Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

St Leo the Great on the Passion

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my favourite patristic authors is St Leo the Great, Pope from 440 to 461. This year is therefore the 1560th anniversary of his death. His clear sighted understanding seems to me to rise above some others of the undoubtedly great authors of that era by reason of not operating within what was their contemporary frame of reference. St Leo is still immediate to us in his eloquence in a way they, for all their other insights, may not be. 

This passage is taken from the three readings that form the second nocturn for Mattins today, and comes from the second of St Leo’s sermons in the Passion:

Dearly beloved brethren, the jubilant and triumphal day which ushereth in the commemoration of the Lord's Passion is come; even that day for which we have longed so much, and for whose yearly coming the whole world may well look. Shouts of spiritual exultation are ringing, and suffer not that we should be silent. It is indeed hard to preach often on the same Festival, and that always meetly and rightly, but a Priest is not free, when we celebrate so great and mysterious an out-pouring of God's mercy, to leave his faithful people without the service of a discourse. Nay, that his subject-matter is unspeakable should in itself make him eloquent, since where enough can never be said, there must needs ever be somewhat to say. Let man's weakness, then, fall down before the glory of God, and acknowledge herself ever too feeble to unfold all the works of His mercy. We may jade our emotions, break down in our understanding, and fail in our speech it is good for us, that even what we truly feel in presence of the Divine Majesty is but little, (compared to the vastness of the subject.)
For when the Prophet saith: Seek the Lord and be strong; seek His face evermore, Ps. civ. 4, let no man thence conclude that he will ever have found all that he seeketh, lest he which hath ceased to come near should cease to be near. But among all the works of God which foil and weary the steadfast gaze of man's wonder, what is there that doth at once so ravish and so exceed the power of our mind's eye as do the sufferings of the Saviour? He it was Who, to loose man from the bands wherewith he had bound himself by the first death-dealing transgression, spared to bring against the rage of the devil the power of the Divine Majesty, and met him with the weakness of our lowly nature. For if our proud and cruel enemy had been able to know the counsel of God's mercy, it had been his task rather to have softened the minds of the Jews into gentleness, than to have inflamed them with unrighteous hatred; and so lost the service of all his slaves, by pursuing for his Debtor One That owed him nothing.
But his own hate dug a pit-fall for him he brought upon the Son of God that death which is become life to all the sons of men. He shed that innocent Blood, Which hath reconciled the world unto God, and become at once the price of our redemption and the cup of our salvation. The Lord hath received that which according to the purpose of His Own good pleasure He hath chosen. He hath let fall on Him the hands of bloody men, but while they were bent only on their own sin, they were servants ministering to the Redeemer's work. And such was His tenderness even for His murderers that His prayer to His Father from the Cross, as touching them, was, not that He might be avenged upon them, but that they might be forgiven.

Translation from Divinum Officium

                 The Entry into Jerusalem 
Detail from Giotto The Arena Chapel Padua 1305-6
             Image: junemearsdreidger.com

There is a commentary on the painting at ArtWay.eu

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you hadn't said who had spoken those eloquent words, I would have guessed it was the great Lancelot Andrewes!

Despite their length and erudition, with liberal Latin quotes, his striking sermons in Old St Pauls were said to have a mesmerising effect on the congregation, which often incuded King James.

(I believe Andrewes was among the translators of the Authorised version of the Bible, ordered by King James, and he may (?) even have been in charge of the whole project.)

His most famous speech was the Sermon of the Nativity, 1622, which inspired T S Eliot's poem Journey of the Magi. In most university libraries, in North America for example, one of his multi-volume works will be found to be unaccountably missing, and sure enough Google's book scanning project missed this volume. This is presumably the one containing that sermon, and pinched over the years from here there and everywhere by literature students studying T S Eliot! ;-)

There is an extract of this sermon on YouTube, but the acoustics are pathetically drab and low-key, as if reading a shopping list aloud in a broom cupboard, and gives no sense of the lilting inspiring oratory and echoing expansive sound of the original.

John Ramsden

( jhnrmsdn@yahoo.co.uk )