. . . From Sermon LIX, given in Wednesday of Holy Week.
St Leo the Great (pope of Rome from 440-461, reposed in the Lord AD 461) was bishop in one of the more controversy-ridden periods of Church history. He was engaged in the Christological controversy that consumed the fifth century, and his great Tome was to be of substantial influence in the events leading to the Ecumenical Council of Ephesis in 451.
In this sermon, St Leo explores the Passion of Our Lord and its meaning in the Christian Life.
IV. Christ Bearing His Own Cross is an Eternal Lesson to the Church.
And so the Lord was handed over to their savage wishes, and in mockery of His kingly state, ordered to be the bearer of His own instrument of death, that what Isaiah the prophet foresaw might be fulfilled, saying, “Behold a Child is born, and a Son is given to us whose government is upon His shoulders.” When, therefore, the Lord carried the wood of the cross which should turn for Him into the sceptre of power, it was indeed in the eyes of the wicked a mighty mockery, but to the faithful a mighty mystery was set forth, seeing that He, the glorious vanquisher of the Devil, and the strong defeater of the powers that were against Him, was carrying in noble sort the trophy of His triumph, and on the shoulders of His unconquered patience bore into all realms the adorable sign of salvation: as if even then to confirm all His followers by this mere symbol of His work, and say, “He that taketh not his cross and followeth Me, is not worthy of Me.”
V. The Transference of the Cross from the Lord To Simon of Cyrene Signifies the Participation of the Gentiles in His Sufferings.
But as the multitudes went with Jesus to the place of punishment, a certain Simon of Cyrene was found on whom to lay the wood of the cross instead of the Lord; that even by this act might be pre-signified the Gentiles’ faith, to whom the cross of Christ was to be not shame but glory. It was not accidental, therefore, but symbolical and mystical, that while the Jews were raging against Christ, a foreigner was found to share His sufferings, as the Apostle says, “if we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him”; so that no Hebrew nor Israelite, but a stranger, was substituted for the Saviour in His most holy degradation. For by this transference the propitiation of the spotless Lamb and the fulfilment of all mysteries passed from the circumcision to the uncircumcision, from the sons according to the flesh to the sons according to the spirit: since as the Apostle says, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” Who offering Himself to the Father a new and true sacrifice of reconciliation, was crucified not in the temple, whose worship was now at an end, and not within the confines of the city which for its sin was doomed to be destroyed, but outside, “without the camp,” that, on the cessation of the old symbolic victims, a new Victim might be placed on a new altar, and the cross of Christ might be the altar not of the temple but of the world.
VI. We are to See Not Only the Cross But the Meaning of It.
Accordingly, dearly-beloved, Christ being lifted up upon the cross, let the eyes of your mind not dwell only on that sight which those wicked sinners saw, to whom it was said by the mouth of Moses, “And thy life shall be hanging before thine eyes, and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt not be assured of thy life.” For in the crucified Lord they could think of nothing but their wicked deed, having not the fear, by which true faith is justified, but that by which an evil conscience is racked. But let our understandings, illumined by the Spirit of Truth, foster with pure and free heart the glory of the cross which irradiates heaven and earth, and see with the inner sight what the Lord meant when He spoke of His coming Passion: “The hour is come that the Son of man may be glorified”; and below He says, “Now is My spirit troubled. And what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour, but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify Thy Son.” And when the Father’s voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again,” Jesus in reply said to those that stood by, “This voice came not for Me but for you. Now is the world’s judgment, now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things unto Me.”
VII. The Power of the Cross is Universally Attractive.
O wondrous power of the Cross! O in effable glory of the Passion, in which is contained the Lord’s tribunal, the world’s judgment, and the power of the Crucified! For thou didst draw all things unto Thee, Lord and when Thou hadst stretched out Thy hands all the day, long to an unbelieving people that gainsaid Thee, the whole world at last was brought to confess Thy majesty. Thou didst draw all things unto Thee, Lord, when all the elements combined to pronounce judgment in execration of the Jews’ crime, when the lights of heaven were darkened, and the day turned into night, and the earth also was shaken with unwonted shocks, and all creation refused to serve those wicked men. Thou didst draw all things unto Thee, Lord. for the veil of the temple was rent, and the Holy of Holies existed no more for those unworthy high-priests: so that type was turned into Truth, prophecy into Revelation law into Gospel. Thou didst draw all things unto Thee, Lord, so that what before was done in the one temple of the Jews in dark signs, was now to be celebrated everywhere by the piety of all the nations in full and open rite. For now there is a nobler rank of Levites, there are elders of greater dignity and priests of holier anointing: because Thy cross is the fount of all blessings, the source of all graces, and through it the believers receive strength for weakness, glory for shame, life for death. Now, too, the variety of fleshly sacrifices has ceased, and the one offering of Thy Body and Blood fulfils all those different victims: for Thou art the true “Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,” and in Thyself so accomplishest all mysteries, that as there is but one sacrifice instead of many victims, so there is but one kingdom instead of many nations.