Ephesians and Colossians

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience January 14, 2009

During his general audience on Jan. 14, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. Paul, concentrating on Paul’s Letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Similar in language, they are unique in developing the theme of Christ as head of the Church and of the universe.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Among Paul’s letters, two of them — the Letter to the Colossians and the Letter to the Ephesians — might be considered to a certain extent as “twins.”

Both use expressions that are found only in these two letters and, according to some calculations, more than a third of the language used in the Letter to the Colossians is also found in the Letter to the Ephesians.

For example, just as the Letter to the Colossians invites us to “admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16), the Letter to the Ephesians also recommends “addressing one another [in] psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians 5:19).

We can meditate on these words. Our hearts as well as our voices should resound with psalms and hymns in order to enter into the tradition of prayer found in the early Church and in the New Testament. In this way, we learn to be united with one another and with God.

Moreover, we find in both letters what we might call “domestic guidelines” that are not found in Paul’s other letters, namely a series of recommendations addressed to husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves (see Colossians 3:18-4:1 and Ephesians 5:22-6:9 respectively).

Christ Is Head of the Church

More importantly, the title of kefalé (head) is attributed to Jesus Christ only in these two letters.

This title is used on two levels. Above all, Christ is the head of the Church (see Colossians 2:18-19 and Ephesians 4:15-16). This means two things. First and foremost, he is the governor, the leader, the one who is in charge of guiding the Christian community as its leader and its Lord: “He is the head of the body, the Church” (see Colossians 1:18).

Secondly, it means that he is like the head who gives movement and life to all the members of the body. Indeed, according to Colossians 2:19, we have to hold “closely to the head, from which the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and bonds, achieves the growth that comes from God.”

In other words, he is not just the one who directs but the one who is organically connected to us — the one who gives us the strength to act in an upright way.

In both cases, the Church is subject to Christ, both to follow his guidance from on high — the Commandments — and to receive the vitality that flows from him. His commandments are not merely words or mandates; rather, they are the life-giving power that comes from him and helps us.

This idea is developed in a special way in Ephesians, where even the Church’s ministries, rather than deriving from the Holy Spirit (as in 1 Corinthians 12), are conferred by the risen Christ, who “gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11).

And it is from 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” (Ephesians 4:16).

In fact, Christ is intent on presenting “to himself the Church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).

With this, he is telling us that the power through which he builds the Church, guides the Church, and gives proper direction to the Church is nothing other than his love.

Christ Rules the Universe

Thus, the first meaning is Christ, head of the Church — both by virtue of his guidance and, above all, his inspiration and life-giving vitality that are the result of his love.

According to the second sense, Christ is considered not only as head of the Church but also as head of the heavenly powers and the entire universe. In Colossians we read that Christ “despoiling the principalities and the powers … made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph” (Colossians 2:15).

Likewise in Ephesians, we read that through his resurrection, God placed 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” (Ephesians 1:21).

Through these words, these two letters communicate a highly positive and fruitful message to us, that Christ fears no rival because he is superior to any form of power whatsoever that might seek to humiliate man. He alone “loved us and handed himself over for us” (Ephesians 5:2).

Hence, if we are united to Christ, we need fear no enemy or adversity. But it also means that we should hold onto him firmly without letting go!

For the pagan world, which believed that the world that was filled with spirits that were, for the most part, dangerous, and against which people had to defend themselves, the proclamation that Christ alone is the victor and that whoever is united to Christ has nothing to fear was truly liberating.

The same is true for the paganism we encounter today, since followers of these ideologies see the world as full of dangerous powers. We need to proclaim to these people that Christ has conquered and that those who are with Christ, who remain united to him, have no one and nothing to fear. It seems to me that this, too, is important for us. We have to learn to face all our fears because he is above every power. He is truly Lord of the world.

Truly the entire cosmos is subject to him and is directed to him as its head. The words from the Letter to the Ephesians, which speak about God’s plan “to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:10) are well known.

Likewise, we read in the Letter to the Colossians that “in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible” (Colossians 1:16), “making peace by the blood of his cross … whether those on earth or those in heaven” (Colossians 1:20).

Therefore, there is not some grandiose material world on the one hand and, on the other hand, the insignificant reality of the history of our earth, the world of people. Everything is one in Christ. He is the head of the cosmos; he created the cosmos, and he created it for us insofar as we are united to him. It is a vision of the universe that is rational and personalist.

Moreover, I would say that it was not possible to conceive a more universalist vision than this, and it comes together only in the risen Christ. Christ is the Pantocrator (ruler of all) to whom all things are subject.

