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Unknown artist

Christ Pantocrator, from The Bible of St Louis (Rich Bible of Toledo; Bible of Toledo), 1226–34, Illuminated manuscript, 422 x 300 mm, Toledo Cathedral, Vol.1, fol. 1v, Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Unknown artist

Cameo: Gemma Augustea (fragment), 9–12 CE, Onyx, two layers, 19 x 23 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, IXa 79, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Unknown German artist

Peace movement in East Germany Poster 'Swords into Plowshares' with a note to a peace prayer at St Nikolai Church, Leipzig, 1988/89, Paint on paper, Location currently unknown, ullstein picture - Harald Lang

The Dangerous Cosmic Christ

Comparative Commentary by

The first twenty verses of Colossians are indomitably joyous, cosmically grand, and politically subversive. Paul rejoices in the reception of the gospel by a church he has never met (1:3–7).

Paul wants to root his audience in what they have known and what they have heard, in the hope that this joyous news will return them to their original faith. He inserts his listeners into a grand cosmic story. Colossians 1:15–20, which some scholars believe is adapted after one of the earliest hymns of the church, places Jesus’s believers within a narrative of sweeping proportion. Outside John’s prologue (1:1–18), it offers the highest affirmation of Jesus’s divinity in the New Testament and helped to form the Christian confession of the first four centuries of God as Trinity, as well as of Jesus as fully human and fully divine.

God the Father creates ‘all … things visible and invisible’, through and for the Son (1:16); the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus of Nazareth, visible image of the invisible God (1:15, 19). It is in the church—amidst the believers Paul addresses—that this cosmic Christ is fully known and lived as his body (v.17). The fullness of his life courses through its veins.

This is an affirmation as politically subversive as it is dramatic. To make his points, Paul draws upon a register of imperial language: the terms ‘gospel’, ‘reconciliation’, and ‘making peace’ are words that everyday listeners to the letter would have immediately recognized as the ubiquitous imagery of the Roman Empire celebrating its emperor’s achievements. Colossians 1:15–20 is cosmic in orientation but securely on the ground. How does God’s reconciliation work? By the shedding of blood. But not enemies’ blood as in the Empire. Rather, through the crucifixion of the one in whom the fullness of God dwells.

So it is that we come to our images, which help bring these truths to visual imagination. Here the Gospel illumination, competing with the principalities and powers for allegiance, hovers over the Swords into Ploughshares logo of the East German church. The GDR did everything it could to erase Christ’s body: it infiltrated it with Stasi agents, it restricted its members and destroyed its church buildings. The rainbow enclosing the central image, however, suggests God’s covenantal presence and God’s way with the world. The gospel grows and spreads, its tendrils reaching out, rooted in the hope for justice and humanity. Prayer at 5 PM on Mondays brings down the Berlin wall.

For those who belong to the body whose head is Christ (1:18, 24), who live inside this cosmically grand vision, this may come as no surprise: we are the reconciled ones, who have found our peace in the one executed for love, and we are suffused with the presence of the ‘first born of creation’ (1:15), who, as the Christ Pantocrator of the Toledo Bible, also births creation. Here Christ is neither distant nor remote, ‘for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created’ (v.16). The Toledo Gospel implies an ever-birthing Son outside of whose womb we do not exist.

We do not live in a safe world, however. The Toledo Pantocrator’s cruciform nimbus reflects the strikingly subversive nature of Christian confession. As the East German church logo suggests, hammering swords into ploughshares via prayer unfolds in contexts where the former far outnumber the latter. The fullness of God in the crucified one may be good news, but to the principalities and powers it is dangerous. There they are in the lower half of the Gemma Augustea wielding their reign of terror upon the earth; in the words of the roughly contemporary Roman historian Tacitus, ‘where they make a desert, they call it peace’ (Agricola 1.30). The wonder is that even these ‘thrones or dominions’ (v.16) are reconciled in Christ, who reconciles to himself ‘all things whether on earth or in heaven’ (v.20).

This happens ‘through the blood of the cross’, that is, not without the suffering that comes from love for enemies, as the entirety of Jesus’s life attests. The powers are there at every turn to ‘take us captive with philosophy and empty deceit’ (2:8), whether of a Roman imperial kind or of the more subtle versions of our modern contexts. So it is that we remember the image of the invisible God, after whom we are made; we commit ourselves to the new birth the first born from the dead brings; and we seek to follow him in a life of prayer and costly discipleship.

Next exhibition: 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11