“St Leo the Great and the Harmony of the Two Natures in the one Person of Jesus Christ”
11/10/2020, Memorial of St Leo the Great
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
Saint Pope Leo the Great is not called “Great” for nothing. One of his lasting contributions effects us still today, in the Creed we profess at every Sunday Mass. Today, I’d like to consider just one element of Leo the Great’s theological insight into the mystery of Jesus Christ.
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, a letter that Leo wrote was read aloud, after which the council fathers all exclaimed: “This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles…Peter has spoken through Pope Leo!” Leo’s insight helped clarify the faith of the Apostles. Here’s a snippet from the doctrinal definition of the council of Chalcedon, which gets us to the heart of Leo’s great insight:
“…one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Leo’s insight is that the two natures of Christ each maintain their distinctive properties as the divine nature and a human nature, and that they work in harmony with one another in the one person of Jesus Christ. Leo says this about Jesus, “The activity of each nature is what is proper to it, in communion with the other.”
This is not just for the theological textbooks. We encounter the same Lord Jesus today that Leo the Great proclaimed. Our relationship with the Lord Jesus and the way He saves us remains marked by these truths. Leo’s insight also opens up to us the meaning of the Scriptures as God continues to speak to us today and to save us through the Scriptures. Take for example, our first reading today.
In St Paul’s letter to Titus we see the divine nature of Jesus operating according to its distinctive properties and the human nature of Jesus operating according to its properties, and both in harmony and unison with one another. We see the divine nature of Jesus in Paul’s words about ‘the grace of God appearing’ and “the appearance of the glory of the great God” who ‘cleanses for himself a people as his own’ (Tit 2:11-14). Only God can cleanse us of sin.
And we also see in this passage from St Paul the operation of Jesus’ human nature, as Paul speaks of “training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.” Jesus, in his human nature gives us the example of living “temperately, justly, and devoutly” and his humanity encourages us as we follow after him.
And Jesus’ human nature in showing us how to live, how to live the true life of God, is in complete unison and harmony with the divine nature in saving us and giving us eternal life. Remember Leo’s dictum about Jesus, “The activity of each nature is what is proper to it, in communion with the other.”
So now let’s look more closely at this communion and harmony of the two natures of Jesus working together in unison. How is this harmony of the two natures in the one person of Jesus so seamless? How is this communion so harmonious? Well it’s based on who God is.
In St Leo’s great tome, read at the council of Chalcedon, we read this about the Incarnation:
“Lowliness was taken up by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity…He took on the form of a servant without the defilement of sin, thereby enhancing the human and not diminishing the divine. For that self-emptying whereby the Invisible One rendered himself visible… spelled no failure of power: it was an act of merciful favor. So the One who retained the form of God when made man, was made man in the form of a servant. Each nature kept its proper character without loss; and just as the form of God does not take away the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not detract from the form of God.”
How is this harmony of the two natures in the one person of Jesus so seamless? How is this communion so harmonious? Well it’s based on who God is: the God who is Love. As Leo says, the self-emptying of God “spelled no failure of power: it was an act of merciful favor.” Or as another translation puts it, “It was the bending down of pity, not the failing of power.”
God, the Son, taking the form of a servant in becoming man is so harmonious with his divine nature because He is the God of Love. The form of God is not so different from the form of a servant and, in Jesus, we see the perfect harmony of the two. For God is the God of compassion. He is the God who bends down in pity just as Jesus, the man, did. He is the God of humble love.
And this same God-made-man approaches us in this Eucharist, at this very Mass. In Jesus coming to us in the humble appearance of the Eucharist, the words of St Leo still ring true for us today: “For that self-emptying whereby the Invisible One rendered himself visible spelled no failure of power: it was an act of merciful favor.” It was an act of humble love of the true God and true man, Jesus Christ. The mercy of the humble God of Love.