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16th Sunday after Pentecost: the breadth and length and height and depth

This week, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost in the Vetus Ordo, we are in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 3:13-21.  Paul penned this letter, along with that to the Colossians and to Philemon probably during his first imprisonment in Rome, around 62 AD.

This 16th Sunday was once reckoned as the 1st after from the “birthday” or martyrdom of the bishop St. Cyprian, who died in the persecution by Diocletian on 14 Sept 258.  We will now have lessons from Ephesians until the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost with the exception of the 18th Sunday which was aliturgical, being the Sunday following the September Ember Saturday (calculated somewhat differently now), whose rites went on through the night.

Paul had been to Ephesus as recounted in Acts 18.  The next year he went back and stayed for quite a while because of the importance of Ephesus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) for spreading the Gospel in the region.  Similarly, you might notice that Christ circled back often to a few places because they were on important trade and communications routes.  Do something in those places and word got out faster which was important in a time when news travelled at about five miles an hour.  It was a way to use the technology of the day, roads and the free market. In any event, the Church in Ephesus was diverse and multicultural.

13 [Brethren:] I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. 20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

In v. 16 we have reference to “the inner man”.  Please understand that we can’t linger over this too long.  Pauline “psychology” is really hard and I don’t want to get way out over my skis.  In Romans 7:22-23, Paul writes

22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, [tòn éso ánthropon… the inner man]  23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind [vous … reason] and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body [soma] of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind (nous), but with my flesh (sarx) I serve the law of sin.

There is an antithesis: flesh and the inner man, which boils down to flesh and reason, the sinful nature of man and the intellectual nature which, however, needs to be raised up by the Holy Spirit (pneuma).  The inner man strengthened by the Spirit is no longer the natural man but the spiritual man.  He doesn’t have mere reason, but also the gifts of grace, not just nous or logos (in the ancient, Homeric and philosophical sense).  As the great Pauline scholar Fernand Prat put it:

“Though our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day,” (2 Cor 4:16) the inward man is no longer merely the soul or the reason, it is the intellectual nature enriched by the gifts of grace, the soul inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and in possession of the pneuma. To sum up : The outward man is dependent on the physical order; the inward man belongs either to the physical order or to the moral and religious orders. — The inward man and the outward man would exist in the state of nature, as they exist in the state of supernatural elevation; but, while the notion of the outward man remains invariable in both cases; the comprehension of the inward man differs. — Thus the inward man is not simply the invisible and immaterial part of the human composite, it is also what grace effects within us. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the inward man is strengthened and renewed; left to himself, he is powerless against the flesh and becomes carnal.

Let’s use that imagery of dimensions that Paul brings in at v. 18: “breadth and length and height and depth” and then in v 19: “fullness of God… pléroma toú theoú”.  What to do with this?  One has a notion of someone with a tape measure mapping out the dimensions of a containers so as to calculate the volume, let’s say a sphere, since it was for the ancients the perfect shape and can stand in for God here.  There’s a lot we can learn about a sphere once we have basic measurements, such as the radius and circumference.  We can muse about its surface using A=4πr2.  “Wow!  A sphere’s surface is four times greater than the shadow it casts!”  We can plumb the depths its volume using V=4/3πr³.   “So, its surface area to volume ratio is 3/r!”  In a sense this only scratches the surface.  This is natural man’s uninformed intellect approaches the Mystery which is encountered when God is involved.  Having that God-dwelling inner man at work we approach not the volume but more incredibly the content.

We might use this as a stepping stone into participation for sacred liturgical worship, the purpose of which, from our part, is to give God His due and thus fulfill the obligations of the virtue of Religion and which, from God’s part, is to reveal something of Himself to us, to descend on us like the glory cloud, to pass before the crack in the rock, to provide an encounter with Mystery that transforms us.   The non-baptized and those not in the state of grace get only so far in such a context.  They may benefit mightily and be raised up through their application of their inner tape measures and calculators.  They can get quite a distance, as a matter of fact.  But there will always be something hidden.  For example, we could with a tape measure take lots of dimensional data from the Holy Cross, its “breadth and length and height and depth”, for example.  But part of the Cross will be hidden from view and from measure: the part hidden underground that holds upright the instrument of our salvation.  It will always remain Mystery.  When we think we’ve figured it out, we haven’t figured it out at all.  There’s so much more.

Hence, when Paul launches into this section of his missive to the denizens and Ephesus and beyond, what does he do?  He provides the context for his communication, his suffering imprisonment.  Then he “kneels down” and prays for his readers.  He frames the entire discourse in fervent prayer, not just for strangers whom he knows of in theory, but as loved ones whom he knows of like family.    It’s not just about how much you know.  It’s everything about your unity with and openness to God’s will.  It’s about your full, conscious, and active receptivity to all God wants to give you.

Think about that when you are kneeling for a time during Holy Mass, still, with silence and not much to see regarding outward activity.  Think about how active the inner man is, infused with the indwelling of the Spirit.  When this Epistle is read on Sunday, how different are you and those of the “family” around you from those who were gathered in Ephesus listening to Paul’s letter be read aloud to them for the first time, no doubt during the Eucharistic gathering he taught them to conduct?

Our full, conscious and actual/active participation at Mass is informed by this Pauline view of the inner man, with the natural logos, word and nous, reason elevated by Spirit pneuma, which makes it possible to encounter a transformational mysterious something of the pléroma of God.

The Collect of the Mass is consistent in a way with the dimensional imagery of the Epistle.  In it, in the person of the priest we collective ask God to “go before us and follow us” in all that we do.  There is a reference here to prevenient grace which is the unmerited gift of God that frees the will for conversion and answering vocations.  It is the grace that goes before, the first glimpse as it were.  Then we walk around to the other side of the Cross and peer at it and realize that God then follows us with the actual graces we need to do His will.  In so doing, our doings are God done through and through.  They are our deeds because He enabled us freely to undertake them.   The Secret prayer, the priest prays for us that we be cleansed so that we can receive the benefits of the Sacrifice.  I’ll let Bl. Ildefonso Schuster continue…

In the Post-Communion we beseech God that he would cleanse our consciences—that is, that he would remove all the stains with which the heirs and successors of Adam have disfigured the beautiful image of God. A new life, of which the spirit of Jesus Christ is the source, must succeed to the old life. This is the meaning of the renewal of which the Missal here speaks. It is thus that the Eucharist becomes the antidote of the poisonous apple of Eden, and fulfils that which the tree of life stood for in that garden.

Remember our Epistle and the natural man, the man of the flesh rather than the spirit, without the raising and renewal of the Spirit and then what man becomes through the Spirit’s indwelling.

The Church asks today for a double grace; that Holy Communion may be the pledge not only of health for the body, but also of eternal salvation for the soul. This maternal care which the Church shows for our bodies should not surprise us. It could not be otherwise, if we consider that the forbidden fruit poisoned both sources of life: that of the soul by original sin, and that of the body by concupiscence and by inclination to sin and aversion from virtue. St Paul associates the Church with Christ in the supreme glorification of God, inasmuch as Jesus Christ, by means of his mystical body, and especially through his sacred ministers, renders to the Father a perfect worship in spirit and in truth. This essential, necessary, and perfect worship is given to God through the sacred Liturgy, the inspired form of Catholic devotion, which devotion will be the more complete in each individual according as he partakes in the spirit of this chief act of worship of our Mother the Church.



St. Paul in Prison Rembrandt Harmensz, van Rijn (1627), Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

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