Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Called to knowledge of the true light . . . St Leo the Great

Pope St Leo the Great was born around 400 AD to aristocratic Italian parents. Little is known of his early life. We do know that he was active in exercising the ministry of a deacon under Celestine I, who was Pope from 422 to 432, and Sixtus III, who was Pope from 432 to 440. Leo himself became Bishop of Rome and Pope in 440, serving until his death in 461. He had to defend the truth of the Gospel against a range of heresies, including Manicheaism, Pelagianism, and Nestorianism. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 confirmed his Tome as the orthodox expression of the incarnation of Christ and of the union of Jesus’ two natures.

In 452 Leo travelled to the north near Florence to prevent Attila the Hun marching on Rome. He was successful in getting Attila to turn back from his invasion of Italy. Some say it was because Attila shrank before Leo’s sense of presence and spiritual authority; others say that Leo purchased the safety of Rome. (Leo was, however, unsuccessful in his communications with Gaiseric the Vandal, who sacked Rome in 455, though some say that the devastation would have been even worse but for Leo’s influence).

Leo is honoured as a Father of the Church. Apart from his strengthening of the primacial ministry of the Holy See, the emphases in his teaching ensured that the victory of Jesus through the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection would remain central to our understanding of the Christian faith. 

In fact, if you are looking for a book for Lenten reading, you could do no better than to get hold of Sister Anne Field’s modern translation of Leo’s sermons, Delivered From Evil: Jesus’ Victory Over Satan. This remarkable book brings Leo’s voice directly to bear on the spiritual concerns of modern Christians. Ultimately, he tells us, “By freely surrendering our lives to the Lord we secure a peace with God that nothing can destroy.”

Here is St Leo’s teaching on the Epiphany of the Lord, from Tract. 36, 1-2 (CCL 138, 195-196), as given in A Word in Season 1

Dearly beloved, the day on which Christ first showed himself to the Gentiles as the Saviour of the world should be held in holy reverence among us. We should experience in our hearts the same joy as the three wise men felt when the sign of the new star led them into the presence of the King of heaven and earth, and they gazed in adoration upon the one in whose promised coming they had put their faith. Although that day belongs to the past, the power of the mystery which was then revealed has not passed away; we are not left with a mere report of bygone events, to be received in faith and remembered with veneration. God’s bounty toward us has been multiplied, so that even in our own times we daily experience the grace which belonged to those first beginnings.
The Gospel story specifically recalls the days when, without any previous teaching from the prophets or instruction in the law, three men came from the far east in search of God; but we see the same thing taking place even more clearly and extensively in the enlightenment of all those whom God calls at the present time. We see the fulfilment of that prophecy of Isaiah which says: 

The Lord has bared his holy arm in the sight of all nations, and the whole world has seen the salvation that comes from the Lord our God. 

And again: 

Those who have not been told about him shall see, and those who have not heard shall understand. 

When we witness people being led out of the abyss of error and called to knowledge of the true light, people who, far from professing faith in Jesus Christ, have hitherto devoted themselves to worldly wisdom, we can have no doubt that the splendour of divine grace is at work. Whenever a shaft of light newly pierces darkened hearts, its source is the radiance of that same star, which impresses the souls it touches by the miracle of its appearance and leads them forward to worship God.

If on the other hand we earnestly ask ourselves whether the same threefold oblation is made by all who come to Christ in faith, shall we not discover a corresponding gift offering in the hearts of true believers? To acknowledge Christ’s universal sovereignty is in fact to bring out gold from the treasury of one’s soul; to believe God’s only Son has made himself truly one with human nature is to offer myrrh; and to declare that he is in no way inferior to his Father in majesty is to worship him with frankincense.


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