Feast of the Annunciation: God Becomes Man-St Leo

The Feast of the Annunciation:
In Mary’s Womb, God Becomes Man

Saint Leo the Great
Early Church Father & Doctor of the Church

This excerpt from a letter by St. Leo the Great (Epist. 28 ad Flavianum, 3-4: PL 54, 763-767) is used in the Roman Office of Readings for the Feast (Solemnity) of the Annunciation which usually is celebrated on March 25. St. Leo I, one of the Early Church Fathers, was such an extraordinary teacher that he is one of only a handful of Popes throughout history to have been dubbed “the Great.” Here, in his typically lyrical language and powerful imagry, he celebrates the unfathomable mystery of God becoming man in the womb of a Virgin who had the courage to say “I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word.” Through the Father’s love and Mary’s faith, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Lowliness is assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that was incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, in keeping with the healing that we needed, one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other.

He who is true God was therefore born in the complete and perfect nature of a true man, whole in his own nature, whole in ours. By our nature we mean what the Creator had fashioned in us from the beginning, and took to himself in order to restore it.

For in the Savior there was no trace of what the deceiver introduced and man, being misled, allowed to enter. It does not follow that because he submitted to sharing in our human weakness he therefore shared in our sins.

He took the nature of a servant without stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity. He emptied himself; though invisible he made himself visible, though Creator and Lord of all things he chose to be one of us mortal men. Yet this was the condescension of compassion, not the loss of omnipotence. So he who in the nature of God had created man, became in the nature of a servant, man himself.

Thus the Son of God enters this lowly world. He comes down from the throne of heaven, yet does not separate himself from the Father’s glory. He is born in a new condition, by a new birth.

He was born in a new condition, for, invisible in his own nature, he became visible in ours. Beyond our grasp, he chose to come within our grasp. Existing before time began, he began to exist at a moment in time. Lord of the universe, he hid his infinite glory and took the nature of a servant. Incapable of suffering as God, he did not refuse to be a man, capable of suffering. Immortal, he chose to be subject to the laws of death.

He who is true God is also true man. There is no falsehood in this unity as long as the lowliness of man and the pre-eminence of God coexist in mutual relationship.

As God does not change by his condescension, so man is not swallowed up by being exalted. Each nature exercises its own activity, in communion with the other. The Word does what is proper to the Word, the flesh fulfils what is proper to the flesh.

One nature is resplendent with miracles, the other falls victim to injuries. As the Word does not lose equality with the Father’s glory, so the flesh does not leave behind the nature of our race.

One and the same person – this must be said over and over again – is truly the Son of God and truly the son of man. He is God in virtue of the fact that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He is man in virtue of the fact that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Leo the Great, St.

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 indeed a treasure.  Excerpts from these letters and sermons are included below to you a taste of this man’s clear and vigorous way of preaching and 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 and was declared a Doctor of the Church” by Pope Benedict XIV.