The Pope talks about the hymn that introduces St Paul's Letter to the Ephesians
"Prayer brings into being men and women who are not motivated by selfishness, by the desire to possess or by the thirst for power, but by giving freely, by the desire to love and by the thirst to serve". The Holy Father said this at the General Audience on Wednesday morning, 20 June . The following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, this week on St Paul's letter to the Ephesians, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our prayers are very often requests for help in a time of need. Moreover, this is normal for men and women because we need help, we need others, we need God. Thus it is normal for us to ask God something, to seek help from him; and we must bear in mind that the prayer the Lord taught us, the “Our Father”, is a prayer of petition. With this prayer the Lord teaches us the priorities of our prayer and cleanses and purifies our desires and in this way he cleanses and purifies our hearts. Therefore even though it is in itself normal that we should ask for something in prayer, it should not be exclusively so.
There is also cause for thanksgiving and if we pay a little attention we see that we receive very many good things from God. He is so good to us that it is right and necessary to say “thank you”. And our prayer should also be a prayer of praise: if our hearts are open in spite of all the problems we also see the beauty of his creation, the goodness that is revealed in his creation. Therefore we must not only ask but also praise and give thanks, only in this way is our prayer complete. In his Letters St Paul does not only speak of prayer; he also refers to prayers and of course prayers of petition as well, but prayers of praise and blessing for all that God has worked and continues to work in humanity’s history.
And today I would like to reflect on the First Chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians that begins, precisely, with a prayer which is a hymn of blessing, an expression of gratitude, of joy. St Paul blesses God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, because in him he has made us “know the mystery of his will” (Eph 1:9). There truly is a reason to express gratitude if God enables us to know all that is hidden: his will with us, for us; “the mystery of his will”. “Mysterion” or “Mystery”: a term that recurs frequently in Sacred Scripture and in the Liturgy.
I do not want to enter into philology here, but in the common language it indicates what it is impossible to know, a reality we are unable to grasp with our own intellect. The hymn that opens the Letter to the Ephesians takes us by the hand and leads us toward a more profound meaning of this term and of the reality that it points out to us. “Mystery”, for believers, is not so much the unknown as rather the merciful will of God, his plan of love which was fully revealed in Jesus Christ and offers us the possibility “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and the length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ” (Eph 3:18-19). The “unknown mystery” of God is revealed, it is that God loves us and has loved us from the beginning, from eternity.
Let us therefore reflect a little on this solemn and profound prayer. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 1:3). St Paul uses the verb “euloghein”, which more often translates the Hebrew term “barak”; it is praising, glorifying and thanking God the Father as the source of the goods of salvation, like the One who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”.
The Apostle thanks and praises, but he also reflects on the reasons that spur the human being to offer this praise, this thanksgiving, presenting the fundamental elements of the divine plan and its stages. First of all we must bless God the Father because, St Paul writes, “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (v. 4). What makes us holy and blameless is love. God called us to existence, to holiness. And this choice even precedes the foundation of the world. We have always been in his plan and in his mind. With the Prophet Jeremiah we too can say that he knew us before he formed us in our mother’s womb (cf. Jer 1:5); and in knowing us he loved us. The vocation to holiness, that is, to communion with God belongs to an eternal design of this God, a design that extends through history and includes all the men and women of the world, because it is a universal appeal. God excludes no one, his plan is solely of love. St John Chrysostom says: God himself “rendered us holy but then we must continue to be holy. A holy man is he who is a partaker of faith” (Homilies on the Letter to the Ephesians, 1, 1, 4).
Paul continues, “he destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ”, to be incorporated in his Only-Begotten Son. The Apostle underlines the gratuitousness of this marvellous plan of God for humanity. God did not choose us because we are good, but because he is good. And antiquity had a phrase to say on goodness: bonum est diffusivum sui; goodness is communicated, it spreads. And thus, since God is goodness, he is the communication of goodness, he wishes to communicate; he creates because he wants to communicate his goodness to us and to make us good and holy.
