Pope Benedict XVI met with 20,000 in St. Peter's Square for his general audience on Sept. 7. His teaching centered on the canticle found in St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians, which is recited each week during the Liturgy of the Hours.
In the canticle, Christ is presented as the “icon,” or “image,” of the invisible God — a word that St. Paul often used and applied both to God and to man.
“However, man, through sin, ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man’ by choosing to adore idols, thereby becoming like them,” the Holy Father pointed out. “For this reason, we must constantly model our image on the image of the Son of God since we have been ‘delivered from the power of darkness and transferred to the Kingdom of his beloved Son.’”
“For the Apostle Paul,” Pope Benedict went on to say, “Christ is the basis for cohesion, the mediator, and the ultimate goal toward which all of creation is converging. He is ‘the Firstborn among many brothers’, that is, the Son par excellence in that great family of the children of God that baptism makes us part of.”
The Pope noted that the canticle also reminds us that Christ is head of the body, the Church, by means of his incarnation.
“He entered into the community of mankind in order to rule over it and to form it into one ‘body’ — that is, into a harmonious and fruitful unit,” the Holy Father said. “Mankind's durability and growth find in Christ their root, their live-giving basis, their ‘beginning.’”
The Holy Father noted that the fullness of God dwells in Christ and radiates throughout creation and in all mankind, becoming the source of peace, unity and perfect harmony.
“By shedding his blood and giving of himself, Christ has poured out peace,” he noted. Consequently, Pope Benedict XVI said, mankind now faces “a resplendent panorama of reconciliation, unity, harmony and peace.”
In the past we have reflected on this majestic portrait of Christ, the Lord of the universe and of history, which towers over the hymn at the beginning of the St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians. In fact, this canticle is recited in each of the four weeks in which the Liturgy of the Hours’ evening prayer is divided.
At the heart of the hymn are verses 15-20, where Christ, who is described as the “image of the invisible God,” appears in a clear and solemn way (verse 15). The Apostle Paul is fond of the word eikon (Greek for icon). He uses it nine times in his letters, applying it either to Christ, the perfect icon of God (see 2 Corinthians 4:4), or to man, the image and glory of God (see 1 Corinthians 11:7).
Through sin, however, man “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man” (Romans 1:23), by choosing to adore idols, thereby becoming like them. For this reason, we must constantly model our image on the image of the Son of God (see 2 Corinthians 3:18) since we have been “delivered from the power of darkness and transferred to the Kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).
The Firstborn of Creation
Christ, then, is proclaimed to be the “Firstborn of all creation” (verse 15). Christ precedes all of creation (see verse 17) since he was begotten from all eternity. Thus, “all things were created through him and for him” (verse 16). Ancient Jewish tradition also acknowledged that “the whole world was created in view of the Messiah” (Sanhedrin, 98b).
For the Apostle Paul, Christ is the basis for cohesion (“in him all things hold together”), the mediator (“through him”), and the ultimate goal toward which all of creation is converging. He is “the Firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29), that is, the Son par excellence in that great family of the children of God that baptism makes us part of.
Head of the Church
At this point, our attention shifts from the world of creation to that of history: Through his incarnation, Christ is already “the head of the body, the Church” (Colossians 1:18). Indeed, he entered into the community of mankind in order to rule over it and to form it into one “body” — that is, into a harmonious and fruitful unit. Mankind's durability and find in Christ their root, their life-giving basis, their ‘beginning.’”
It is precisely because of this primacy that Christ can become the beginning of the resurrection of all, the “Firstborn from the dead,” because “in Christ all shall be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the first fruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22-23).
The Fullness of God
The hymn moves onto its conclusion by celebrating the “fullness” (pleroma in Greek), that Christ has in himself as a gift of the Father's love. It is the fullness of the divinity that radiates both throughout the universe and throughout mankind, becoming the source for peace, unity and perfect harmony (Colossians 1:19-20).
This “reconciliation” and “reestablishment of peace” was brought about through “the blood of the cross” by which we are justified and sanctified. By shedding his blood and giving of himself, Christ has poured out peace, which, in the language of the Bible, is the sum total of the messianic blessings and the fullness of salvation that is extended to all of creation.
The hymn ends, therefore, with a resplendent panorama of reconciliation, unity, harmony and peace, solemnly presided over by the image of its author: Christ, the “beloved Son” of the Father.
Cyril of Jerusalem
Writers from our ancient Christian tradition have reflected on this brief yet profound passage. In one of his dialogues, St. Cyril of Jerusalem quotes this canticle from the Letter to the Colossians in responding to some anonymous person who asked him: “Do we say, therefore, that the Word begotten by God the Father suffered for us in his flesh?” The answer, in accordance with the canticle, is yes. In fact, Cyril affirms that “the image of the invisible God, the Firstborn of all creatures both visible and invisible, by whom and in whom everything exists, has been given, Paul says, to the Church as its head. Moreover, he is the firstborn from the dead” — that is, the first in the series of the dead who will rise again.
Cyril goes on to say that he “made as his own all that is of the flesh of man and ‘endured the cross, despising its shame’ (Hebrews 12:2). We say that it was not simply some greatly honored man, that — I know not how — that by his union with him was sacrificed for us, but that the very Lord of glory is the one who was crucified” (Perché Cristo è uno: Collana di testi Patristici, XXXVII, Rome, 1983, p. 101).
Before this Lord of glory, who is the sign of the Father's supreme love, we, too, raise our song of praise and bow down to adore him and thank him.