April 1, 2012

How Marvellous the Power of the Cross

St. Leo the Great  (VIII century fresco)
Santa Maria Antiqua Church - Rome
Our understanding, which is enlightened by the Spirit of truth, should receive with purity and freedom of heart the glory of the cross as it shines in heaven and on earth. It should see with inner vision the meaning of the Lord’s words when he spoke of the imminence of his passion: The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Afterward he said: Now my soul is troubled, and what am I to say? Father, save me from this hour. But it was for this that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your Son. When the voice of the Father came from heaven, saying, I have glorified him, and will glorify him again, Jesus said in reply to those around him: It was not for me that this voice spoke, but for you. Now is the judgment of the world, now will the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.
How marvellous the power of the cross; how great beyond all telling the glory of the passion: here is the judgement-seat of the Lord, the condemnation of the world, the supremacy of Christ crucified.
Lord, you drew all things to yourself so that the devotion of all peoples everywhere might celebrate, in a sacrament made perfect and visible, what was carried out in the one temple of Judea under obscure foreshadowings.
Now there is a more distinguished order of Levites, a greater dignity for the rank of elders, a more sacred anointing for the priesthood, because your cross is the source of all blessings, the cause of all graces. Through the cross the faithful receive strength from weakness, glory from dishonor, life from death.
The different sacrifices of animals are no more: the one offering of your body and blood is the fulfilment of all the different sacrificial offerings, for you are the true Lamb of God: you take away the sins of the world. In yourself you bring to perfection all mysteries, so that, as there is one sacrifice in place of all other sacrificial offerings, there is also one kingdom gathered from all peoples.
Dearly beloved, let us then acknowledge what Saint Paul, the teacher of the nations, acknowledged so exultantly: This is a saying worthy of trust, worthy of complete acceptance: Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.
God’s compassion for us is all the more wonderful because Christ died, not for the righteous or the holy but for the wicked and the sinful, and, though the divine nature could not be touched by the sting of death, he took to himself, through his birth as one of us, something he could offer on our behalf.
The power of his death once confronted our death. In the words of Hosea the prophet: Death, I shall be your death; grave, I shall swallow you up. By dying he submitted to the laws of the underworld; by rising again he destroyed them. He did away with the everlasting character of death so as to make death a thing of time, not of eternity. As all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ.

~ St. Leo the Great, Sermo 8 de passione Domini, 6-8; PL 54, 340-342.

What an amazing page, and what a great way to prepare to enter the Holy Week! St. Leo the Great, Pope Leo I from 440 to 461, is by any standards one of the towering figures in the history of the Church. He is perhaps best known for having met Attila the Hun in 452 at the very gates of Rome and persuading him to turn back from his invasion of Italy, but he is also a “Doctor of the Church,” that is, a preeminent Teacher and a theologian regarded as particularly authoritative. In fact it was he who formed the doctrine of the Incarnation in a famous letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople—also known as the Tome of Leo—and at the Council of Chalcedon this same letter was confirmed as the expression of Christian Faith concerning the Person of Christ. The acts of the council report:

After the reading of the foregoing epistle, the most reverend bishops cried out: 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. So taught the Apostles. Piously and truly did Leo teach, so taught Cyril. Everlasting be the memory of Cyril. Leo and Cyril taught the same thing, anathema to him who does not so believe. This is the true faith. Those of us who are orthodox thus believe. This is the faith of the fathers. [Quoted in the Wikipedia entry for Pope Leo I]

Yet, without even considering St. Leo the Great from both a strictly theological point of view and a historical perspective, what impresses me the most in him is his amazingly clear and accessible style, which in turn—as the above excerpt from his Sermo 8 shows—conveys a great sense of spiritual and doctrinal authority. As the old Latin saying goes, “Simplex sigillum very” (simplicity is the sign of truth). Isn’t this just what we need? Well, perhaps not all of us… Sorry for those who don’t. Have a Blessed Holy Week!


First written for The Metaphysical Peregrine