Friday of week 22 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Col 1:15-20

One of the main problems Paul was dealing with in writing to the Colossians concerned their ideas about angelic powers in the cosmos which threatened to push Christ into second place. Today we have Paul’s magnificent response, one of the most inspired passages in the New Testament which, as we shall see, has many echoes of John’s magisterial prologue on Jesus as the Word.
Originally, it was perhaps an early Christian hymn on the supremacy of Christ – used here by Paul to counteract the false teachings at Colossae. It is divided into two parts: 1, Christ’s supremacy in creation (vv.15-17); 2, Christ’s supremacy in redemption (vv.18-20).
The New American Bible gives the following evaluation of the passage:
Scholars raise the question whether Paul may not have adapted these verses from a Christian hymn or a Hellenistic wisdom poem. Whatever the case, the passage with all it lyricism is probably Paul’s. Its exalted Christology synthesises the growing awareness in New Testament times of Christ as man, Son of God, king and judge of the world, endowed with divine redemptive power, and containing in himself the fullness of that effective presence of God among humans which was first manifested in the Old Testament (cf. John 1:1-18). Whereas the human person is patterned after the image of God, being given a certain likeness to him (Gen 1:26ff), Christ is the actual likeness of God. Through faith, the remote reality of the Deity is rendered discernibly present in him and comprehensible to humans. He is the image of the invisible God (v.15), in the sense that as a person he is supreme in every way over all creation. Christ’s supremacy requires not only that nothing appear in creation except in relation to him but also that he himself share in the creation of all things (v.16). Such is his supremacy that he existed before creation came into being. It is to him that creation owes all that it has been, is, and will be (v.17).
Christ cannot be anything but supreme over the whole church, which in any case is unthinkable and unrealisable without him (his body). Furthermore, because of his supremacy he was the first to be raised by God from the dead; and his resurrection placed him in full possession of headship over the community which he brought into being (v.18). Since, as is clear from Christ’s role in creation (v.16), the cosmos is dependent on him (v.19), his death upon the cross has its effect on the whole of creation without exception, bringing it peace and uniting it to God (v.20). Paul’s clear exposition of the supremacy of Christ was occasioned by the Colossians’ difficulties concerning the relationship of angelic spirits to the world. (NAB, edited)
Paul introduces two ways in which Christ can claim to be the ‘head’ of everything that exists: 1, he is the head of creation, of all that exists naturally, vv.15-17 and 2, he is head of the new creation and of all that exists supernaturally through having been saved, vv.18-20.
The subject of the poem is the pre-existing Christ, but considered only in so far as he was manifest in the unique historic person that is the Son of God made man, cf. Ph 2:5ff. It is as the incarnate God that Jesus is the ‘image of God’, i.e. his human nature was the visible manifestation of God who is invisible, cf. Rom 8:29ff, and it is as such, in his concrete human nature, and as part of creation, that Jesus is called the ‘first-born of creation’ – not in the temporal sense of having been born first, but in the sense of having been given the first place of honour.
Let us now go to the text of the reading. Christ, says Paul, is:
1, Christ’s supremacy in creation (vv.15-17);
– the image of the invisible God: When we see and hear Jesus, we see and hear God, though veiled in the limitations of human form. The full glory of God cannot be seen in the humanity of Jesus.
In Heb 1:3 he is described as the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”. This figure of the image suggests two truths: 1, God is invisible (“no one has ever seen God”, John 1:18); 2, Christ, who is the eternal Son of God and who became the God-man, reflects and reveals him to us (see also John 1:18; 14:9). Just as Moses had to veil his face when speaking to the Hebrews after conversing with Yahweh, so Jesus needs to veil his divine nature by his humanity so that we may have access to him. During the experience of the Transfiguration, the three disciples got a glimpse of the veil being briefly removed.
– the first-born of all creatures: “He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1). As a member of the human race, he is first-born in dignity but not in time. Just as the firstborn son had certain privileges and rights in the biblical world, so also Christ has certain rights in relation to all creation – priority, pre-eminence and sovereignty (vv.16-18).
– in him everything in heaven and on earth was created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers – all things were created through him and for him. “Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him” (John 1:2). Here we have Paul’s refutation of the Colossians’ belief in cosmic powers. Everything that exists, however lofty and powerful, comes into being through Christ and goes back to God through him.
