All good things come to their end other than the joy of Heaven. Just so, this series ends with a dive into the Epistle reading for the 24th and Last Sunday after Pentecost, the final Sunday before the beginning of a new liturgical year with the 1st Sunday of Advent.
Our reading is from the Apostle to the Gentile’s Letter to the Colossians 1:9-14. Colossae was a city in Phrygia of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. During his imprisonment in Rome Paul wrote to the Christian community of Colossae, one of the seven cities mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The first part of the Letter is mainly doctrinal. The second underscores how Christians should behave. In the Novus Ordo calendar, today is the Feast of Christ the King. The Sunday Epistle for Christ the King in the Vetus Ordo at the end of October is also from the first chapter of Colossians (vv. 12-20).
Some context. We glean from the Letter itself that the Church of Colossae was mainly Gentile (Col 1:21,27, 2:13) and there were rising some views which were not in harmony with Christian belief and practice. Pagan mystery religions surely played a part as well as Judaizers and Gnostics. Paul himself did not get to Colossae. He sent his colleagues there.
That golden vein of spiritual improvement, Bl. Ildefonso Schuster, Benedictine and the late-Archbishop of Milan, wrote of our passage:
In today’s Lesson St Paul describes the inexhaustible riches of the Christian ideal, the knowledge of the ways of God, the fruitfulness in good works, the communion of saints in the kingdom of light, and the remission of sins through the blood of the Redeemer. He dwells insistently on the idea that Christianity is life, and, as such, needs development, boldness, energy, so that each member of the Church may, by the influence of divine grace, make daily progress in realizing the life of Christ in all its completeness.
As our pericope begins, Paul refers to something he has heard about them, namely, that they have indeed been growing in faith, hope and charity through the ministrations of his colleague Epaphras.
[Brethren] 9 And so, from the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
At this point in the Church’s year we are deeply into communal reflection on the Four Last Things, Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. The Church’s readings in Mass and in the Divine Office have strong eschatological themes, dealing with the end of the world and Second Coming. In this way, the end of the year and the beginning of the new, are like dovetail joints, interlocking. The Season of Advent, which is penitential and prepares us for the joy of the Nativity of the Lord (we fast before our feasts), is thematically more about the Second Coming of the Lord in glory than it is about His First Coming in humility at Bethlehem. For this reason today our Gospel reading is from the somewhat harrowing Matthew 24: 15-35 which speaks of the “abomination of desolation” in the holy place and the destruction of Jerusalem interwoven with apocalyptic language about the coming of the Son of Man.
Linking the readings are the Gradual from Ps 43: 8-9 (Ps 44:7-8 RSV):
7 “But thou hast saved us from our foes,
and hast put to confusion those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually,
and we will give thanks to thy name for ever.
And the Alleluia Ps 129:1-2 the famous “De profundis” (Ps 130):
Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let thy ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
Very often in our Mass formularies, the Gradual and Alleluia serve as a thematic bridge between the readings. Today, in those two transitional chants I hear Paul singing in his imprisonment in Rome as he did with Silas (Acts 16:16-40). In my ears, Paul sings in joy for the news about how well the Colossians are doing. How consoling that news must have been for him, a long draught of cool water. The reality of his own situation of imprisonment, however, has not left him and he cries out in his own De Profundis, but still informed by the joy of God’s success amongst the Colossians.
Those who are with the Lord in spirit and in truth do not have to fear the immediate perils of earthly trials. They do not have to fear the ultimate meeting with the King of Fearful Majesty in death or in the Second Coming. The ordeals of persecution become the terroir of abundance. The apocalyptic tumults of the Parousia are invitations to jubilations. For those who are with the Lord in spirit and in truth.
I would circle back to one phrase in our reading, “bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (v.10).
Paul didn’t write, “bearing fruit in a couple good works”.
While our inclinations and talents may prompt us in particular directions or apostolates, we are called to “every good work”, not just one virtue or a couple of the works of mercy. Hence, we have to be vigilant for those moments which may otherwise pass us by, moments when God’s glory might be increased through our efforts with the help of His grace. If in worldly terms it is considered a good thing to be prosperous in respect to earthly goods, how much more important is it to be rich in good works and virtues.
Moreover, Paul didn’t write: “and be satisfied with your present knowledge of God”.
Surely we come to greater knowledge of God through our good works, for those for whom we perform them are made in God’s image and likeness. Our works of mercy for others reveals and reflects God’s image to us, hold up a mirror, even though this mirror, like that through which we peer darkly at the end times, is full of mystery. The contact with the mystery in those works, like Moses’ contact with God in the Tent of Meeting, is transformative.
The path to increasing “knowledge of God” is also through the study of and reflection on the content our Catholic Faith. As I’ve described before, there is a content we can study and teach with books and pens and memory. There is also the deeper content of what we study, the Person of the Divine Word, the Logos. Our Faith is something in which we believe (catechism, etc.) and also by which we believe (infused theological virtue). We must seek to increase our “knowledge of God”.
At no time in history has it perhaps been more important for Catholics to learn and review the basics and then deepen that knowledge through repetition and the performance of good works. So “armed” we cannot be deflected into devious paths of false teachers regardless of the colors of their trim.
Most of the disorders we see in the Church today flow from lack of Faith, both that which we learn and that by which we believe. Nowhere is the locus of this learning and believing so manifest as in sacred liturgical worship, the perfect “good work”, liturgy being itself also doctrine.
This commonsense connection points the way to true reforms and revivals, does it not?
Relying on ourselves alone, we will not accomplish anything that lasts. Everything we do must start with worthy sacred liturgical worship in fulfilment of that all important virtue of Religion and then everything we do must be brought back to worship and offered to the Father. Well-meaning clever boots can come up with all manner of flashy programs and plans, but it really comes down to the basics: know your Faith, deepen your relationship with the Person who is Faith’s content through study and good works and bring it all together in sacred liturgical worship worthy of the name because: we are our rites.
Over the weeks and months of my writing on the Epistles for Sundays in the Vetus Ordo, I’ve relied on a lot of different sources, some old some new, like the householder. It has been hard, sometimes very hard, work, but rich. One old commentator on the readings for Mass about whom I don’t know nearly enough, a 19th century German priest Johann Evangelist Zollner wrote several volumes of “elaborate skeleton sermons” for the whole year in English called The Pulpit Orator. Zollner concluded his offering for this Sunday on this our Epistle reading with the following, and I cannot conceive of how to surpass it.
This being the last Sunday of the Ecclesiastical Year, I now conclude my explanations of the epistles of the Sundays. Oh, would that the truths, lessons, and admonitions which are contained in these epistles, and which during the course of the past year I have to the best of my poor ability attempted to bring home to your hearts, yield fruit a hundred-fold for eternal life. Since the epistles which the Apostles wrote by the assistance and inspiration of the Holy Ghost contain the word of God, as well as the gospels, equal honor is due to both; do not omit then to read them on Sundays and holidays together with the gospels. Frequently recall to your mind the good lessons which in the explanation of them have been given to you, and resolve to regulate your life according to them. By so doing, you will belong to the number of those of whom Christ says: “Blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it.”—Luke 28. Amen.