Monday, January 24, 2011
Feast of St. Leo the Great
So, what does “Great” mean exactly? Perhaps I could blame it on our culture, or even a certain kind of cynicism which lingers on in my generation. But for whatever the reason, I find that I have a hard time not so much with the veneration of Leo as saint, or even Pope for that matter—but I find myself stumbling when I get to the “Great” part of his title.
I mean, it’s not hard for us to rattle off a list of all of the things which have come to be called great. After all there is The Great Gatsby, The Great Muppet Caper, or even the Great Pumpkin…you get my point. It just seems that what it means to be great is lost in a culture where we like all our heroes to be morally gray, mixed bags.
However, what we find when we look at the life and witness of Leo the Great, is a life which actually defies modern pessimism—which is really no small thing.
History along with Church History remembers Leo in the Episcopal see of Rome—in a power vacuum left behind after the empire’s capital was moved to Constantinople. Along with the successful consolidation of ecclesiastical power, Leo held secular power as well, and was one of three ambassadors sent by Emperor Valentinian III to dissuade Attila the Hun from sacking Rome.
Pope Leo was also integral to the Early Church clearly defining its belief about the nature of Jesus Christ as both fully human and fully divine. His letter, known as the “Tome”, speaks of the importance of this dual nature as a necessary part of God’s participation in human life, and is therefore the means by which humanity is made new. This was a statement which opposed some of the popular beliefs circulating at the time. However, unlike many of those popular beliefs, in Leo’s teaching, we find a God who is no longer distant from us, but one who chooses to live among us.
If anything, what I think we see in the life of Leo the Great, is not just greatness, but the very stuff of what Jesus spoke about in the Gospel reading for today: salt and light.
In his discussion of this very reading, priest and writer Sam Portaro talks about some of the properties of salt. He mentions that salt is used as a preserving agent, and of course a seasoning. What he also says is that when a thing has a bitter taste, salt may be used to make it sweet. So for instance, coca is cut with a bit of salt to make sweet chocolate. He also points out that our bodies need salt to operate in a healthy way, especially after strenuous activity or exercise.
Of course this just adds to an already strong metaphor used by Jesus. But in using such an image, Jesus was preparing his disciples to go into a world of bitterness which needed salt to make it sweeter—a world which would always sort of be on the verge of collapse, and needed some agent of preservation.
In taking to heart his own ‘salt’ nature, Leo became that preserving element in his time as he fought to hold together a ‘toddler Church.’ He worked diligently to maintain some sweet social order in the midst of bitter conflicts. And while the challenges he faced were unimaginable to many of us, we find that it was because Leo was first salt and light that he came to be called great.
In our own Christian vocation, we also hear the words of Jesus to us that we are salt and light. In this life we’re to be agents of preservation and illumination in a world which can be terribly dark and bitter. But like Leo, we are being raised up and called out daily to be a glow to see by and a savor to enliven the faith of one another.
In the Church today, we face what seem like insurmountable obstacles and challenges. We see young people taking their own lives because they just didn’t have enough light to see another way out. We become anxious because we do not see the economic recovery that we all hoped for—and some of us become bitter.
But deep in our hearts we know there is something more. Because what we find in the life of Leo the Great, and countless other saints is a promise. It is the promise that God will continue to call faithful servants to illuminate the way. And while our own call is not necessarily to greatness, if we begin at being salt and light, we find that we can do great things by God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” So, today and tomorrow and the day after that; go into the world, not so much to be great. As I’ve already said ‘great’ isn’t what it used to be. Instead be salt. Be light. And if we can all hold on to that, this could be a bright, sweet world. Amen.