Pope Benedict XVI's General
Audience on the Letters to the Colossians and Ephesians
The following is a translation of the Holy
Father's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In St Paul's correspondence there are two Letters
to the Colossians and to the Ephesians
that to a certain extent can be considered twins. In fact, they both
contain expressions that are found in them alone, and it has been
calculated that more than a third of the words in the Letter to the
Colossians are also found in the Letter to the Ephesians.
For example, while in Colossians we read literally the invitation: "admonish one another. Sing gratefully to God from your hearts in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (Col 3:16), in
his Letter to the Ephesians St Paul likewise recommends "addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, sing praise to the Lord with all your heart" (Eph 5:19).
We could meditate upon these words: the heart must
sing with psalms and hymns, and the voice in the same way, in order to
enter the tradition of prayer of the whole of the Church of the Old and
New Testaments. Thus we learn to be with ourselves and one another and
In addition, the "domestic code" that is absent in
the other Pauline Letters is found in these two
in other words, a series of recommendations addressed to husbands and
wives, to parents and children, to masters and slaves (cf. Col 3:18-4:1
and Eph 5:22-6:9 respectively).
It is even more important to notice that only in
these two Letters is the title "head"
given to Jesus Christ. And this title is used on two levels. In the
first sense, Christ is understood as head of the Church (cf. Col 2:18-19
and Eph 4:15-16).
This means two things: first of all that he is the
governor, the leader, the person in charge who guides the Christian
community as its leader and Lord (cf. Col 1:18: "He is the head of the
body, the Church"). The other meaning is then that, as head, he
innervates and vivifies all the members of the body that he controls.
(In fact, according to Colossians 2:19, it is necessary "[to hold] fast
to the Head, from whom the whole body, [is] nourished and knit
together"). That is, he is not only one who commands but also one who is
organically connected with us, from whom comes the power to act in an
In both cases, the Church is considered subject to
Christ, both in order to follow his supervision
and to accept all of the vital influences that emanate from him. His
commandments are not only words or orders but a vital energy that comes
from him and helps us.
This idea is developed particularly in Ephesians where,
instead of being traced back to the Spirit (as in Corinthians 12), even
the ministries of the Church are conferred by the Risen Christ. It is he
who established "that some should be apostles, some prophets, some
evangelists, some pastors and teachers" (4:11). And it is from him that
"the whole body grows, and... joined firmly together by each supporting
ligament, builds itself up in love" (4:16).
Christ, in fact, fully strives to "present to himself
a glorious Church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or
anything of that sort" (Eph 5:27). In saying this he tells us
that the power with which he builds the Church
with which he guides the Church, with which he also gives the Church the
is precisely his love.
The first meaning is therefore Christ, Head of the
Church; both with regard to her direction and, above all, with regard to
her inspiration and organic revitalization by virtue of his love.
Then, in a second sense, Christ is not only
considered as head of the Church but also as head of the heavenly powers
and of the entire cosmos. Thus, in Colossians, we read that Christ has
"disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of
them, triumphing over them in him" (2:15).
Similarly, in Ephesians we find it written that with his
Resurrection God placed Christ "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 that which is to come" (1:21).
With these words the two Letters bring us a highly
positive and fruitful message. It is
this: Christ has no possible rival to fear since he is superior to every
form of power that might presume to humble man.
He alone "loved us and
gave himself up for us" (Eph 5:2). Thus, if we are united with Christ,
we have no enemy or adversity to fear; but this therefore means that we
must continue to cling firmly to him, without loosening our grip!
For the pagan world that
believed in a world filled with
for the most
part dangerous and from which it was essential to
— the proclamation
that Christ was the only conqueror and that those with
Christ need fear no one seemed a true liberation.
is also true for the paganism of today, since current
followers of similar ideologies see the world as full of
dangerous powers. It is necessary to proclaim to them
that Christ is triumphant, so that those who are with
Christ, who stay united to him, have nothing and no one
to fear. I think that this is also important for us,
that we must learn to face all fears because he is above
all forms of domination, he is the true Lord of the
Even the entire cosmos is subject to him
and converges in him as its own head. The words in the Letter to the Ephesians that speak of God's plan "to
unite all things in him, things in Heaven and things on earth" (1:10) are famous. Likewise, we read
in the Letter to the Colossians that "in him all things were created, in
Heaven and on earth, visible and invisible" (1:16), and that "making
peace by the Blood of his Cross.... reconcile[d] to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven" (1:20).
Therefore there is not,
on the one hand, the great material world and, on the other, this small
reality of the history of our earth, of the world of people: it is all
one in Christ. He is the head of the cosmos; the cosmos too was created
by him, it was created for us to the extent that we are united with him.
It is a rational and personalistic vision of the universe. I would say
that it would have been impossible to conceive of a vision more
universalistic than this, and that it befits the Risen Christ alone.