At the heart of the prayer of blessing, the Apostle illustrates the way in which the Father’s plan of salvation is brought about in Christ, in his beloved Son. He writes: “in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:7). The sacrifice of the Cross of Christ is the unique and unrepeatable event with which the Father showed his love for us in a luminous way, not only in words but in practice. God is so real and his love is so real that he enters into history, he becomes a man to feel what it is, how it is to live in this created world, and he accepts the path of suffering of the Passion and even suffers death. God’s love is so real that he does not only participate in our being but also in our suffering and our dying. The sacrifice of the Cross ensures that we become “God’s property” because the Blood of Christ has redeemed us from sin, cleanses us from evil, removes us from the slavery of sin and death. St Paul invites us to consider the depths of God’s love that transforms history, that transformed his very life from being a persecutor of Christians to being an unflagging apostle of the Gospel. Here once again the reassuring words of the Letter to the Romans resound: “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?... For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:31-32; 38-39). We must integrate this certainty — God is for us and no creature can separate us from him because his love is stronger — in our being, in our awareness as Christians.
Lastly, the divine blessing ends with the mention of the Holy Spirit who has been poured out into our hearts; the Paraclete whom we have received as a promised seal: “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:14). Redemption is not yet finished — as we know — but will reach its fulfilment when those whom God has ransomed are totally saved. We are still on the path of redemption, whose essential reality has been given with the death and Resurrection of Jesus. We are on our way towards definitive redemption, towards the full liberation of God’s children. And the Holy Spirit is the certainty that God will bring his plan of salvation to completion, when he will bring back to Christ, the only head, of all “things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). St John Chrysostom comments on this point: “God has chosen us for faith and has impressed in us the seal of the inheritance of future glory” (Homilies on the Letter to the Ephesians, 2, 11-14). We must accept that the journey of redemption is also our journey, because God wants free creatures who freely say “yes”; but it is above all and first of all his journey. We are in his hands and to walk on the way disclosed by him is now our freedom. Let us walk on this path of redemption, together with Christ and understand that redemption is brought about.
The vision which St Paul presents to us in this great prayer of blessing has led us to contemplate the action of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity: the Father who chose us before the creation of the world, who thought of us and created us; the Son who redeemed us through his Blood and the Holy Spirit, the pledge of our redemption and of our future glory. In constant prayer, in our daily relationship with God, let us learn, as St Paul did, to perceive ever more clearly the signs of his plan and his action: in the beauty of the Creator that emerges from his creatures (cf. Eph 3:9), as St Francis of Assisi sings: “Laudato sie mi’ Signore, cum tutte le Tue creature” (ff 263).
It is important to be attentive at this very moment, also in the holiday period, to the beauty of creation and to see God’s face shining out in this beauty. The saints showed clearly in their lives what God’s power can do in human weakness. And he can also do it in us. In the whole of the history of salvation, in which God has made himself close to us and patiently waits for us to take our time. He understands our infidelities, he encourages our commitment and guides us.
We learn in prayer to see the signs of this merciful plan in the Church’s journey. Thus we may grow in the love of God, opening the door so that the Blessed Trinity may come and dwell within us, may illuminate, warm and guide our lives. “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23), Jesus said, promising the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit who was to teach them all things. St Irenaeus once said that in the Incarnation the Holy Spirit became accustomed to being in man. In prayer we must become accustomed to being with God. It is very important, that we learn to be with God and thereby see how beautiful it is to be with him, who is the redemption.
Dear friends, when prayer nourishes our spiritual lives we become capable of preserving what St Paul calls “the mystery of faith” with a pure conscience (cf. 11 Tim 3:9). Prayer as a way of “accustoming” oneself to being with God brings into being men and women who are not motivated by selfishness, by the desire to possess or by the thirst for power, but by gratuitousness, by the desire to love, by the thirst to serve, in other words who are motivated by God; and only in this way is it possible to bring light to the darkness of the world.
I would like to end this Catechesis with the epilogue of the Letter to the Romans. With St Paul, let us too glorify God for he has expressed himself entirely to us in Jesus Christ and has given us the Consoler, the Spirit of truth. St Paul writes at the end of his Letter to the Romans: “to him who is able to strengthen you according to my Gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God be glory for ever more through Jesus Christ! Amen” (16:25-27).