Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pope Leo the Great on Lent II (Sermon 40)

Each week of Lent, I will be posting a sermon of Pope St. Leo the Great on Lent, with my meager commentary on the right in smaller blue.

This is Sermon 40 (and here it is in Latin). In this sermon, which refers to the readings from the first Sunday in Lent, Leo makes a doctrinal point (Christ's dual natures: human and divine) while discussing Satan's tempting of our Lord in the desert.

I. Progress and improvement always possible
Although, dearly-beloved, as the Easter festival approaches, the very recurrence of the season points out to us the Lenten fast, yet our words also must add their exhortations which, the Lord helping us, may be not useless to the active nor irksome to the devout. For since the idea of these days demands the increase of all our religious performances, there is no one, I am sure, that does not feel glad at being incited to good works. For though our nature which, so long as we are mortal, will be changeable, is advancing to the highest pursuits of virtue, yet always has the possibility of falling back, so has it always the possibility of advancing. And this is the true justness of the perfect that they should never assume themselves to be perfect, lest flagging in the purpose of their yet unfinished journey, they should fall into the danger of failure, through giving up the desire for progress..The season of Lent is meant to incite us even more (than the rest of the year) to the performance of good works.  It is the sign of holiness and an indicator that a man is on the way of perfection that he never considers himself having reached perfection, and so no one can justly consider himself freed from the obligations of this holy season.
And, therefore, because none of us, dearly beloved, is so perfect and holy as not to be able to be more perfect and more holy, let us all together, without difference of rank, without distinction of desert, with pious eagerness pursue our race from what we have attained to what we yet aspire to, and make some needful additions to our regular devotions. For he that is not more attentive than usual to religion in these days, is shown at other times to be not attentive enough.None of us is perfect in virtue, so we should all alike strive to grow in holiness and perfection, rather than consider ourselves good enough.
II. Satan seeks to supply his numerous losses by fresh gains
Hence the reading of the Apostle's proclamation has sounded opportunely in our ears, saying, "Behold now is the accepted time, behold now is the day of salvation." For what is more accepted than this time, what more suitable to salvation than these days, in which war is proclaimed against vices and progress is made in all virtues? You had indeed always to keep watch, O Christian soul, against the enemy of your salvation, lest any spot should be exposed to the tempter's snares: but now greater wariness and keener prudence must be employed by you when that same foe of yours rages with fiercer hatred.Pope Leo quotes 2 Cor. 6:2, which was the epistle reading for the First Sunday in Lent.  He is saying that the days of Lent are indeed an acceptable time for directing our minds towards salvation and the conquering of vices by virtue.
For now in all the world the power of his ancient sway is taken from him, and the countless vessels of captivity are rescued from his grasp. The people of all nations and of all tongues are breaking away from their cruel plunderer, and now no race of men is found that does not struggle against the tyrant's laws, while through all the borders of the earth many thousands of thousands are being prepared to be reborn in Christ : and as the birth of a new creature draws near, spiritual wickedness is being driven out by those who were possessed by it.The devil laments this penitential season when men and women are wrested from his grasp and brought into the bosom of the Church in the Paschal sacraments.

Whether Leo meant by "now no race of men is found" that he thought the Gospel had truly been preached to the whole world, I do not know. Perhaps he thought it had reached the whole known world.
The blasphemous fury of the despoiled foe frets, therefore, and seeks new gains because it has lost its ancient right. Unwearied and ever wakeful, he snatches at any sheep he finds straying carelessly from the sacred folds, intent on leading them over the steeps of treasure and down the slopes of luxury into the abodes of death. And so he inflames their wrath, feeds their hatreds, whets their desires, mocks at their continence, arouses their gluttony.Because souls are being freed from Satan's grasp, this penitential season is a cause for him to re-double his efforts as well.
III. The twofold nature of Christ shown at the Temptation
For whom would he not dare to try, who did not keep from his treacherous attempts even on our Lord Jesus Christ? For, as the story of the Gospel has disclosed, when our Saviour, Who was true God, that He might show Himself true Man also, and banish all wicked and erroneous opinions, after the fast of 40 days and nights, had experienced the hunger of human weakness, the devil, rejoicing at having found in Him a sign of possible and mortal nature, in order to test the power which he feared, said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." (Matthew 4:3)Since Satan did not balk at the thought of tempting the Lord, we can be sure he will not be timid in tempting us.

