Leo the Great
The Nativity of the Lord
Translated by Joseph Bolin
My beloved people, although the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which he clothed himself with the flesh of our nature, is ineffable, I make bold to speak, not trusting in my skill, but relying on his inspiration, so that in this way, on the day which was chosen for the mystery [sacrament] of the restoration of man, we may offer something that can edify those who hear it. For the fact that the greater part of the Church of God already understands what it believes, does not make it unnecessary to repeat things that have already been said, for since we owe our office of speaking to many who are new in the faith, it is better to bore those who have been taught with things they already known, then to defraud those as yet unlearned. Therefore that the Son of God, who is not the same person as the Father and the Holy Spirit, but is one in essence with them, deigned to become a partaker of our lowliness, and willed to be one of us corruptible, of us mortal ones, is so sacred and wonderful, that the reason of the divine counsel cannot be seen by the wise of this world, unless the true light has scattered the darkness of human ignorance. For not only in the work of the virtues, or in the observance of the commandments, but also in the course of faith “hard and narrow is the way that leads to life” (Mat 7:14), and it needs great labor and great discernment, among the dubious opinions of the ignorant and the falsehoods that have the appearance of truth, to walk the one path of sound doctrine without stumbling, and though the snares of error are all around, to avoid all danger of deception. For who is suited for this, if he is not taught and led by the spirit of God? As the Apostle says, “We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (1 Cor 2:12), and David sings, “Blessed is the man whom thou dost educate, O Lord, and whom thou dost teach out of thy law” (Psalm 94:12).
Therefore, beloved, having the protection of truth among the dangers of error, and taught not with words of human wisdom, but by the teaching of the Holy Spirit, we believe what we have learned, and preach what we believe, that the Son of God, begotten before the ages by the Father, and eternal with the Father and coeternal in consubstantial equality, came into this world through the womb of the Virgin in this sacrament of chosen tenderness, in which and from which “Wisdom has built herself a home” (Prov 9:1), and the unchangeable Divinity of the Word fitted for itself the form of a slave, in the likeness of sinful flesh, being in no way before himself and the Father and Holy Spirit less in glory, since the nature of the supreme and eternal essence cannot be diminished or changed. But on account of our weakness he diminished himself, and veiled with his body the splendor of his majesty, which human sight could not bear. Hence also he is said to have emptied himself (Phil 2:7), as though pouring himself out by his own power, in that in this humility by which he looked out for us, he became not only lower than the Father, but than himself. Yet by this bending down nothing was taken away from that which he has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit, i.e., being, understanding this to pertain to omnipotence, that he who according to our nature [secundum nostra] is less, is not less according to his own. For since light regards the blinded, strength the weak, mercy the miserable, it was a deed of great power, that the Son of God received human substance and position, in order to restore the nature which he created, and to do away with the death which he did not make.
Therefore having put away and entirely rejected all the opinions of the wicked, according to which Christ is either a scandal or folly, the faith of right minds exults, and understands the one true Son of God, not only according to the Deity by which he was begotten from the Father, but also according to the humanity by which he was born from the Virgin Mother. For he is both in our humility and in the divine majesty, true man and true God; eternal in his own nature, temporal in ours; one with the Father in substance, which was never less than the Father, one with his Father in the body which he created. Indeed by the taking on of our nature, the step was made for us, by which we can ascend to him through him. For that essence which is always and everywhere in its entirety, did not need to descend locally, and it was as proper to it to be joined in its entirety to man, as it is proper to him not to be divided from the Father. Therefore it remains, that “in the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1), and nothing accrues to him so that what he is, he sometime was not. For the Son is eternally Son, and the Father, eternally Father. Hence also the Son himself says, “He who sees me, sees the Father too” (John 14:9). Your impiety, heretic, has blinded, so that you who have not seen the Son’s majesty, do not see the Father’s glory; for by saying that he who was not was begotten, you assert that the Son is temporal, and asserting that the Son is temporal, you believe that the Father is changeable. For not only is that which decreases changeable, but also whatever increases; thus if, as it seems to you, the Begotten is unequal to the Father because, in generating him who was not, the essence also of the generator was also imperfect, in that by generating it progressed to having that which it did not have. But the catholic faith detests and condemns this impious perversity of yours; it admits nothing of temporality in true Deity, but confesses both the Father and the Son to be of one eternity, since the splendor born from a light is not posterior to the light, and the true light was never lacking its splendor, the substantial always having its shining, just as the substantial always has its existing. But the manifestation of this splendor is called mission, by which Christ appeared to the world. He who always filled all things with his invisible majesty, still, as though from a most remote and high secret place, came to those to whom he was unknown, when he took away the blindness of ignorance, and, as has been written, “To those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, a light has shone” (Isa 9:2).
