Tag Archives: Leo the Great

St. Leo the Great


November 10th is the feast of St. Leo the Great, a 5th century pope buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the front of the church on the left side of the main altar.

A large picture over his tomb shows him meeting Atilla, the Hun, and his warriors who came in 452 to attack and plunder Rome. Barbarian tribes were then pouring through Rome’s defenses along the Rhine River and its northern frontier, threatening the Italian peninsula. In fear, most of Rome’s elite left for the safety of Constantinople, the new center of the empire. The rest, convinced the world was ending, barricaded themselves in their homes with everything they had. The army was too weak to defend the city.

Leo became Rome’s defense, persuading Atilla to leave Rome untouched by offering him tribute money. He was less successful when, a few years later, in 455  the Vandals returned to plunder Rome for 14 days.

Yet that’s not why Leo’s called great. A holy, learned man, he knew the church’s best defense was hope in Jesus Christ and the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection. In his sermons on the Incarnation,  preached in the course of the church year, he urged Christians to find their strength in Jesus Christ.

Leo believed, as Peter the Apostle did, that the church founded by Jesus had a future, despite the perilous circumstances it faced. As Bishop of Rome, he encouraged the bishops of the western church to hold on. He found his support in the Passion of Jesus Christ. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from him:

“True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity…Who cannot recognize in Christ his own infirmities? Who would not recognize that Christ’s eating and sleeping, his sadness and his shedding of 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  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  rise to share his glory. The promise he made will be fulfilled in the sight of all: Whoever acknowledges me before others, I too will acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven.”

 Sermon, Leo the Great

Blessed are the poor in spirit

There is no doubt that the poor find it easier than the rich to receive the blessing of humility; for gentleness goes with poverty just as pride more commonly goes with riches. Nevertheless,  many rich people find that their wealth does not swell them up with pride: rather, they do good and benevolent things with it. For these people the greatest treasure is what they spend in relieving the distress and hardship of others.

  In the virtue of humility people of every kind and every standing meet together, because though they differ in their means they share a common purpose. Their inequality of wealth makes no difference if they are equal in spiritual blessings.
  What kind of poverty, then, is blessed? The kind that is not in love with earthly things and does not seek worldly riches: the kind that longs to be filled with the blessings of heaven.
Pope Leo the Great

Becoming a Child

The mystery of Christmas is a call for all of us to become like the little Child. Is that what it means to be born again? St. Leo tells us in today’s reading it was the first act of humility that God’s Son made as he came among us and we need to renew this mystery in ourselves as we celebrate his birth.

“ God’s Son did not disdain to become a baby. Although with the passing of the years he moved from infancy to maturity, and although with the triumph of his passion and resurrection all the actions of humility which he undertook for us were finished, still today’s festival renews for us the holy childhood of Jesus born of the Virgin Mary.

“In adoring the birth of our Saviour, we find we are celebrating the commencement of our own life, for the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body.

“Every individual that is called has his own place, and all the children of the Church are separated from one another by intervals of time. Nevertheless, just as the entire body of the faithful is born in the font of baptism, crucified with Christ in his passion, raised again in his resurrection, and placed at the Father’s right hand in his ascension, so with him are they born in this nativity.”

Age, race, sex, social status, temperament, individual gifts separate us, but “the entire body of the faithful” come during this holy season to be born with him in his nativity.

Genealogies tell us who we are

We may stumble over the names in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, our reading for today’s liturgy, but  Pope Leo the Great says in our Office of Readings, the genealogies tell us who he is. “To speak of our Lord, the son of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as true and perfect man is of no value to us if we do not believe that he is descended from the line of ancestors set out in the Gospel.”

I reflected about this gospel elsewhere today, but here’s what Leo says about it:

“No doubt the Son of God in his omnipotence could have taught and sanctified us by appearing in a semblance of human form as he did to the patriarchs and prophets, when for instance he engaged in a wrestling contest or entered into conversation with them, or when he accepted their hospitality and even ate the food they set before him. But these appearances were only types, signs that mysteriously foretold the coming of one who would take a true human nature from the stock of the patriarchs who had gone before him. No mere figure, then, fulfilled the mystery of our reconciliation with God, ordained from all eternity…The divine nature and the nature of a servant were to be united in one person so that the Creator of time might be born in time, and he through whom all things were made might be brought forth in their midst.

For unless the new man, by being made in the likeness of sinful flesh, had taken on himself the nature of our first parents, unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother while sharing the Father’s substance and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the dominion of Satan. The Conqueror’s victory would have profited us nothing if the battle had been fought outside our human condition.”

So that’s where the battle and the victory takes place today, in our human condition, where our names are found.

New Birth

Some beautiful writings on the Christmas mystery. Here are a couple of sentences from Pope Leo the Great, an early pope.

‘We’re called to fill our own place and all the children of the church are separated from one another by intervals of time. Nevertheless, just as all the faithful are born in the font of baptism, crucified with Christ in his passion, raised again in his resurrection, and placed at the Father’s right hand in his ascension, so we’re born with him in his nativity.”

There’s a special on Darwin’s theory of evolution on PBS these evenings. I wonder if someone will speculate about the union of all creation by reason of  DNA and our belief in the  Word become flesh.  It will be interesting to see theology and science exchange their wisdom.

Again, back to Leo:  “In adoring the birth of our Saviour, we find we are celebrating the beginning of our own life, for the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body.”

Is it also a celebration of the beginning of creation?

The Pope’s Blessing

On weekdays I don’t usually need an alarm clock to get me up in the morning. A red van pulls up outside my window about 6:30 to pick up some workers from the neighborhood who are going off to work. José, who’s been here in our building long before that, comes out to say a jovial hello to them all, and then reaches into the van to give them a blessing.

Today we’re reading a sermon by St. Leo the Great, an early pope, which he gave on the anniversary of his consecration. It’s his feastday today. Though he’s pope, he says, the blessings he’s been given are shared with the whole community. All of us, from top to bottom, are meant to give to others the blessing we have received.

“In the unity of faith and baptism, therefore, our community is undivided. There is a common dignity, as the apostle Peter says in these words: And you are built up as living stones into spiritual houses, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices which are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. And again: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart.”

The pope isn’t the only one who blesses. As usual, José gave his blessing this morning, “Urbi et orbi.”