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BY Jim Cosgrove
Pope John Paul II met with 9,000 pilgrims in the Paul VI Hall on Feb. 18 for his last general audience before Lent begins. He offered a meditation on Ephesians 1:3-10, which highlights the price that God paid for the salvation of men. The passage forms the basis for a canticle that is recited every Friday during evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours.
According to the Holy Father, the canticle is a hymn to the saving power of God revealed in Jesus Christ. In his infinite goodness, God planned, before the creation of the world, to bring all things into one through his beloved Son.
“Christ carries out a function of ‘fullness,’” the Pope noted, “so that in him the ‘mystery,’ which has been hidden throughout the ages, is revealed and so that all of reality fulfills — according to its specific order and degree — the plan the Father has conceived since eternity.”
Quoting St. John Chrysostom, the Holy Father pointed out that we have received redemption and the forgiveness of our sins through Christ's blood, which was shed on the cross, and by grace we were pre-destined in love to become children of God and to share in the fullness of God's own life.
This magnificent hymn of “blessing,” which is found at the beginning of the Letter to the Ephesians and which is proclaimed every Monday evening in the Liturgy of the Hours, will be the subject of a series of meditations during our journey. For the moment, we will be satisfied with an overview of this solemn and well-designed text, which is much like a majestic building, whose purpose is to exalt God's marvelous work that has been accomplished for us in Christ.
Its point of departure is a “before” that precedes time and creation. It is the divine eternity in which a plan, a “predestination,” that is beyond our understanding is already taking form — a loving and gratuitous plan for a destiny of salvation and glory.
In this transcendent plan, which encompasses creation and redemption as well as the universe and man's unfolding history, God had preordained, “in accord with the favor of his will,” to “sum up all things in Christ” — to re-establish the order and profound sense of every reality, both in heaven and on earth (see 1:10). Of course, he is “head over all things to the Church, which is his body” (see 1:22-23), but he is also the life-giving reference point for the universe.
The lordship of Christ extends, therefore, both to the universe and, more specifically, to the Church. Christ carries out a function of “fullness” so that in him the “mystery,” which has been hidden throughout the ages, is revealed (see 1:9) and so that all of reality fulfills — according to its specific order and degree — the plan the Father has conceived since eternity.
As we will have the opportunity to see later, this canticle, which is a sort of New Testament psalm, focuses our attention above all on the history of salvation, which is an expression and a living sign of God's “favor” (see 1:6 and 1:9) and of his love.
Thus, “redemption by his blood” on the cross, the “forgiveness of transgressions” and the abundant outpouring of “the riches of his grace” (see verse 7) are exalted as well as our adoption as Christians by God (see 1:5) and our knowledge of “the mystery of his will” (see 1:9), through which we enter into the intimacy of the very life of the Trinity.
Having considered this overview of the hymn that introduces the Letter to the Ephesians, we will now hear what St. John Chrysostom had to say about it. This extraordinary teacher and preacher, as well as a keen interpreter of sacred Scripture, lived in the fourth century. He became bishop of Constantinople amid all kinds of difficulties and was even subjected to exile on two different occasions.
When commenting on this canticle in his First Homily on the Letter to the Ephesians, he reflected with gratitude on the “blessing” that we have received “in Christ”: “What, then, are you lacking? You have been made immortal, you have been made free, you have been made a son, you have been made righteous, you have been made a brother, you have been made a coheir, you reign with him, and you are glorified with him. All things have been freely given to you and, as it is written, ‘How will he not also give us everything else along with him?’ (Romans 8:32). Your first fruits (see 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23) are adored by the angels, the cherubim, the seraphim. Therefore, what now do you lack?” (PG 62, 11).
Chrysostom goes on to say that God has done all this for us “according to the favor of his will.” What does this mean? It means that God passionately desires and ardently yearns for our salvation. “And why does he love us so? Why does he desire so much good for us? It is of his goodness alone. For grace itself is the fruit of goodness” (Ibid., 13).
It is for this reason, this ancient Father of the Church concludes, that St. Paul affirms that everything was accomplished “for the praise and glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved.” In fact, God “has not only released us from our sins but has made us objects of his love … he has adorned our soul and clothed it with beauty, and has rendered it an object of his delight and his love.” When Paul declares that God has done this through the blood of his Son, St. John Chrysostom exclaims: “For nothing is as great as that the blood of God should be shed for us. The fact that he spared not even the Son (see Romans 8:32) is even greater than our adoption as sons and all the other gifts. For great indeed is the forgiveness of sins, yet this is the far greater thing: that it should be done by the Lord's blood” (Ibid., 14).