Beatitudes, Law of the New Covenant – Leo the Great

Leo’s exegesis of these important verses of St. Matthew’s Gospel is one of the most important patristic commentaries on the Beatitudes.  Christ, the New Moses chooses to give his Sermon on a Mount to show that he is the new Moses, teaching the new law of the new covenant.  Regarding the first beatitude “blessed are the poor in spirit,” Leo makes clear that it is not economic poverty that is blessed, but that poverty of spirit called humility.

Dearly beloved, when our Lord Jesus Christ was preaching the Gospel of the kingdom and healing various illnesses throughout the whole of Galilee, the fame of his mighty works spread into all of Syria, and great crowds from all parts of Judea flocked to the heavenly physician.

Because human ignorance is slow to believe what it does not see, and equally slow to hope for what it does not know, those who were to be instructed in the divine teaching had first to be aroused by bodily benefits and visible miracles so that, once they had experienced his gracious power, they would no longer doubt the wholesome effect of his doctrine.

Sermon on the Mount – Law of the New Covenant

In order, therefore, to transform outward healings into inward remedies, and to cure men’s souls now that he had healed their bodies, our Lord separated himself from the surrounding crowds, climbed to the solitude of a neighboring mountain, and called the apostles to himself. From the height of this mystical site he then instructed them in the most lofty doctrines, suggesting both by the very nature of the place and by what he was doing that it was he who long ago had honored Moses by speaking to him. At that time, his words showed a terrifying justice, but now they reveal a sacred compassion, in order to fulfill what was promised in the words of the prophet Jeremiah: Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I shall establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. After those days, says the Lord, I shall put my laws within them and write them on their hearts  [Jer. 31:31, 33].

Beatitudes – the portrait of a Disciple

And so it was that he who had spoken to Moses spoke also to the apostles. Writing in the hearts of his disciples, the swift hand of the Word composed the ordinances of the new covenant. And this was not done as formerly, in the midst of dense clouds, amid terrifying sounds and lightning, so that the people were frightened away from approaching the mountain. Instead, there was a tranquil discourse which clearly reached the ears of all who stood nearby so that the harshness of the law might be softened by the gentleness of grace, and the spirit of adoption might dispel the terror of slavery.

Concerning the content of Christ’s teaching, his own sacred words bear witness; thus whoever longs to attain eternal blessedness can now recognize the steps that lead to that high happiness.

This post on the Sermon on the Mount as the law of the New Covenant is the beginning  of St. Leo the Great’s Sermon 95 on the Beatitudes (verses 1-2: PL 54, 461-462).  It is used in the Roman Office of Readings for Thursday of the 22nd week in Ordinary Time.  For the next section of his homily, on the first of the Beatitudes dealing with poverty of spirit, click here.

St. Leo the Great
It is regrettable that so little is known about the early life of this man who proved to be such an extraordinary shepherd of the Catholic Church that he came to be known not only as Pope Saint Leo I, but also is one of the only two Popes in two thousand years to be called “the Great.” What we do know is that as a deacon of the Roman Church, before being elevated to the office of Pope in 440 AD, St. Leo the Great had opposed the heresy of Pelagianism which taught that grace was not necessary for salvation, but was rather a bonus that God granted to those who earned it by their good works. As Pope, St. Leo the Great was forceful and unambiguous in his Christological teaching which affirmed the full divinity and humanity of Christ. In fact his most famous writing, commonly known as the Tome of St. Leo (449), was the basis of the Council of Chalcedon’s (451) dogmatic definition of Christ as one Divine Person possessing two complete natures, human and divine. St. Leo the Great was Pope during the middle of the fifth century, a troubled time when barbarian armies were ravaging the once mighty Roman Empire. For all intents and purposes, the Western Empire was in total political and military collapse and there was a vacuum of political leadership. Pope St. Leo filled the void and became the advocate for the temporal as well as spiritual needs of his flock. He is perhaps most famous for persuading Attila the Hun to abandon his plans to sack the city of Rome and to withdraw his forces beyond the Danube river (452). St. Leo once again was the spokesperson for the Roman citizenry in 455 when the Vandal barbarians swept into Central Italy, securing concessions from them. Through both his powerful teaching and his leadership, Pope St. Leo the Great very much strengthened the office of the Papacy and made a strong biblical case for the Divine institution of this ministry by examining the biblical evidence for Peter’s unique role among the apostles. The writings that survive by St. Leo, besides his famous Tome, consist of 143 letters and 96 sermons. His sermons cover every season of the liturgical year and are a veritable treasure. They reveal to us a man with a clear and vigorous way of teaching the faith passed down from the apostles. St. Leo the Great died in 461, is regarded as one of the most important of the Western Fathers of the Church.  He was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIV.  (bio by Dr. Italy)