Since we are in Holy Week, we at Read the Fathers wish to bring you a series of sermons for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Today is Good Friday, when we remember that our Lord “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Our sermon today is from Leo the Great, the fifth century pope and bishop of Rome whose Tome was was foundational to the work of the Council of Chalcedon in defining the doctrine of Christ’s two natures. Leo preached a number of sermons during Passion Week, many of which take up the theme of Christ’s two natures revealed in his sufferings on the cross. Especially worth reading are sermons 54, 59, and 67. Today’s sermon 68 is the last in the collection.
Sermon LXVIII. (On the Passion, XVII.: delivered on the Wednesday.)
I. Christ’s Godhead never forsook Him in His Passion.
The last discourse, dearly-beloved, of which we desire now to give the promised portion, had reached that point in the argument where we were speaking of that cry which the crucified Lord uttered to the Father: we bade the simple and unthinking hearer not take the words “My God, [my God, why hast thou forsaken me?],” in a sense as if, when Jesus was fixed upon the wood of the cross, the Omnipotence of the Father’s Deity had gone away from Him; seeing that God’s and Man’s Nature were so completely joined in Him that the union could not be destroyed by punishment nor by death. For while each substance retained its own properties, God neither held aloof from the suffering of His body nor was made passible by the flesh, because the Godhead which was in the Sufferer did not actually suffer. And hence, in accordance with the Nature of the Word made Man, He Who was made in the midst of all is the same as He through Whom all things were made. He Who is arrested by the hands of wicked men is the same as He Who is bound by no limits. He Who is pierced with nails is the same as He Whom no wound can affect. Finally, He Who underwent death is the same as He Who never ceased to be eternal, so that both facts are established by indubitable signs, namely, the truth of the humiliation in Christ and the truth of the majesty; because Divine power joined itself to human frailty to this end, that God, while making what was ours His, might at the same time make what was His ours. The Son, therefore, was not separated from the Father, nor the Father from the Son; and the unchangeable Godhead and the inseparable Trinity did not admit of any division. For although the task of undergoing Incarnation belonged peculiarly to the Only-begotten Son of God, yet the Father was not separated from the Son any more than the flesh was separated from the Word.
II. Christ’s death was voluntary on His part, and yet in saving others He could not save Himself.
Jesus, therefore, cried with a loud voice, saying, “Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” in order to notify to all how it behoved Him not to be rescued, not to be defended, but to be given up into the hands of cruel men, that is to become the Saviour of the world and the Redeemer of all men, not by misery but by mercy; and not by the failure of succour but by the determination to die. But what must we feel to be the intercessory power of His life Who died and rose again by His own inherent power. For the blessed Apostle says the Father “spared not His own Son, but gave Him up for us all;” and again, he says, “For Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify it.” And hence the giving up of the Lord to His Passion was as much of the Father’s as of His own will, so that not only did the Father “forsake” Him, but He also abandoned Himself in a certain sense, not in hasty flight, but in voluntary withdrawal. For the might of the Crucified restrained itself from those wicked men, and in order to avail Himself of a secret design, He refused to avail Himself of His open power. For how would He who had come to destroy death and the author of death by His Passion have saved sinners, if he had resisted His persecutors? This, then, had been the Jews’ belief, that Jesus had been forsaken by God, against Whom they had been able to commit such unholy cruelty; for not understanding the mystery of His wondrous endurance, they said in blasphemous mockery: “He saved others, Himself He cannot save. If He be the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we believe Him.” Not at your blind will, O foolish scribes and wicked priests, was the Saviour’s power to be displayed, nor in obedience to blasphemers’ evil tongues was the Redemption of mankind to be delayed; for if you had wished to recognize the Godhead of the Son of God, you would have observed His numberless works, and they must have confirmed you in that faith, which you so deceitfully promise. But if, as you yourselves acknowledge, it is true that He saved others, why have those many, great miracles, which have been done under the public gaze, done nothing to soften the hardness of your hearts, unless it be because you have always so resisted the Holy Ghost as to turn all God’s benefits towards you into your destruction? For even though Christ should descend from the cross, you would yet remain in your crime.
III. A transition was then being effected from the Old to the New Dispensation.
Therefore the insults of empty exultation were scorned, and the Lord’s mercy in restoring the lost and the fallen was not turned from the path of its purpose by contumely or reviling. For a peerless victim was being offered to God for the world’s salvation, and the slaying of Christ the true Lamb, predicted through so many ages, was transferring the sons of promise into the liberty of the Faith. The New Testament also was being ratified, and in the blood of Christ the heirs of the eternal Kingdom were being enrolled; the High Pontiff was entering the Holy of Holies, and to intercede with God the spotless Priest was passing in through the veil of His flesh. In fine, so evident a transition was being effected from the Law to the Gospel, from the synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to the One Victim, that, when the Lord gave up the ghost, that mystic veil which hung before and shut out the inner part of the Temple and its holy recess was by sudden force torn from top to bottom, for the reason that Truth was displacing figures, and forerunners were needless in the presence of Him they announced. To this was added a terrible confusion of all the elements, and nature herself withdrew her support from Christ’s crucifiers. …
IV. Let us profit by fasting and good works at this sacred season of the year.
… [L]et us, dearly-beloved, prostrate our bodies and our souls and worship God’s Grace, which has been poured out upon all nations, beseeching the merciful Father and the rich Redeemer from day to day to give us His aid and enable us to escape all the dangers of this life. For the crafty tempter is present everywhere, and leaves nothing free from his snares. Whom, God’s mercy helping us, which is stretched out to us amid all dangers, we must ever with stedfast faith resist so that, though he never ceases to assail, he may never succeed in carrying the assault. Let all, dearly-beloved, religiously keep and profit by the fast, and let no excesses mar the benefits of such self-restraint as we have proved convenient both for soul and body. For the things which pertain to sobriety and temperance must be the more diligently observed at this season, that a lasting habit may be contracted from a brief zeal; and whether in works of mercy or in strict self-denial, no hours may be left idle by the faithful, seeing that, as years increase and time glides by, we are bound to increase our store of works, and not squander our opportunities. And to devout wills and religious souls God’s Mercy will be granted, that He may enable us to obtain that which He enabled us to desire, Who liveth and reigneth with our Lord Jesus Christ His Son, and with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.