King of the universe: Colossians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

A small number of passages from Colossians crop up several times over the course of the lectionary. Selections from the letter are read through in the earlier summer weeks of post-Easter Ordinary Time, in Year C. The hymnic passage extolling Christ as the centre of both creation and its restoration as new creation (Col 1:15-20) is also read on Christ the King (again Year C). And the opening of chapter 3 is also read on Easter Day (Year A).

The letter as a whole reads a little like a first rehearsal for some of the themes we have seen developed in Ephesians. The story of human redemption is told on the same cosmic scale. In his description of Christ as “the image of the invisible God”, Paul seems to be echoing Wisdom chapter 7, especially verses 23-27. If Jewish thinkers increasingly saw Torah as the repository of divine wisdom, Paul leads the way for Christian thinkers in seeing Christ as wisdom’s true incarnation, a theme that is developed in John’s gospel.

The Arch of Titus (built by Domitian) is inscribed with images of the triumph enjoyed by the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus after the Jewish War and the fall of Jerusalem.

There is another example of the appropriation of imperial imagery in Paul’s description of the cross.1 It is compared to a Roman triumph, rather than the absolute defeat it looked like. In a triumph, the victorious general in the days of the Republic, was granted the opportunity to parade into Rome. The Emperor took this over for himself. The victory parade was accompanied by various specimens of those he had defeated, now shown as humiliated captives, often naked, put on show for public entertainment. This, Paul says, is what the cross does to the spiritual forces that thought they had wrested the universe from God’s control: “he has stripped the sovereignties and the ruling forces, and paraded them in public, behind him in his triumphal procession” (Col 2:15 NJB)

Paul, like the church after him, has a sometimes ambivalent view of power. And again, as in Ephesians,2 we see some of the accommodation to the social expectations of Roman patriarchy in the unequal advice given to husbands, fathers, and masters on the one hand, and wives, children and slaves on the other (Col 3:18 – 4:1). While Paul is, by first century lights, quite demanding in his expectations of how the first group should behave, he nonetheless supports their respective superiority over the second group. The seeds of an imperial church, even if it is unimaginable at this point in time, can nonetheless with the benefits of hindsight, be seen in outline as the first-century church develops.3

Nonetheless, the life of the church lived under the rule of Christ should reflect the life of heaven in which it participates (Col 3:1-4) In particular, it needs to be marked with forgiveness, humility and kindness, dressed in all the virtues, marked especially by love, and living in peaceful harmony (Col 3:12-17). Once again, the theme of living in unity emerges in Paul’s thought as its strongest ethical note. One question the church always has to wrestle with, though, is whether particular vulnerable groups are being asked to pay the price for that unity by submitting to the decisions of more powerful ones.


Notes

  1. See the previous discussion of Roman metaphors in Philippians.
  2. See the post on Ephesians
  3. I said more about this in the previous post on Philippians. Perhaps one of the reasons some people prefer to assign both Colossians and Ephesians to a later Pauline disciple is because they want to dissociate their hero Paul from this kind of thinking.

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