Why does the breviary give us Colossians during Christmastide matins?
Because the appearance of the Son of God in the flesh means that the glory of the Lord has come to earth for good. Night has been dying since the newborn God opened His eyes from the manger of Bethlehem. Heaven has been spreading, slowly, so very slowly, but most assuredly, across the darkling plains of time.
And Saint Paul writes to the Colossians about the new life we have gained by being made members of this slowly growing Body of Christ.
In the passages for today and yesterday, we find two modes of what Saint Augustine calls the libido dominandi, the lust to dominate: one operative within the Church, one operative in the world. In both cases, what we have is treason against the Kingdom of Love that baby Jesus makes definitively visible for the first time. The libido dominandi is what happens to the eros of the human spirit, the yearning to know everything about everything and to love and be loved without condition, when that eros is trapped within a world that has closed its borders against the incursions of transcendent love.
Within this secularized saeculum, the currents of desire are corrupted into currents of dominative power: the self becomes predatory rather than delivered-over to the other. There are principalities and powers that drive the ideologies that discipline human desire into this curving back on self (the incurvatus in se Saint Augustine so incisively describes), this auto-eroticism of power, which finds a perverse jouissance in the control of others and a kind of control of self.
And so Saint Paul: “If with Christ you died to the elemental principles of the world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not touch or taste or handle?’ All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply the commandments and teachings of men. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body (sōma), but they are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh (sarx)” (2:20-23).
This is the pharisaical form of the libido dominandi, and it is the form that observant Christians need to be vigilant against, as Pope Francis most correctly has been stressing.
That said, there is of course a pagan form of the lust to dominate, in which expressions of sexuality serve for the world the same way repressions of sexuality serve for the pharisee: shifting the body and its pleasures from the realm of self-transcending love into the realm of power and control.
But Saint Paul never fixates on sensual sins. He knows the fundamental dynamic has to do with control: “These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—wrath, anger, malice, blasphemy, abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old man with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator” (3:7-10).
Again, Saint Paul points us to baptism as that inflection point at which we are transferred from the secularized realm of powerplays into the love of Christ, a transference that is never secure until the end: we are always in danger of changing even the Garden of the Church into a hell of perverse control—putting on the old man again, old skins within the new ceremony.
What does the new paradise of life in Christ look like then?: “As God’s elect, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, long-suffering. Bear with one another and, if anyone have a complaint against another, forgive each other—just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive” (3:12-13).
But the ultimate manifestation of Christmas is something greater than all of these: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which is a bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one Body. And be thankful. Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with grace in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (3:14-16).
A eucharistic existence of self-transcendent love, always open to the other, reaching for the other, grateful to the good Father, hungry for wisdom: a musical existence of mutual harmony.
Such a life, the new life in Christ, is the life of peace and love. I want to close by quoting from the second matins reading for yesterday’s feast of Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzen. There we are given a vision of love fully alive, but which seems all-too-strange in this bourgeois world, both in pagan and in churchy precincts, for we are so stymied by an ideology of control that throttles intimacy and that cannot understand how crucial the love of learning and culture and the pursuit of moral perfection are for intimacy.
Saint Gregory writes of his love for Saint Basil: “I was not alone at that time in my regard for my friend, the great Basil. I knew his irreproachable conduct, and the maturity and wisdom of his conversation. …Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.
“The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. …We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. …Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come….”
This is the life that Christmas makes possible, life on the way towards a knowing and a loving without end.