St Leo the Great on the Ascension

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 Ascension.

“Sacramentum, dilectissimi, salutis nostrae, quam pretio sanguinis sui universitatis conditor aestimavit, a die corporalis ortus usque ad exitum passionis, per dispensationem humilitatis impletum est. Et licet multa etiam in forma servi Divinitatis signa radiaverint, proprie tamen illius temporis actio ad demonstrandam suscepti hominis. pertinuit veritatem. Post passionem vero, ruptis mortis vinculis, quae vim suam in eum qui peccati erat nescius incedendo pandiderat: infirmitas in virtutem, mortalitas in aeternitatem, contumelia transivit in gloriam: quam Dominus Jesus Christus in multis manifestisque documentis, multorum declaravit aspectibus, donec triumphum victoriae, quem reportarat a mortuis, inferret et coelis. Sicut ergo in solemnitate paschali resurrectio Domini fuit nobis causa laetandi, ita ascensio ejus in coelos praesentium nobis est materia gaudiorum, recolentibus illum diem et rite venerantibus, quo natura nostrae humilitatis in Christo super omnem coeli militiam, supra omnes ordines angelorum, et ultra omnium altitudinem potestatum ad Dei Patris est. provecta consessum.

Quo ordine operum divinorum nos fundati, nos aedificati sumus: ut mirabilior fieret gratia Dei, cum remotis a conspectu hominum, quae merito reverentiam sui sentiebantur indicere, fides non diffideret, spes non fluctuaret, charitas non tepesceret. Magnarum enim hic vigor est mentium, et valde fidelium hoc lumen est animarum, incunctanter credere quae corporeo non videntur intuitu, et ibi figere desiderium, quo nequeas inferre conspectum. Haec autem pietas unde in nostris cordibus nasceretur, aut quomodo quisquam justificaretur per fidem, si in iis tantum salus nostra consisteret, quae obtutibus subjacerent? Unde et illi viro qui de resurrectione Christi videbatur ambigere, nisi in ipsius carne vestigia passionis et visu explorasset et tactu: Quia vidisti me, inquit Dominus, credidisti: beati qui non viderunt, et crediderunt.

(The Ascension of Christ, by 1579-81, by the Venetian painter Jacopo Robusti, a.k.a., Tintoretto (1518-94). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)


The mystery of our salvation, dearly beloved, which the Creator of the universe valued at the price of His blood, was fulfilled under the dispensation of humility from the day of His bodily birth to the end of His Passion. And although even in the form of a slave many signs of Divinity shone forth, yet the events of all that period served particularly to show the reality of His assumed humanity. But after the Passion, when the chains of death were broken, which had laid forth its own strength by attacking Him who  knew no sin, weakness was turned into power, mortality into eternity, affront into glory, which the Lord Jesus Christ showed by many clear proofs in the sight of many (Act. 1, 3), until He carried even into heaven the triumphant victory which He had won over the dead. As therefore in the solemnity of Easter, the Lord’s Resurrection was the cause of our rejoicing, so the subject of our present gladness is His Ascension into heaven, as we commemorate and duly venerate that day on which the nature of our humility in Christ was raised above all the host of heaven, over all the ranks of angels, beyond the height of all powers, to sit with God the Father.

On this order of divine works we are founded and built up, so that God’s grace might become more wondrous, when, notwithstanding the removal from men’s sight of what was rightly felt to command their awe, faith did not fail, hope did not waver, love did not grow cold. For this is the strength of great minds and the light of firmly faithful souls, unhesitatingly to believe things which are not seen with the bodily sight, and there to fix one’s desire whither you cannot direct your gaze. And whence should this devotion spring up in our hearts, or how should a man be justified by faith, if our salvation rested on those things only which lie beneath our eyes? Hence also the Lord said to that man (i.e. St Thomas) who seemed to doubt of Christ’s Resurrection, until he had tested by sight and touch the traces of the Passion in His very flesh, ‘Because you have seen Me, you have believed: blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed.’ (Jo. 20, 19)”

(St Leo I: public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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