We immediately think of the Christ the Pantocrator that fills the vaulted apses of Byzantine churches, who at times is portrayed as enthroned above the earth and even at times above a rainbow in order to indicate his equality with God himself, at whose right hand he is seated (see Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1) and, therefore, his unrivaled function as the one who guides human destinies.

Such a vision can only be conceived by the Church, not in the sense that it wishes to unduly appropriate that which is not hers, but in another two-fold sense.

On one hand, the Church recognizes that Christ is in some way greater than the Church, since his lordship extends beyond the confines of the Church. On the other hand, only the Church — and not the cosmos — is described as the body of Christ.

All of this means that we have to consider in a positive light the realities of this world because Christ sums them up in himself, and, at the same time, we must fully live out the ecclesial identity that is specific to us, which is most like the identity of Christ himself.

The Concept of Mystery

There is also a special concept that is characteristic of these two letters — the concept of “mystery.”

At one point, the “mystery of God’s will” is mentioned (see Ephesians 1:9) and at other times “the mystery of Christ” (see Ephesians 3:4; Colossians 4:3) or even “the mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (see Colossians 2:2-3).

This refers to God’s inscrutable plan for the destiny of man, of nations and of the world. Through these words, these two epistles tell us that it is in Christ that this mystery is fulfilled.

If we are with Christ, even though we cannot understand everything from an intellectual point of view, we know that we are at the heart of this “mystery” and on the road to truth. It is he who, in his totality and not merely in one aspect of his person or one moment of his life, bears within himself the fullness of God’s unfathomable plan for salvation.

In him that which has been called “the manifold wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10) takes it shape, because in him “dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
From now on, therefore, it is no longer possible to think about and to adore God’s approval, his sovereign disposition, without conforming ourselves in a personal way to Christ as a person, in whom this “mystery” is incarnated and can be perceived in a tangible way.

In this way, we come to contemplate “the inscrutable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8), who is above all human understanding. God did not fail to leave his footprint when passing, since it is Christ himself who is God’s footprint, his supreme mark; yet, it makes us realize “what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of that mystery “that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19).

Here, mere intellectual categories are inadequate, and, recognizing that many things are beyond our ability to reason, we must entrust ourselves to humble and joyful contemplation, not only with the mind but also with the heart. Moreover, the Fathers of the Church tell us that love understands more than reason alone.

Finally, something should be said about the concept, to which reference was made earlier, regarding the Church as Christ’s bride.

The Bride of Christ

In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul compared the Christian community to a woman who is betrothed, using the following terms: “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, pointing out that the Church is not merely the bride that has been promised but is truly Christ’s bride. He, so to say, has won her over and did so at the cost of his life. As the passage says, he “handed himself over for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

What greater manifestation of love is there than this? Moreover, he is concerned for her beauty, not just the beauty acquired through baptism but also the beauty that must grow every day through a life of irreproachable moral behavior, “without spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:26-27).

It is but a short step from here to that shared experience of Christian marriage. Yet, the initial point of reference for the author of this letter is not clear.

Did the relationship between Christ and the Church provide the light in which to consider the union of a man and a woman, or did the experience of union in marriage provide the light in which to examine the relationship between Christ and the Church?

Nonetheless, both aspects shed light on each other in a mutual way. In light of Christ’s communion with the Church, we learn what marriage is, and we learn how Christ unites himself to us when we contemplate the mystery of marriage.

Whatever the case, this letter is almost at the halfway point between the prophet Hosea, who pointed out the relationship between God and his people in terms of a wedding that already occurred (see Hosea 2:4; 16:21), and the prophet of the Book of Revelation, who described the eschatological encounter between the Church and the Lamb as a joyful and flawless wedding day (see Revelation 19:7-9; 21:9).

There is much more that could be said, but it seems to me that, from everything that has been said, you can already see how these two letters form one, extended catechesis from which we can learn not only how to be good Christians but also how we can truly become men and women.

If we begin to understand that the cosmos is the footprint of Christ, we will understand our close relationship with the cosmos, with all the problems involved in conserving the cosmos. We will learn to see it using reason — a reason moved by love and with a humility and respect that work together in the right way.

If we remember that the Church is the body of Christ, that Christ gave himself for the Church, we will learn to live with Christ in mutual love, love that unites us to God and helps us to see the image of Christ — Christ himself — in others. Let us ask the Lord to help us to meditate well on sacred Scripture, his word, thereby learning to truly live well. Register translation