16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 21, 2013
Col 1: 24-28
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Col 1: 24).
Last week we began a series of readings from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. As you know, during Ordinary Time our 2d readings follow a pattern of continuity from week to week rather than being linked with the theme of the 1st and 3d readings. The Old Testament reading is always tied to the gospel reading; today, for instance, there’s a theme of hospitality and a meal.
Colossians can seem a bit abstract; e.g., we hear today of stewardship, mystery, and glory. Let’s look a little deeper into what Paul says today.
“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” Paul’s sufferings come mostly from his preaching the Gospel—the travails of 1st-century travel, like heat, cold, and rain, dusty or muddy roads, primitive inns, the danger of robbers or shipwreck, etc.; and outright persecution. He details some of those sufferings in his 2d Letter to the Corinthians (11:23-29). But Paul risks all these dangers and troubles for the sake of those who will benefit from having the Good News preached to them.
His sufferings are also for the sake of others inasmuch as his sufferings are joined to those of Christ, as he says further on.
Since his sufferings are advantageous to believers from both of these points of view—preaching the Gospel and identification with Christ—Paul rejoices. From either point of view, the saving work of Jesus Christ goes forward, which gladdens Paul’s apostolic heart.
“In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (1:24). It puzzles us, surely, that anything could be “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions. But that consideration is linked to our being part of Christ’s body. Christ suffers in us, as Jesus himself said to Saul his persecutor: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Each of us who is part of Christ must bear his cross, as Jesus tells us (cf. Luke 9:23); by doing so, we fill out something that would otherwise be missing in the complete mystery of the cross. Unless we carry Christ’s cross, we have no part in the mystery.
Paul specifies that his sufferings are of advantage to the Church and not only to himself. Christ, of course, offered himself for the redemption of the whole world. Those who accept his redemption constitute the Church. Those who suffer in union with Christ—those who offer their personal sufferings to God in union with Christ—also share in the mystery of redemption on behalf of the Church. What a privilege we have as Christians, to help—so to speak—Christ redeem the world. It’s not that he needs our help, of course, but that he chooses us—has elected us, in scriptural language—to come along with him and he shares his mission with us. When the sisters or our mothers told us years ago, “Offer it up,” they were uttering a deep theological truth.
The execution of Christ’s mission will “bring to completion the word of God” (1:25), which Paul calls “the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past” (1:26). God’s word is this hidden mystery, this eternal plan of salvation. The word is fulfilled in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, and in our participation in that word. How it works—well, that’s probably a Western question, not a question that Paul would ask. Enough that God plans, God acts in Christ, and God invites us to be part of the plan. Enough that in this final age of the world God has “manifested the mystery to his holy ones [alternate translation: ‘his saints’!], [those] to whom he chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery” (1:26-27).
What has God manifested? The redemption of humanity thru the cross of Christ, and our participation in it. The cross, “the afflictions of Christ,” is the key to “the riches of the glory of this mystery.” This mystery, Paul says, “is Christ in you” (1:27). When we suffer alongside Christ, Christ is at work in us; the plan of God is being revealed and carried out. This, Paul says, is our “hope for glory” (1:27), i.e. for participation in the resurrection of Christ and a place in the Father’s home with Christ.