Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Colossians 3:5-12)
How can we live as people who are risen from the dead? This passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians could be seen as an answer to that question. This becomes clear if we keep in mind the premise expressed in the first verse of chapter 3: “Since you have been raised with Christ…,” All Paul does is to make explicit the consequences of this fact. It is as if he said, “Because you are risen, this is how you should live as people who are indeed risen.” There is a way of living that is closer to death than to life. There is a way of living “according to death” and there is an art of living “according to life,” in tune with life, oriented towards life. “Taking off the old self” means giving up, leaving behind, what has no future, what is incompatible with life. What it means to be a person, wonderfully enhanced by the resurrection, calls for new behavior in all the realms of existence. It keeps us from treating others as objects.
To what extent does the rite of baptism play a role in the use of this image of taking off clothes, and in the image of being clothed in general, which is expressed positively in verses 10 and 12? We do not know whether, in Paul’s time, the rite already existed of stripping off all one’s clothes before entering into the water of baptism and then receiving a new garment upon emerging. In any case, there is no doubt that Paul is thinking of the meaning of baptism here.
The American poet Wendell Berry echoes Paul when he invites his readers to “practice resurrection.” One can practice a profession, a sport or an art. What could it mean to practice living as someone who is risen? The end of the text expresses this clearly: “…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” The human qualities mentioned by Paul have this in common: they make possible life in harmony with others, life in community. That is a constant in Paul’s eyes: the new life becomes visible in the quality of human relationships. The patience he speaks of is that required in order to live with others. But all these virtues are aspects of love (1 Corinthians 13), which Paul will speak about two verses later. This is not automatic, because what belongs to the “old self” still clings and can imperil community life. No longer being afraid of others, their weaknesses and their limits (or their strengths!) means entering into the resurrection. Belonging to the world of the resurrection means no longer living in fear. Or rather, letting our fears be transformed day after day by the overflowing life given in Christ. It means learning to live “according to” that overflowing life. In the Risen Christ, there is room for everybody. And each person takes their place in that mysterious life where the categories devised by human beings in order to divide and fragment have become obsolete. All that remains is a Face that contains all the marvelous diversity desired by God—“Christ is all, and is in all.”
What ways of “practicing” resurrection can we imagine in the light of this text of Saint Paul?
What do the words at the end of this passage tell us about the call to live our day-to-day lives as people who are risen?