Fathers of the Church
Sermon XXXVI: on the Feast of the Epiphany, VI
by Leo the Great in 440-461 | translated by Charles Lett Feltoe, M.A
I. The story of the magi not only a byegone fact in history, but of everyday application to ourselves.
The day, dearly-beloved, on which Christ the Saviour of the world first appeared to the nations must be venerated by us with holy worship: and to- day those joys must be entertained in our hearts which existed in the breasts of the three magi, when, aroused by the sign and leading of a new star, which they believed to have been promised, they fell down in presence of the King of heaven and earth. For that day has not so passed away that the mighty work, which was then revealed, has passed away with it, and that nothing but the report of the thing has come down to us for faith to receive and memory to celebrate; seeing that, by the oft-repeated gift of God, our times daily enjoy the fruit of what the first age possessed. And therefore, although the narrative which is read to us from the Gospel properly records those days on which the three men, who had neither been taught by the prophets' predictions nor instructed by the testimony of the law, came to acknowledge God from the furthest parts of the East, yet we behold this same thing more clearly and abundantly carried on now in the enlightenment of all those who are called, since the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled when he says, "the Lord has laid bare His holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the nations upon earth have seen the salvation which is from the Lord our God ;" and again, "and those to whom it has not been announced about Him shall see, and they who have not heard, shall understand." Hence when we see men devoted to worldly wisdom and far from belief in Jesus Christ brought out of the depth of their error and called to an acknowledgment of the true Light, it is undoubtedly the brightness of the Divine grace that is at work: and whatever of new light illumines the darkness of their hearts, comes from the rays of the same star: so that it should both move with wonder, and going before lead to the adoration of God the minds which it visited with its splendour. But if with careful thought we wish to see how their threefold kind of gift is also offered by all who come to Christ with the foot of faith, is not the same offering repeated in the hearts of true believers? For he that acknowledges Christ the King of the universe brings gold from the treasure of his heart: he that believes the Only-begotten of God to have united man's true nature to Himself, offers myrrh; and he that confesses Him in no wise inferior to the Father's majesty, worships Him in a manner with incense.
II. Satan still carries on the wiles of Herod, and, as it were, personates him in his opposition to Christ.
These comparisons, dearly-beloved, being thoughtfully considered, we find Herod's character also not to be wanting, of which the devil himself is now an unwearied imitator, just as he was then a secret instigator. For he is tortured at the calling of all the nations, and racked at the daily destruction of his power, grieving at his being everywhere deserted, and the true King adored in all places. He prepares devices, he hatches plots, he bursts out into murders, and that he may make use of the remnants of those whom he still deceives, is consumed with envy in the persons of the Jews, lies treacherously in wait in the persons of heretics, blazes out into cruelty in the persons of the heathen. For he sees that the power of the eternal King is invincible Whose death has extinguished the power of death itself; and therefore he has armed himself with all his skill of injury against those who serve the true King; hardening some by the pride that knowledge of the law engenders, debasing others by the lies of false belief, and inciting others to the madness of persecution. Yet the madness of this "Herod" is vanquished, and brought to nought by Him who has crowned even infants with the glory of martyrdom, and has endued His faithful ones with so unconquerable a love that in the Apostle's words they dare to say, "who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or want, or persecution, Or hunger, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? as it is written, For thy sake are we killed all the day long, we are counted as sheep for the slaughter. But in all these things we overcome on account of Him who loved us."
III. The cessation of active persecution does not do away with the need of continued vigilance: Satan has only changed his tactics.
Such courage as this, dearly-beloved, we do not believe to have been needful only at those times in which the kings of the world and all the powers of the age were raging against God's people in an outburst of wickedness, thinking it to redound to their greatest glory if they removed the Christian name from the earth, but not knowing that God's Church grows through the frenzy of their cruelty, since in the tortures and deaths of the martyrs, those whose number was reckoned to be diminished were augmented through the force of example. In fine, so much strength has our Faith gained by the attacks of persecutors that royal princedoms have no greater ornament than that the lords of the world are members of Christ; and their boast is not so much that they were born in the purple as that they have been re-born in baptism. But because the stress of former blasts has lulled, and with a cessation of fightings a measure of tranquillity has long seemed to smile upon us, those divergences are carefully to be guarded against which arise from the very reign of peace. For the adversary having been proved ineffective in open persecutions now exercises a hidden skill in doing cruel hurt, in order to overthrow by the stumbling-block of pleasure those whom he could not strike with the blow of affliction. And so seeing the faith of princes opposed to him and the indivisible Trinity of the one Godhead as devoutly worshipped in palaces as in churches, he grieves at the shedding of Christian blood being forbidden, and attacks the mode of life of those whose death he cannot compass. The terror of confiscations he changes into the fire of avarice, and corrupts with covetousness those whose spirit he could not break by losses. For the malicious haughtiness which long use has ingrained into his very nature has not laid aside its hatred, but changed its character in order to subjugate the minds of the faithful by blandishments. He inflames those with covetous desires whom he cannot distress with tortures: he sows strifes, kindles passions, sets tongues a-wagging, and, lest more cautious hearts should draw back from his lawless wiles, facilitates opportunities for accomplishing crimes: because this is the only fruit of all his devices that he who is not worshipped with the sacrifice of cattle and goats, and the burning of incense, should be paid the homage of divers wicked deeds .
IV. Timely repentance gains God's merciful consideration.
Our state of peace, therefore, dearly-beloved, has its dangers, and it is vain for those who do not withstand vicious desires to feel secure of the liberty which is the privilege of their Faith. Men's hearts are shown by the character of their works, and the fashion of their minds is betrayed by the nature of their actions. For there are some, as the Apostle says, "who profess that they know God, but deny Him by their deeds." For the charge of denial is truly incurred when the good which is heard in the sound of the voice is not present in the conscience. Indeed, the frailty of man's nature easily glides into faults: and because no sin is without its attractiveness, deceptive pleasure is quickly acquiesced in. But we should run for spiritual succour from the desires of the flesh: and the mind that has knowledge of its God should turn away from the evil suggestion of the enemy. Avail thyself of the long-suffering of God, and persist not in cherishing thy sin, because its punishment is put off. The sinner must not feel secure of his impunity, because if he loses the time for repentance he will find no place for mercy, as the prophet says, "in death no one remembers thee; and in the realms below who will confess to thee?" But let him who experiences the difficulty of self-amendment and restoration betake himself to the mercy of a befriending God, and ask that the chains of evil habit may be broken off by Him "who lifts up those that fall and raises all the crushed ." The prayer of one that confesses will not be in vain since the merciful God "will grant the desire of those that fear Him ," and will give what is asked, as He gave the Source from Which to ask. Through our Lend Jesus Christ, Who liveth and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Ghost for ever and ever. Amen.
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (LNPF II/XII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.