Christ is the Pantokrator
to which all things are subordinate. Our thoughts turn
precisely to Christ the Pantocrator, who fills the vault of the apse in
Byzantine churches, sometimes depicted seated on high, above the whole
world, or even on a rainbow, to show his equality with God himself at
whose right hand he is seated (cf. Eph 1:20; Col 3: 1) and thus also his
incomparable role as the guide of human destiny.
A vision of this kind
can only be conceived by the Church, not in the sense that she wishes to
misappropriate that to which she is not entitled, but in another double
sense: both to the extent that the Church recognizes that Christ is
greater than she is, given that his lordship extends beyond her
confines, and to the extent that the Church alone
not the cosmos
is described as the Body of Christ.
All of this means that
we must consider earthly realities positively, since Christ sums them up
in himself, and at the same time we must live to the full our specific
ecclesial identity, which is the one most homogeneous to Christ's own
Then there is also a special concept which is typical of these two Letters, and it is the concept of "mystery". The "mystery of [God's] will" is mentioned once
(Eph 1:9) and, other times, as the "mystery of Christ"
(Eph 3:4; Col 4:3) or even as "God's mystery, of Christ,
in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and
knowledge" (Col 2:2-3). This refers to God's inscrutable
plan for the destiny of mankind, of peoples and of the
With this language the
two Epistles tell us that the fulfilment of this mystery is found in
Christ. If we are with Christ, even if our minds are incapable of
grasping everything, we know that we have penetrated the nucleus of this
"mystery" and are on the way to the truth.
It is he
in his totality and not only in one aspect of his Person or at one
moment of his existence
who bears within him the fullness of the unfathomable divine plan of
salvation. In him what is called "the manifold wisdom of God" (Eph 3:10)
takes shape, for in him "the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col
From this point on,
therefore, it is not possible to reflect on and worship God's will, his
sovereign instruction, without comparing ourselves personally with
Christ in Person, in whom that "mystery" is incarnate and may be
tangibly perceived. Thus one arrives at contemplation of the
"unsearchable riches of Christ" (Eph 3:8) which are beyond any human
It is not that God did not leave footprints on his
journey, for Christ himself is God's impression, his greatest footprint;
but we realize "what is the breadth and length and height and depth" of
this mystery "which surpasses knowledge" (Eph
categories prove inadequate here, and, recognizing that many things are
beyond our rational capacities, we must entrust them to the humble and
joyful contemplation not only of the mind but also of the heart. The
Fathers of the Church, moreover, tell us that love understands better
than reason alone.
A last word must be said
on the concept, already mentioned above, of the Church as the spousal
partner of Christ. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle
Paul had compared the Christian community to a bride, writing thus: "I
feel a divine jealousy for you", for I betrothed you to Christ to
present you as a pure bride to her one husband" (11:2).
The Letter to the
Ephesians develops this image, explaining that the Church is not only a
betrothed bride, but the real bride of Christ. He has won her, so to
speak, and has done so at the cost of his life: as the text says, he
"gave himself up for her" (Eph 5:25).
What demonstration of
love could be greater than this? But in addition, he was concerned about
her beauty: not only the beauty already acquired through Baptism, but
also that beauty "without stain or wrinkle" that is due to an
irreproachable life which must grow in her moral conduct every day (cf.
It is a short step from
here to the common experience of Christian marriage; indeed, it is not
even very clear what the initial reference point of the Letter was for
its author: whether it was the Christ-Church relationship, in whose
light the union of the man and woman should be seen, or whether it was
the experiential event of conjugal union, in whose light should be seen
the relationship between Christ and the Church. But both aspects
illuminate each other reciprocally: we learn what marriage is in the
light of the communion of Christ and the Church, we learn how
Christ is united to us in thinking of the mystery of matrimony.
In any case, our Letter
presents itself as nearly a middle road between the Prophet Hosea, who
expressed the relationship between God and his people in terms of the
wedding that had already taken place (cf. Hos 2:4, 16, 20), and the Seer
of the Apocalypse, who was to propose the eschatological encounter
between the Church and the Lamb as a joyful and indefectible wedding
(cf. Rv 19:7-9; 21:9).
There would be much more
to say, but it seems to me that from what has been expounded it is
already possible to realize that these two Letters form a great
catechesis, from which we can learn not only how to be good Christians
but also how to become truly human. If we begin by understanding that
the cosmos is the impression of Christ, we learn our correct
relationship with the cosmos, along with all of the problems of the
preservation of the cosmos.
Let us learn to see it
with reason, but with a reason motivated by love, and with the humility
and respect that make it possible to act in the right way. And if we
believe that the Church is the Body of Christ, that Christ gave himself
for her, we learn how to live reciprocal love with Christ, the love that
unites us to God and makes us see in the other the image of Christ,
Let us pray the
Lord to help us to meditate well upon Sacred Scripture, his word, and
thus truly learn how to live well.