Virgin and Child mosaic, 9th century, Hagia Sophia
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Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Feast of the Epiphany
Letter to the Ephesians 3:2–6
January 2, 2022
The second reading for the feast of the Epiphany is from the “Letter to the Ephesians.” (Ep 3:2-3a, 5-6). We examined this letter last summer in these commentaries. Those who read them will see that many passages from the letter would be very appropriate for the feast of the Epiphany but this one is particularly well suited.
We must remember a few things to start. Most scholars would agree that it was written by a disciple of St. Paul after his death. As we have many times noted, this would not be deceitful as his readers would have known that Paul was dead. As we saw last week with the reading of the letter to Titus, this allowed the author and indeed the leaders who followed Paul to show that they were in continuity with him. Who would follow the original apostles as leaders was a real problem and Ephesians is one of the clearest statements on how and why the Catholic Church developed.
It was written to a predominately Gentile audience to show that they were part of God’s plan from the very beginning. They would have had difficulty understanding the very Jewish concept of creation. That is that an all-powerful and loving God made the world for the good of those who would inhabit it. Pagans would have been more familiar with competing forces, rarely benevolent, which would compete for power and would need to be humored. These are the powers, dominions, and names that the author will mention as inferior beings throughout the letter. At the very beginning of the letter, he writes:
God put this power to work in Christ
when he raised him from the dead
and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,
far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,
and above every name that is named,
not only in this age but also in the age to come.
And he has put all things under his feet
and has made him the head over all things for the church,
which is his body, the fullness of him
who fills all in all
There is much that would have caught the attention of Gentiles here. The creator God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him power over all things for all times. No other “god” or spirit, power, or force could supplant Jesus Christ. No power they could ever encounter could conquer him or even separate them from him. This reflects Paul’s statement in Romans 8:
What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will anguish, or distress, or persecution,
or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?
Romans was written to a Jewish audience, Ephesians takes the same message to a Gentile one.
Shocking for everyone would have been his statement that he was given this power “for the Church.” For the authors of Ephesians and Colossians the Church was not an accident of history nor a temporary adaptation to the times, but was part of the LORD’s plan from the beginning. He also follows Paul in his concrete and Jewish understanding of the Church. This is the Body, a real physical organism and not a metaphor.
He develops this idea further in the second chapter:
…built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
In him the whole structure is joined together
and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
in whom you also are built together spiritually
into a dwelling place for God.
Jesus is the cornerstone, that on which the structure, the physical reality, not of brick and mortar but flesh and blood, rests. It is in us that Jesus lives, we are his dwelling place, and the letter simply assumes that the Gentiles are part of it.
As this is a physical reality, it is an institution, and an institution requires structure and indeed a hierarchy. Speaking as Paul, the author states that he, Paul, was given this role of leadership by the gift of God for the benefit of the People. He is thus justified in calling it “stewardship.” He has spoken of mystery before in this letter:
With all wisdom and insight,
he has made known to us the mystery of his will,
according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,
as a plan for the fullness of time,
to gather up all things in him,
things in heaven and things on earth.
For all eternity, God has been working in the world so that when the time came, Jesus would come and bring all things and people, including Gentiles, together under his leadership and in his Church.
The letter shifts here. It is not only to Paul that this stewardship has been entrusted but to “holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Like Paul, it is a gift that must be received and indeed can be given only in the Spirit.
This may have been difficult for some of the Gentiles to accept. Why was this not shared with the great oracles, seers, and indeed philosophers? Why was it given to uneducated and unimportant men? The author as St. Paul emphasizes that it was because this was God’s plan, and he does not need to consult with us.
The result however is that it is offered to all people, not only to the Jews who were first entrusted with it. This is more effective in the Greek than in our translation.
that the Gentiles are coheirs,
members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise
in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The word that he uses for members is syssomes. It is a neologism that is found nowhere else in Greek literature and could be more accurately translated as “co-members.” Each of the words, he uses start with the prefix “Syn” which means co or together e.g., synagogue. Because of what Jesus has done, we are all able to join together in his body and be his presence in the world.
The letter to the Ephesians reminds us of the high purpose and role of the Church. It also reminds us that it is not a building however grand, but flesh and blood however frail. As we approach the synod called by Pope Francis, we must remember that the good we are called to do is with each other for the world.