Here Leo begins to weave in the theme of the doctrinal importance of this Gospel passage, that Christ is true God and true man.
Doubtless the Almighty could do this, and it was easy that at the Creator's command a creature of any kind should change into the form that it was commanded: just as when He willed it, in the marriage feast, He changed the water into wine: but here it better agreed with His purposes of salvation that His haughty foe's cunning should be vanquished by the Lord, not in the power of His Godhead, but by the mystery of His humiliation. At length, when the devil had been put to flight and the tempter baffled in all his arts, angels came to the Lord and ministered to Him, that He being true Man and true God, His Manhood might be unsullied by those crafty questions, and His Godhead displayed by those holy ministrations.Christ conquered Satan in the desert not by virtue of His divinity, but by virtue of His humanity.

Then, when the devil left Him, the fact that angels came to minister to Him is seen by Leo as a sign of His divinity.
And so let the sons and disciples of the devil be confounded, who, being filled with the poison of vipers, deceive the simple, denying in Christ the presence of both true natures, while they rob either His Godhead of Manhood, or His Manhood of Godhead, although both falsehoods are destroyed by a twofold and simultaneous proof: for by His bodily hunger His perfect Manhood was shown, and by the attendant angels His perfect Godhead.I do not know if there was a particular heretical group which Leo had in mind at this time, but he makes it clear that anyone who denies the divinity or humanity of Christ is at odds with this Gospel passage.
IV. The Fast should not end with abstinence from food, but lead to good deeds
Therefore, dearly-beloved, seeing that, as we are taught by our Redeemer's precept, "man lives not in bread alone, but in every word of God," and it is right that Christian people, whatever the amount of their abstinence, should rather desire to satisfy themselves with the "Word of God" than with bodily food, let us with ready devotion and eager faith enter upon the celebration of the solemn fast, not with barren abstinence from food, which is often imposed on us by weakliness of body, or the disease of avarice, but in bountiful benevolence: that in truth we may be of those of whom the very Truth speaks, "blessed are they which hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." (Matthew 5:6)Abstaining from food is done for natural reasons, but the purpose of the Lenten fast is supernatural, not merely natural.  Thus our hunger, which comes naturally when we abstain from food, should be directed to the Word of God, that we may be filled by it.
Let works of piety, therefore, be our delight, and let us be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity. Let us rejoice in the replenishment of the poor, whom our bounty has satisfied. Let us delight in the clothing of those whose nakedness we have covered with needful raiment. Let our humaneness be felt by the sick in their illnesses, by the weakly in their infirmities, by the exiles in their hardships, by the orphans in their destitution, and by solitary widows in their sadness: in the helping of whom there is no one that cannot carry out some amount of benevolence.So our food should be the same as our Lord's:  "My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work." (John 4:34)

Pope Leo then lists works of mercy.
For no one's income is small, whose heart is big: and the measure of one's mercy and goodness does not depend on the size of one's means. Wealth of goodwill is never rightly lacking, even in a slender purse. Doubtless the expenditure of the rich is greater, and that of the poor smaller, but there is no difference in the fruit of their works, where the purpose of the workers is the same.Charity is the great equalizer, for it is an operation of the soul, not of material wealth or power.
V. And still further it should lead to personal amendment and domestic harmony
But, beloved, in this opportunity for the virtues' exercise there are also other notable crowns, to be won by no dispersing abroad of granaries, by no disbursement of money, if wantonness is repelled, if drunkenness is abandoned, and the lusts of the flesh tamed by the laws of chastity: if hatreds pass into affection, if enmities be turned into peace, if meekness extinguishes wrath, if gentleness forgives wrongs, if in fine the conduct of master and of slaves is so well ordered that the rule of the one is milder, and the discipline of the other is more complete.Our Lenten discipline is not only about increasing our works of charity, but also about decreasing our works against charity.
It is by such observances then, dearly-beloved, that God's mercy will be gained, the charge of sin wiped out, and the adorable Easter festival devoutly kept. And this the pious Emperors of the Roman world have long guarded with holy observance; for in honour of the Lord's Passion and Resurrection they bend their lofty power, and relaxing the severity of their decrees set free many of their prisoners: so that on the days when the world is saved by the Divine mercy, their clemency, which is modelled on the Heavenly goodness, may be zealously followed by us.The secular example of emperors granting pardon is seen by Leo as the law of God's mercy permeating those in positions of power in the world.
Let Christian peoples then imitate their princes, and be incited to forbearance in their homes by these royal examples. For it is not right that private laws should be severer than public. Let faults be forgiven, let bonds be loosed, offenses wiped out, designs of vengeance fall through, that the holy festival through the Divine and human grace may find all happy, all innocent: through our Lord Jesus Christ Who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns God for endless ages of ages. Amen.If an emperor can be so merciful, surely we can be too.

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