Risen Christ is his church.  That Body continues to suffer and undergo hardships and Paul wants to share in these sufferings and identify with them – as all of us are called to do.

What a beautiful idea!  Paul is in prison in Rome.  He offers up his pain and sufferings and joins them to those of Christ that they may benefit the Body of the risen Christ, the whole Church.

Uniting his sufferings with those of Jesus is part of Paul’s sense of an extremely intimate closeness to Jesus.  In a sense, all the sufferings that Christians have ever offered to God, and have yet to offer, may be seen as united as part of the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross.  In a way, the work of redemption is made full by Christians identifying their own sufferings for the Gospel as the building blocks of the Kingdom.

His sufferings are for the church
of which I was made a servant
with the responsibility towards you
that God gave to me,
that of completing God’s message,
the message which was a mystery
hidden for generations and centuries
and has now been revealed to the saints, his holy people.

The meaning of ‘completing God’s message’ seems to be that the word of God is brought to completion, i.e. to its intended purpose, only when it is proclaimed (see Rom 10:13-15).  Paul’s commission to bring the word to completion, therefore, required him to make the word of God heard in Colosse as well as in many other places.  In doing so, he is continuing what Jesus did on the cross. Remember too that Jesus said his followers would do more than he did – certainly in terms of spreading his Message.

His role is to unfold that mystery which has been hidden from ages past, but is now revealed to the ‘saints’, that is, the Christians.  By ‘mystery’ he means not so much something that is difficult to understand, but rather a secret which is only now being made known.  The word ‘mystery’ was commonly used of some esoteric religions (sometimes called ‘mystery religions’) where only the initiates were given special knowledge denied to others.

The Church is not like that.  What Paul means is that truths about God or God’s plans, hitherto unknown to the Gentiles, have been made known through Jesus Christ and are now being proclaimed to the whole world.  Paul radically changes the original meaning of mystery by always combining it with words such as “unfold” (this reading), “made known” (Eph 1:9), “make plain” (Eph 3:9) and “revelation” (Rom 16:25).  The Christian mystery is not secret knowledge for a few.  It is a revelation of divine truths – once hidden but now openly proclaimed.

The ‘mystery’ he is referring to here is that extraordinary love of God which has been made known to us through the life, sufferings, death and resurrection of his incarnate Son Jesus, and which Paul and his fellow evangelisers continue to unfold to those who have not yet heard.

It was God’s purpose to reveal to the ‘saints’ how rich is the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: it is Christ among you, your hope of glory.

The mystery is the fact that Christ now indwells in believing Gentiles, for it had not been previously revealed that the Gentiles would be admitted to the church on equal terms with Israel.

Previously, when it had seemed (to the Jews) that pagans could never be saved, as salvation was restricted to ‘Israel’, pagans had seemed to be without a Messiah and consequently to be deprived of all hope.  The ‘mystery’ or secret of God that had now been revealed was that the pagans too were, and had been, all called to be saved through union with Christ, and so to reach eternal glory.

This is the Christ we are proclaiming,
admonishing and instructing everyone in all wisdom,
to make everyone perfect in Christ.

The Christ Paul proclaims is the wisdom which makes us perfect. ‘Perfect’ was a word used by the mystery religions and the Gnostics to describe those who had become possessors of the secrets or knowledge boasted of by the particular religion.  But in Christ, every believer is one of the perfect.  The wisdom of the Christian is not (as the Gnostics believed) perfect knowledge, but the Way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross, the Way of universal and unconditional Love, the Way of the Beatitudes, the Way of Service, the Way of Justice and Compassion.  In other words, the vision of the Kingdom.

And it is for this reason that I labour, striving with his energy which works in me mightily.

Paul puts all his effort into his work for the Gospel but it really is Christ’s energy which produces the results.  As Paul says elsewhere, “when I am weak, then I am strong”.

And he wants the Colossians to know how much he is struggling on their behalf, and also for the Christians of nearby Laodicea and other places he had not visited.  Laodicea (modern Pamukkale) was about 17 km from Colosse and this letter was intended for both towns. Paul had not been to either place but was fully aware of the problems the Christians were facing in each one.  His concern for them is no less because of that.

Finally, the reading ends with another lovely passage in which Paul says that his purpose is:

…to bind them together in love
and to encourage their resolution
until they are rich in assurance
of their complete understanding
and have knowledge of the mystery of God,
in which all the jewels of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.

The mystery of God is revealed what, till then, had been ‘hidden’, namely the ‘infinite wisdom’ of God.  That it is Christ who is revealed in the mystery is of course true, he himself is also the Wisdom of God and he is also the Mystery that is hard to understand.

Paul also stresses knowledge in this letter because he was refuting a heresy that emphasised knowledge as the means of salvation (Gnosticism).  Paul insists that the Christian, not the Gnostic, is the one who possesses genuine knowledge about the meaning of life.

These are the ‘mysteries’ which are now being made known, “in which all the jewels of wisdom and knowledge are hidden”.  This wisdom is within the reach of even the simplest person.  It requires not a massive intellect but an open heart.

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