Saint Leo the Great on the Mystery of the Incarnation

Today is the feast day of Pope Saint Leo the Great (410 – 461), who was one of the most significant figures in Church history, and certainly one of Christendom’s most memorable popes. A native of Tuscany, he became a deacon in the Roman church in 430, and gradually became known for his diplomatic skills, so that in 440 the Western Emperor Galla Placidia sent him to Gaul to heal the divide between the two most prominent officials in that region*. His importance in this respect was in fact known as early as 431, when Saint Cyril of Alexandria wrote to him to ask that Rome use her influence to prevent Juvenal of Jerusalem claiming jurisdiction over all Palestine (he wanted to merge Caeserea and Antioch into one patriarchate under Jerusalem).

Happily, Cyril and Juvenal made up later that year, siding together against Nestorius at the First Council of Ephesus, and Cyril’s memory would later be invoked by Leo in his famous Tome, which was delivered (though unread) to the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 and then used at Chalcedon in 451 as an authoritative summary of orthodox teaching on Christology. The year after Chalcedon, Leo went out from Rome to confront the invading Huns in Mantua, at the river Mincio, where he was able to convince Attila to withdraw beyond the Danube, and saved the rest of the Italian peninsula from invasion. It is not clear what Leo said to Attila, but the leader of the Huns was clearly impressed by what he heard.

Furthermore, although he could not prevent the sacking of Rome by Vandals in 455, Leo was able to stop them from burning the city and massacring its people, limiting Geneseric and his cohort to looting. Saint Leo was also a great pastor, attending closely to his people at a time of famines, floods of refugees and growing poverty, and exhorting the faithful to integrate their devotional and moral lives, for instance by using the dates of the liturgical calendar as a continual reminder of the need to fast and give alms. He was an energetic and dutiful pope, who also did great work to consolidate the authority of the Roman See, and exercised that authority to intervene in ecclesiastical problems as far abroad as Spain, Gaul, Illyricum and North Africa.

Notably, he also refused to accept the canon at the Council of Chalcedon which gave Constantinople a dignity above that of Alexandria and Antioch, not just because it was an attempt to mitigate papal authority, but because it upset the traditional order of jurisdiction based on apostolic legacy. Aside from his achievements as pope, and as a diplomat though, he is most remembered for the Tome which was sent to (and ignored at) Second Ephesus (a council later disowned by Chalcedon) and made such a difference in 451. A statement of orthodox faith as addressed to Flavian, the Archbishop of Constantinople, this document was a clear and comprehensive outlining of what must be held with respect to the Incarnation, detailing the fine points of the Hypostatic Union, and why it is necessary to so believe. When read out at Chalcedon, the bishops said that:

This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles. So we all believe, thus the orthodox believe. Anathema to him who does not thus believe. Peter has spoken thus through Leo.

The following excerpt is from Saint Leo’s famous twenty-first sermon, given on Christmas Day, and which also deals with the mystery of the Incarnation, but in a more succinct tone and couched in pastoral language – whilst less complete an examination, it still manages to present very clearly the importance of maintaining the Chalcedonian definition. I have omitted the first part, which, as a fine example of exhortatory preaching I was most tempted to include, but, apart from adding to the length of the quote, it was a bit too Christmassy for this time of year! The third section, also omitted, is a standard reminder to the congregation not to take for granted the awesome gift they have received in their baptism, and not to slip back into bad habits. It is a great statement of faith from a great pope and true Doctor of the Church:

The Word of God, therefore, God, the Son of God, Who in the beginning was with God, by Whom all things were made, and without Whom was made nothing that was made, became Man, that He might free man from eternal death; bending down to the taking of our lowliness, without diminution of His own Majesty, so that remaining what He was, and taking upon Himself what He was not, He might join the form of a true servant to that form in which He is equal to God the Father (Phil. ii. 6); and by such a bond so link both natures, that this exaltation might not swallow up the lesser, nor adoption lessen the Higher.

Preserving therefore, the substance of both natures, and uniting them in One Person, lowliness is assumed by Majesty; infirmity, by Power; mortality, by Immortality. And to pay the debt of our present state, an inviolable Nature is united to our suffering one; and true God and true man are welded into the unity of One Lord, so that, as was needed for our healing, one and the same Mediator of God and men, might, by the one, suffer death, and by the Other, rise again from the dead. Rightly then, did this Birth of our salvation bring no taint of corruption to the Virginal integrity; for the birth of Truth, was the defence of virginity. 

Such a birth, dearly Beloved, befitted Christ, the Power of God, and the Wisdom of God; whereby He would be both joined to our lowliness, yet remain far above us in His divinity. For unless He were true God, He could bring us no aid; and were He not true man, He could offer us no example. The exulting angels, therefore, sing to the new born Lord, Glory to God in the Highest, and they announce unto me, peace on earth to men of good will. For they see the heavenly Jerusalem made up from all peoples of the earth. With what joy may not the lowliness of mankind rejoice in the unspeakable work of the divine compassion, when the angels in their glory so greatly rejoice.

taken from The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: 1. From the First Sunday of Advent to Quinquagesima (1960), p.118, Longmans.


*It was during his absence in Gaul that Pope Saint Sixtus III – who was responsible for building the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, which he dedicated to the Mother of God after the First Council of Ephesus had declared that Theotokos was a legitimate title – died, and Leo was then elected (unanimously) to be his successor.


One thought on “Saint Leo the Great on the Mystery of the Incarnation

  1. Reblogged this on Journey Towards Easter and commented:

    I had planned a new post for today, but unexpected additions to my schedule and bad time management on my part mitigated against it. Instead then, I would like to re-blog this post from the feast day of Pope Saint Leo the Great, as it contains an excerpt from his famous ‘Christmas Sermon’ – appropriate reading as we draw close to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord.

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