Seven times in six verses Paul mentions “all creation”, “all things” and “everything”, thus stressing that Christ is supreme over all. “Thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers” refers to angels, and a hierarchy of angels figured prominently in the heretical beliefs of some Colossians. Here Paul clearly asserts that the angels have their origin from Christ as the Creative Word of God. They were created through him and for him. They bow down in worship before him.
– he exists is before all else that is: “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He precedes all both in time and rank (cf. John 1:1-2) “Before Abraham came to be, I AM” (John 8:58).
– in him all things hold together: “All that came to be had life in him” (John 1:3). The continuing existence of every created thing totally depends on his creative and conserving power.
2, Christ’s supremacy in redemption (vv.18-20)
– He is the Head of the Body, that is, the Church: “And God placed all things under his feet, appointed him to be the head over everything for the church, which is his Body" (Eph 1:22)
For Paul’s understanding of the church as Christ’s Body we may read 1 Cor 12:12ff. The church is the Body of the Risen Christ, in other words, it is through his Body that Christ remains visible to the world. It is through his Body that he continues to communicate his Good News of the Kingdom. For each one of us, both individually and especially collectively, it is a huge responsibility. And we can only fulfil our mission effectively in so far as we are totally united in mind, heart and spirit with the Head of the Body, Christ Jesus our Lord and with the Word he brought for the world.
– he is the Beginning, the first-born of the dead, so that he should be supreme in every way. Jesus comes before all, on earth and in the heavens. Nothing or no one comes before him in time or in rank. He is the Beginning, that is, of the new creation. He is the First-born, because he was the first to rise from the dead with a resurrected body. Elsewhere Paul calls him the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). Others who were raised from the dead – the widow’s son raised to life by Elisha (2 Kings 4:35); widow’s son at Naim (Luke 7:15); Lazarus (John 11:44); Tabitha, raised to life by Peter (Acts 9:36-41); the boy who slept during one or Paul’s sermons, fell out of a window and died and then was restored to life by Paul (20:7-11) – all were raised only to die again.
– God wanted all fullness to be found in him: Jesus is the source of the fullness to which we all aspire, to be totally filled with the Spirit of Christ. ‘Fullness’ (pleroma, ) is a word rich in meaning when used by Paul. Originally it was part of the technical vocabulary of some Gnostic philosophies. In these systems it meant the sum of the supernatural forces controlling the fate of people. For Paul ‘fullness’ meant the totality of God with all his powers and attributes (2:9).
In this context, the exact meaning of the word pleroma (literally, the thing that fills up a gap or hole, like a patch, cf. Matt 9:16) is not certain here. Some writers have thought it must mean the same as in 2:9 (the fullness of divinity that filled Jesus), but since vv.15-18 have already dealt with the divinity of Jesus, it seems likely that the reference here is to the biblical concept of the entire cosmos as filled with the creative presence of God.
This concept was also widespread in the Graeco-Roman world. Paul teaches that the incarnation and resurrection make Christ head not only of the entire human race, but of the entire created cosmos, so that everything that was involved in the fall is equally involved in the salvation. So, in Romans Paul writes: “The whole created world awaits the revelation of the children of God… all creation groans and is in agony even until now” (Rom 8:19,22). “The plan God was pleased to decree in Christ…namely, to bring all things in the heavens and on earth into one under Christ’s headship” (1 Cor 2:9-10).
– and through him to reconcile all things to him, everything in heaven and everything on earth: this is the work of Jesus, to bring reconciliation and healing where there is division. To bring together not only people but the whole of creation. This reconciliation of the whole universe (including angels as well as human beings) means, not that every single individual will be saved, but that all who are saved will be saved by their collective return to right order and the peace of perfect submission to God. This was the mission that Jesus gave to his disciples as he breathed his Spirit on them after the resurrection: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.” In this scene the only mission given is to reconcile people with God and with each other in Christ. This is the work of the Kingdom, to bring all peoples and the whole of creation into peace and harmony based on truth, love and justice.
– making peace through Christ’s death on the cross: after all the triumphant language of the passage this comes as something of a surprising anticlimax but totally in keeping with the meaning of Christ. The peace and reconciliation that he brings is through the blood of the cross, the ultimate sacrifice of his humanity in love for his people and the world. This is what constitutes the real greatness of Christ. Because of his death on the cross, “God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11). We, too, are called to follow in his footsteps, ready to carry our cross for the sake of the Kingdom. “Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called children of God” (Matt 5:9).
The passage is extraordinarily rich in meaning and requires much time to be absorbed into the fabric of our thinking. It is both a profession of faith and the basis for very deep prayer.

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