18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
July 31, 2016
Col 3: 1-5, 9-11
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3: 1).
In the 1st 2 chapters of the Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul presents some basic Christian doctrine. E.g., last week he told his readers—and us—“You were buried with [Christ] in Baptism, in which you were also raised with him thru faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12). In the 3d chapter, where we are this evening/morning, Paul applies the doctrine to life, i.e., to our daily attitudes, choices, and actions—to morality.
Baptism, he implies, has identified us with Christ. Our descent into the sacred waters—early Christians were baptized by immersion—is a symbol of Christ’s death and burial, and our coming out of the waters, of his resurrection. Our union with Christ thru the sacrament is so powerful that it will carry us, too, thru death into the immortality of the resurrection.
Do you remember how you anticipated Christmas when you were child? All during Advent could you think of anything else than Santa, presents, and the tree? Paul urges us to place the same laser focus of our minds on our Lord Jesus Christ. He commands us to live as if we’re already risen, already enjoying the life of heaven, life above, with Christ our Savior: “Seek what is above…. Think of what is above. . . . Put to death the parts of you that are earthly…. You have put on the new self, which is being renewed … in the image of its creator” (3:1,2,5,10).
Paul uses an image we understand: changing clothes, like getting out of our work clothes or beach clothes for an appointment or celebration that demands something more formal, something cleaner, something dressier, like dinner at a fine restaurant, a wedding, or coming to church (in our “Sunday best”).
Even more would 1st-century Christians grasp the change-of-clothes image. For their Baptism into the new life of Christ, they literally stripped to be immersed in the waters of life, and on coming out put on the clean, new, white garment of the neophyte, the newborn member of the body of Christ. They had put on a new self, a new persona, symbolized by a dramatic change of clothes.
Baptismal ritual in the early Church
We have echoes of that today in the baptismal ritual, in which a white garment is still presented to the newly baptized—which adults usually put on over their street clothes and an infant wears symbolically for a moment or 2.
In the old days, when a young man or woman was vested in the habit of a religious order, often these words of Paul, or their parallel in Ephesians, were quoted; the religious was taking on a new persona, undertaking a newer and more intense union with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and was committing himself or herself to act accordingly. With that new persona often came a new religious name, e.g., Thomas Merton became Fr. Louis Merton—that’s what you’ll see on his gravestone at Gethsemani Abbey—and Edith Stein became Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Some religious orders continue these practices today for the same reasons. (FYI, the Salesians have changed the formula for their clothing investiture, and we never changed our names.)
You know, of course, that a newly elected Pope takes a new name, indicating his new persona as the successor of St. Peter and the vicar of Christ—no longer merely shy, quiet Jorge Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, but bold, outspoken Francis, bishop of Rome.
To return to Paul. What’s he telling the Colossians to take off, to put aside, like dirty or raggedy clothes? Their pagan way of living! Paul names some prominent vices, and you know very well they’re not afflictions of only the 1st century: impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, and idolatry are listed in our passage; in v. 8, which the reading skips over, Paul names in addition “anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language.” Then the reading picks up with lying.
Paul has hit on most of the capital sins, the so-called 7 deadly sins that are at the root of just about all the evil that people commit: pride, lust, greed (or covetousness), gluttony, anger, sloth, and envy—which, if left unchecked, will land you in hell faster than the Cubs can blow a late-inning lead.
The new self clothed in Christ “seeks what is above, … thinks of what is above,” desires what is above, where Christ our life is. From our heart come our words and deeds. If we aspire to “appear with him in glory” (3:4) when he returns on the Last Day and raises everyone from our graves for the final judgment, then our hearts must assume that mind, that attitude, which was in Christ Jesus, as Paul exhorts the Philippians, an attitude of humility and sensitivity to the needs of our brothers and sisters. The new self clothed in Christ is humble, chaste, kind, attentive, patient, and joyful. It exercises self-control, exhibits fortitude, practices piety and other virtues.
|The Last Judgment, by Hans Memling|
Yes, we all fall short; none of us is a perfect image of the new man who is the Risen Christ. That’s why Christ in his mercy and wisdom left us a sacrament that’s like a new Baptism, viz., Reconciliation.
Our reading today ends with a reminder of the universality of God’s call, God’s gift, God’s grace in Christ Jesus. (It also ends our short series of Sunday readings from Colossians, altho the letter itself goes on for another chapter and a half.) Paul reminds us that in Christ there are no distinctions between different races or nationalities or social standing or economic status. Christ wondrously transforms all who seek him sincerely, all who open focus hearts on him.