Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco Herrera the Younger (1622-1685),
in the Prado Museum, Madrid.
The Tuscan born aristocratic Pope St Leo 1 (400?—461)lived and ministered during the darkest phase of the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire. To grasp the significance of this we must remember that Christians had generally come to believe the empire to be a God-given means of spreading of the Faith, and many thought that if Rome fell, the world would end soon after.
Leo may not have been in Rome during the siege (408) and the sacking of the city in 410 by Alaric I, the king of the Visigoths, but he was there as Pope in 452, when Attila and his Huns, who had crossed the Rhine in 451, invaded Italy. Leo famously met the invaders near Florence and persuaded them to withdraw, demonstrating to the people his “fatherood” of Rome. Indeed, he considered one of the roles of his office as Pope was that of bringing stability in the chaos confronting the Western Church. (Leo was less successful with Gaiseric the Vandal, who sacked Rome in 455, though some say that the devastation of the city would have been even worse if it had not been for Leo’s influence.)
It would be a pity if Leo were remembered on this his feast day simply for his bravery and administrative skill, or for the developments in the way in which the ministry of Peter came to be exercised. He was primarily a champion of orthodox teaching, emphasising the victory of Jesus (in the cosmic sense, and - no less - in our lives) through the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection in a time of darkness and gloom. He preached the Faith he lived.
True and willing humility
When the brightness of a new star had led three wise men to worship Jesus, they did not see him ruling over demons, not raising the dead, not restoring sight to the blind or mobility to the lame or speech to the dumb, nor in any action of divine power. They saw him, rather, as a Child - silent, at rest, placed in the care of his Mother - in a situation where there appeared no indication of power.
From this lowliness, however, a great miracle was presented. Consequently, the mere sight of that Sacred Infancy to which God the Son of God had adapted himself was bringing to their eyes a preaching that would be imparted to their ears. What the sound of his voice was not yet presenting, the activity of sight was teaching them.
For the entire victory of the Saviour, the one that overcame the devil and the world, began in humility and ended in humility. Its appointed time began under persecution and ended under persecution. Neither the endurance of suffering was lacking to the child, nor the gentleness of a child to the one who would suffer. For, the Only-Begotten Son of God undertook by a single inclination of his majesty both the will to be born as a human being and the ability to be killed by human beings.
Almighty God, therefore, made our extremely bad situation good” through his unique lowliness and “destroyed death” along with the author “of death.” He did not refuse anything that his persecutors brought down on him. In obedience to the Father, he bore the cruelties of violent men with the meekest docility.
How humble we ought to be, then, how patient, we who, when we meet with any distress, never undergo anything we do not deserve! “Who will boast that they have a pure heart or that they are clean from sin?” (Prov. 20,9). Blessed John says, “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1Jn. 1, 8)
Who will be found so free from guilt that they have not in themselves anything for justice to condemn or mercy to forgive? Consequently, dearly beloved, the whole learning of Christian wisdom consists not in abundance of words, not in cleverness at disputing, not in desire for praise and glory, but in a true and willing humility.
This is what the Lord Jesus Christ chose and taught from within the womb of his Mother right up to his torment on the cross - by enduring everything with fortitude. When the disciples, as the Evangelist says, arguing among themselves as to “which one of them would be greater in the kingdom of heaven, [Jesus] called a little child and stood him in their midst and said: ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you change yourselves and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever, therefore, humble themselves like this child will be the greater in the kingdom of heaven.”
Christ loves the Childhood that he first took up in both soul and body. Christ loves childhood, the teacher of humility, the rule of innocence, the image of gentleness. Christ loves childhood, to which he directs the characters of older people, to which he brings back old age. Those whom he would raise up to an eternal kingdom he disposes to follow his own example.”
- St Leo the Great, Sermon 37, Epiphany, 2 - 3.
Contemplating the Lord’s passion
True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity.
The earth - our earthly nature - should tremble at the suffering of its Redeemer. The rock - the hearts of unbelievers - should burst asunder. The dead, imprisoned in the tombs of their mortality, should come forth, the massive stones now ripped apart. Foreshadowings of the future resurrection should appear in the holy city, the Church of God: what is to happen to our bodies should now take place in our hearts.
No one, however weak, is denied a share in the victory of the cross. No one is beyond the help of the prayer of Christ. His prayer brought benefit to the multitude that raged against him. How much more does it bring to those who turn to him in repentance.
Ignorance has been destroyed, obstinacy has been overcome. The sacred blood of Christ has quenched the flaming sword that barred access to the tree of life. The age-old night of sin has given place to the true light.
The Christian people are invited to share the riches of paradise. All who have been reborn have the way open before them to return to their native land, from which they had been exiled. Unless indeed they close off for themselves the path that could be opened before the faith of a thief.
The business of this life should not preoccupy us with its anxiety and pride, so that we no longer strive with all the love of our heart to be like our Redeemer, and to follow his example. Everything that he did or suffered was for our salvation: he wanted his body to share the goodness of its head.
First of all, in taking our human nature while remaining God, so that the Word became man, he left no member of the human race, the unbeliever excepted, without a share in his mercy. Who does not share a common nature with Christ if he has welcomed Christ, who took our nature, and is reborn in the Spirit through whom Christ was conceived?
Again, who cannot recognize in Christ his own infirmities? Who would not recognize that Christ’s eating and sleeping, his sadness and his shedding tears of love are marks of the nature of a slave?
It was this nature of a slave that had to be healed of its ancient wounds and cleansed of the defilement of sin. For that reason the only-begotten Son of God became also the son of man. He was to have both the reality of a human nature and the fullness of the godhead.
The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours. If then we walk in the way of his commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price he paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too are to rise to share his glory. The promise he made will be fulfilled in the sight of all: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I too will acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven.
- St Leo the Great, Sermon 15, De passione Domine, 3-4.