A Sermon of Pope St Leo the Great on the Epiphany

Gregory DiPippo

The friend and mentor of many of us at VSI, Fr Reginald Foster, was a great admirer of the writings of Pope St Leo I, and liked to say that “all you need to know about theology, you can find in Leo’s glorious Latin!” This is a little bit of hyperbole (a rhetorical device at which Fr Foster excelled), but Leo’s Latin is certainly as beautiful as his theology is profound, and we can hardly do better than to turn to him when we wish to learn about the Church’s great feast days. Here then is excerpt from one of his sermons on today’s feast day of the Epiphany, which is traditionally read in the Roman breviary.

“Gaudete in Domino, dilectissimi, iterum dico, gaudete: quoniam brevi intervallo temporis, post solemnitatem Nativitatis Christi, festivitas declarationis ejus illuxit: et quem in illo die Virgo peperit, in hoc mundus agnovit. Verbum enim caro factum, sic susceptionis nostræ temperavit exordia, ut natus Jesus et credentibus manifestus, et persequentibus esset occultus. Jam tunc ergo cæli enarraverunt gloriam Dei, et in omnem terram sonus veritatis exivit, quando et pastoribus exercitus Angelorum Salvatoris editi annuntiator apparuit, et Magos ad eum adorandum prǽvia stella perduxit: ut a solis ortu usque ad occasum veri Regis generatio coruscaret, cum rerum fidem et regna Orientis per Magos discerent, et Romanum imperium non lateret.

Nam et sævitia Herodis volens primordia suspecti sibi Regis exstinguere, huic dispensationi nesciens serviebat: ut dum atroci intentus facinori, ignotum sibi puerum indiscreta infantium cæde persequitur, annuntiatum cǽlitus dominatoris ortum insignior ubique fama loqueretur: … Tunc autem etiam Ægypto Salvator illatus est, ut gens antiquis erroribus dedita, jam ad vicinam salutem per occultam gratiam signaretur: et quæ nondum ejecerat ab animo superstitionem, jam hospitio reciperet veritatem.

Agnoscamus ergo, dilectissimi, in Magis adoratoribus Christi, vocationis nostræ fideique primitias: et exsultantibus animis beatæ spei initia celebremus. Exinde enim in æternam hereditatem coepimus introire: exinde nobis Christum loquentia Scripturarum arcana patuerunt, et veritas … omnibus nationibus lumen suum invexit. Honoretur itaque a nobis sacratissimus dies, in quo salutis nostræ Auctor apparuit: et quem Magi infantem venerati sunt in cunabulis, nos omnipotentem adoremus in cælis. Ac sicut illi de thesauris suis mysticas Domino munerum species obtulerunt, ita et nos de cordibus nostris, quæ Deo sunt digna, promamus.

(The Monforte Altarpiece; ca. 1470, by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (1435 ca. – 1482))

Rejoice in the Lord, dearly beloved; again I say, rejoice, for after the passage of a brief time since the solemnity of Christ’s Birth, the feast of His Manifestation has shone upon us, and in it, the world has recognized Him whom the Virgin bore on that day. For the Word become Flesh arranged the beginnings of the taking on of our nature in such wise that when Jesus was born, He was both revealed to believers, and hidden from persecutors. Therefore, then already did the heavens proclaim the glory of God, and the sound of truth went out into all the earth, when the host of angels appeared to announce the Savior’s birth to the shepherds; and the star went forth and led the Magi to adore Him; so that from the rising of the sun to its setting, the Birth of the true King might shine forth, since the kingdoms of the East learned the truth of these matters through the Magi, and they did not lay hidden from the Roman Empire.

For even the savagery of Herod, wishing to destroy at His birth the King Whom he feared, served this arrangement unknowingly, so that while he was intent upon the atrocious crime, and sought out the boy unknown to him by the indiscriminate slaughter of infants, the report (of his action) spoke the more clearly of the Birth of the Lord proclaimed from heaven, … Then also was the Savior taken into Egypt, so that a nation given over to ancient errors might already be marked through hidden grace for the salvation drawn nigh, and receive the truth in hospitality, though it had not yet cast away superstition from its mind.

Let us therefore, dearly beloved, recognize in the wise men who worshipped Christ the first fruits of our calling and our faith, and with rejoicing souls, celebrate the beginnings of our blessed hope. For it was from that time that we begin to enter into the eternal inheritance; from then did the secrets of the Scriptures that speak of Christ lie open to us, and … the truth brought its light unto all the nations. Therefore, let this most holy day be honored by us, on which the author of our Salvation appeared, and let us adore the Almighty in Heaven, whom the Magi venerated as an infant in His crib. And just as they offered from their treasures gifts of spiritual meaning, so also let us bring forth from our hearts those things which are worthy of God.”

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