The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb, Eugène Burnand, 1898, Musée d’Orsay
(About this Image)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
April 4, 2021
The readings for Easter Sunday are all from the New Testament. Of the available options, we will look at Colossians 3:1–4. Discussions on Colossians usually become overly concerned if it was written by St. Paul or a disciple. This is of scholarly interest, but we need to remember that no matter who wrote it, Colossians is still inspired. It speaks to matters which are eerily relevant to our own day.
We should look at “Why a letter to the Colossians?” and “Who were the philosophers who are being opposed?”
Colossians was a textile center near the city of Laodicea. It was substantially Gentile but Jewish families moved to this area and by the time of Paul numbered about 10,000 people in the general area. The Christian community was not founded by Paul, but he was esteemed by them and Paul, or a successor who felt confident in using his name, had no hesitation in instructing them.
The bedrock of this church was born Jews. He is concerned however that they may have been overly influenced by Greek culture and attempted to fit Jesus into a mix of Jewish and Greek ideas. One of Paul’s greatest insights was that Jesus is unique or he is nothing. When he spoke of philosophy, he did not mean the academic discipline we identify with that today. Philosophy was a way of life which in this case he thought placed other forces alongside of Jesus and not subject to Him.
He will refer to the sabbath (Col 2:16), circumcision (Col 2:11), food laws (Col 2:16), but also principalities, powers and elemental spirits (Col 1:16, 2:8. 10, 15) “worship of angels (Col 2:18), festivals (Col 2:16), and wisdom (Col 1:9). A very mixed bag.
We do not know if the author was responding to a distinct series of questions or if he sensed the danger before the Colossians did. His teaching however is valid and important either way. It is also very carefully and shrewdly presented.
After the, for us, overly elaborate introduction, He recites an early Christian hymn. It begins with:
He is the image of the invisible God,(Col 1:15–16)
the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created
all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
It also says that “He is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:18, that he is preeminent (Col 1:18b) and that that he alone has made peace by “the blood of the cross: (Col 1:18b)
Paul uses popular Christian hymns whenever possible because the people will have sung them, and he can use what they already say they believe to expand to show the depth of what they really do believe. In this case he is reminding them that they already sing that Jesus is the image, and they would have understood this a perfect and equal reflection, of God and how everything was created by him. “Thrones, dominions, principalities and powers” were chosen very carefully. These are Jewish concepts. They take their scriptural source from
When the Most High apportioned the nations,(Dt 32:8)
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods
It was however elaborated in other scriptural passages. (Readers of C.S. Lewis’s “space” trilogy Out of the Silent Planet will also recognize the images as well.) In Jewish thought, they are clearly subordinate to God. Paul is concerned that the Colossians are seeking an end run around Jesus when they need something. He also emphasizes that this connection to Jesus is through our membership in the Church, it is not purely spiritual but requires a bodily connection.
Paul realizes that he too must offer a “philosophy,” a way of life. Today’s passage connects theory to practice.
Because we have been joined with Christ in Baptism and become a member of his body, the church, we need to find our motivation through connection with Him. He is “at the right hand of God” a sign of the greatest power/ True authority and power comes from him not from anything he created. This the world cannot see. Thus, we are hidden in Christ just as his true nature was hidden to the world and as we are part of him it is only when he returned fully visible that we will be seen as who we are.
He continues that:
(We must) Put to death, then,(Col 3:5)
the parts of you that are earthly:
immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire,
and the greed that is idolatry
For Paul, a life centered on Jesus is the Christian Philosophy – way of life. The depth and breadth of this will take up the rest of the letter. First, he gives general principles: we are a new self and that destroys all barriers, thus:
Here there is not Greek and Jew,(Col 3:11)
circumcision and uncircumcision,
barbarian, Scythian, slave, free;
but Christ is all and in all.
Although we are told that these distinctions are important and how most people define themselves, Paul tells us all:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones,(Col 3:12–13)
holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion,
kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another
We know that we have died and rose with Jesus when we have the confidence to live with his virtues and values not with those the world provides.
Paul concludes the letter with practical examples: from how families should live together including slaves, (Col 3:18-4:1) to the importance of prayer (Col 4:2-6).
This is a very timeless message for a timely situation. It is easy to put God and religion on a pedestal: worship, adore, ignore. It is easy to turn to economists, psychologists, and other disciplines for daily living. Many of these are wonderful aids. We may all need psychological help if the pandemic goes on much longer and I am happy that this opportunity exists. But it is a handmaiden to Christ. There are many things which can be principalities and powers helpful if supportive to Jesus, destructive if they are not.
In Holy Week Jesus shows us the depth of his love and the extent of his power for us and we are called to respond by recognizing the depth of our need and extent of our desire for him.