Something beautiful (lyrical?) from Pope Leo the Great

I was going through Leo’s Sermon 25 (#5 on the Nativity, not in NPNF!) when I noticed that he uses essentia for the essence of the Holy Trinity here; double-checking, I observed that in Sermon 24, he uses both substantia and essentia.

This set me checking Letter 124, ‘To the Monks of Palestine’, to see what he uses there to discuss Christ’s divine and human … truths. There, I found that he uses forma once, alluding to Phil. 2:6-7, and then substantia elsewhere, avoiding thereby the tricky, Nestorian-sounding duae naturae. Letter 124 is not in NPNF, either, but its cousin, Letter 165, which has the same content, is.

Anyway, that’s not really the lyrical bit. I just felt like telling you how I got where I am. The lyrical bit is this:

… inter filios hominum unus solus dominus noster Iesus Christus extiterit in quo omnes crucifixi, omnes mortui, omnes sepulti, omnes sunt etiam suscitati, de quibus ipse dicebat: cum exaltatus fuero, omnia traham ad me (Jn 12:32). -Ed. Schwartz, ACO 2.4, pp. 160-161

I realise you may not read Latin, but the phrase that caught my attention was, ‘in quo omnes crucifixi, omnes mortui, omnes sepulti, omnes sunt etiam suscitati’ — in whom all were crucified, all died, all were buried, all were also raised.

Leo is here demonstrating his rhetorical ability, using anaphora, ‘the repetition of a word at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences’.* (Kirchner 188). In fact, all of the words following omnes are perfect passive participles, and thus they all have the same ending, which is another rhetorical device, homoeoteleuton. In English, since ‘to die’ is not a passive verb, the repetition does not come forth nearly as strongly in translation. Hence the big chunk of Latin up above.

The beauty of this passage, besides showing that I have a taste for anaphora and homoeoteleuton (as did Leo), is a reminder that the truth can be clothed in beautiful words. Just as poetry was the honey on the cup for the likes of Hesiod and Lucretius, so for the Christian theologian can rhetorical devices and figures of speech be.

The entire passage — since at the end of the day Leo would say that it is his doctrine that counts most, not his rhetoric — is as follows:

… amongst the children of men** only one, our Lord Jesus Christ, stands out, in whom all were crucified, all died, all were buried, all were also raised, about whom He himself said, ‘When I shall be lifted up, I shall draw all things to myself.’ (Jn. 12:32)

*Roderich Kirchner, ‘Elocutio: Latin Prose Style’, in A Companion to Roman Rhetoric. Ed. William Dominik & Jon Hall. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, p. 188.

**You could say ‘sons of men’ or, as some more recent translators, ‘children of human beings’, but ‘children of men’ resonates with those acquainted with the Prayer Book Psalter, and thus commends itself to me as an appropriate rendering.


4 thoughts on “Something beautiful (lyrical?) from Pope Leo the Great

  1. I realize it’s been over a decade since you wrote this post, but I wondered if Letter 124 “To the monks of Palestine” has been translated into English yet?

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