November 5, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Wisdom of the saints: St. Leo the Great

John F. FinkSt. Leo the Great, whose feast day is on Nov. 10, was pope from 440 to 461. He is one of two popes called “the Great,” the other being Gregory I. Both are also doctors of the Church because of their writings and sermons.

Ninety-six of Leo’s sermons and 143 of his letters have come down to us. Excerpts from 26 of them are included in the Church’s Office of Readings, including for many of the main feasts on the liturgical calendar—Christmas, Epiphany and the Annunciation.

His most important letter was one that he wrote to Archbishop Flavin of Constantinople, known as the Tome. It was written during the time when the Church was still debating whether Jesus was God or a man, and Leo concisely defined the doctrine of the Incarnation. When Leo’s representatives read his Tome at the Council of Chaldedon in 451, the council members declared, “Peter has spoken by the mouth of Leo.”

Perhaps the most famous sentence in the Tome is this: “He who became man in the form of a servant is he who in the form of God created man.”

He elaborated: “He who is true God was born in the complete and perfect nature of a true man, whole in his own nature, whole in ours.”

Leo said that God took the nature of a servant without stain of sin. Although invisible as God, he became visible as man. He came down from the throne of heaven, he said, but did not separate himself from the Father’s glory.

God did this, Leo said, “to pay the debt of our sinful state.” He joined his nature as God that is incapable of suffering to one that could suffer. Therefore, the one person Jesus Christ “was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other.”

Jesus exercised both of his natures, the human and the divine, while on Earth, Leo said. “To be hungry and thirsty, to be weary and to sleep are clearly human,” he said, “but to satisfy 5,000 men with five loaves, . . . to walk upon the surface of the water with feet that do not sink and to quell the rising of the waves by rebuking the winds is without any doubt divine.”

It’s also not part of the same nature, he said, for Christ to say at two different times, “I and the Father are one,” and “The Father is greater than I.” Although Jesus was one person, he said, “His manhood, which is less than the Father, comes from our side; his Godhead, which is equal to the Father, comes from the Father.”

Leo wrote, “One and the same person—this must be said over and over again—is truly the Son of God and truly the son of man. He is God by virtue of the fact that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (Jn 1:1). He is man in virtue of the fact that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ ” (Jn 1:14). †

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