For although the light of truth was also sent in previous ages to illuminate the holy fathers and prophets, as David saids, “Send forth your light and your truth” (Psa 43:3), and in different ways and by many signs the Deity of the Son declared the works of his presence, still all those significations, and all the miracles, were testimonies of that mission of which the Apostle says, “When the fullness of time came, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). What is this, but that the Word becomes flesh, the creator of the world is born from the womb of the Virgin, the Lord of majesty makes for himself a human beginning, and although no earthly seed was involved in that spiritual conception, takes a nature from his Mother to receive only the substance of true flesh? By this mission, bu which God was united to man, the Son is unequal to the Father, not in that which is from the Father, but in that which was made from man. For the humanity does not destroy the equality, which his Deity has inviolably, and the descent of the Creator to the creature, is the promotion of believers to eternal things. “For since,” as the Apostle says, “in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21). To the world therefore, i.e., to the wise of the world, its wisdom became blindness, nor could they recognize God, to the knowledge of whom one attains only in his wisdom. And therefore, since the world boasted of the vanity of its doctrines, the Lord established the faith of those to be saved in that which seemed unworthy and foolish, so that, all presumptuous opinions being of no avail, the grace of God alone should reveal what human intelligence could not comprehend.
Therefore the catholic faith acknowledges the Lord’s glory in his humility, and the Church, which is the body of Christ, rejoices in the sacraments of its salvation; for if the Word of God had not become flesh and dwelt among us, if the Creator had not descended to communion with the creature, and recalled the old man to a beginning in his birth, death would have reigned from Adam (Cf. Rom 5:14) until the end, and condemnation would have remained indestructibly on all man, when by the condition of birth, there is one cause of perishing for all. And so among the sons of men, the Lord Jesus alone was born innocent, since he alone was conceived without the pollution of carnal concupiscence. He became a man of our race, so that we might be able to be partakers of the divine nature. He took an origin in the womb of the Virgin, was placed in the baptismal font; he gave to the water, what he gave to his mother; for the power of the Most High and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, which worked that Mary gave birth to the Savior, also worked that water regenerate the believer. For what was more suited to heal the sick, enlighten the blind, give life to the dead, than that the wounds of pride be cured by the remedies of humility? Adam, neglecting God’s precepts, brought in the condemnation of sin; Jesus, born under the law, restored the freedom of righteousness. The former, obeying the devil unto transgression, merited that in him all death; the latter, obeying the Father unto the cross, worked that in him all be made alive. The former, desiring angelic honor, ruined the dignity of his nature; the latter, receiving the condition of our weakness, on account of whom he descended to hell, by the same [act] placed [it] in heaven. Finally, to the former, fallen through extolling itself, it was said: “You are earth, and to earth you will return” (Gen 3:19); to the latter, exalted through subjection, it was said: “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1).
These works of our Lord, beloved, are not only useful to us in the manner of a sacrament, but also by offering an example for imitation, if these remedies are transferred into a discipline, and what is done in the mysteries, is also of value for morals, so that we remind ourselves that we should live in the humility and meekness of the Redeemer; for as the Apostle says, “if we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him” (Rom 8:17). For in vain are we called Christians, if we are not imitators of Christ, who said that he is the way (Joh 14:6) so that the teacher’s way of living might be a model for the disciplines, and the servant might choose that humility embraced by the Lord, who lives and reigns forever and ever.
One thought on “Christmas Sermon 25 of Leo the Great”
Thank you for sharing this. I have been looking at St Anselm's theory of atonement, and am searching for authoritative sources that would give a broader base for redemption from sin than the idea of 'paying a debt'. I notice that St Leo does use the idea of a debt to be paid, but I thought his Christmas sermons might also give some other approaches…