Christmas: The Leonine Sacramentary (and Leo the Great!)

Fourth-century nativity, Palazzo Massimo, Rome
Fourth-century nativity, Palazzo Massimo, Rome

Merry Christmas! (Don’t worry about my celebrations, I’m writing this post in advance!! Skip ahead to the prayers I’m talking about if you like.)

This Advent I explored the collects for the season from the Sarum Missal,1 taking us on a journey of expectation, calling upon the Lord to come down into our lives and stir up our own souls to do good deeds as well as to succour us in the midst of our own sinfulness. My original plan had been to approach Advent from the angle of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, as I’d been posting about Late Antique and Early Medieval liturgy in November,2 but I discovered that those liturgical books I have easiest access to give us nothing for Advent. But Christmas is a different story.

I turn our attention now to the Leonine Sacramentary. This liturgical book is not, technically speaking, a sacramentary. Sacramentaries are precursors to missals and have in them all the things you need for the feasts of the liturgical year and the saying of the Mass. The Leonine Sacramentary, ms Verona lxxxv, of the seventh century, is a collection of prayers to be said at Mass, arranged by the secular year, and does not include the actual liturgy of the Mass. The manuscript is damaged and begins in April.

It was initially imagined to be by Leo the Great because of how old it seems to be, and because Leo is said to have made some modifications to the Roman liturgy. The collection is texts is now thought to be later than Leo but likely draws upon much fifth- and sixth-century manterial. From what I understand, it is a ‘pure’ ‘Roman’ form of the liturgy, from a time before the West was engaged in a lot of cross-pollination between Frankish Gaul/Germany and Italy, or the Eastern Mediterranean and Italy.

Let’s look at the text.

Using the Ballerini edition of the 1750s (because it’s right beside me, repr. Migne, Patrologia Latina 55), we can see a nice variety of prayers for ‘VIII KALENDAS JANUARII’ — that is, 25 December. The first immediately catches my eye:

God, who wondrously established and more wondrously reformed the dignity of the human substance, grant, we beseech Thee, to us that we may be sharers in the divinity of Jesus Christ your Son, who was judged worthy to participate in our humanity. Through …

Frankly, this prayer is more than enough for a blog post!

Could anything me more Leonine? The balancing of ‘wondrously’ (mirabiliter) with ‘more wondrously’ (mirabilius) is a strikingly Leonine parallel, as when this great pope speaks in his Tome (Ep. 28) of Christ’s birth that was singularly wondrous and wondrously singular. At a deeper level, the issue of ‘human substance’ is itself a deeply ‘Leonine’ theological concern (I refer the reader to J Mark Armitage, A Twofold Solidarity: Leo the Great’s Theology of Redemption) — Jesus Christ is consubstantial with us through his birth through St Mary the Virgin and with God the Father through being God, the Word, Incarnate.

This double consubstantiality is essential for salvation, and it is what is at stake in Leonine Christology when Leo begins arguing about ‘two natures’. If you read the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, this is what the Council Fathers were very concerned about as well — that Christ took on full human flesh from His Mother and was thereby fully human. It is a concern that, in these terms, reaches back to the First Council of Ephesus in 431, but goes even farther to the fourth-century argument against Apollinaris of Laodicea who maintained that Jesus did not have a human soul. As St Gregory of Nazianzus famously put it (Ep. 101):

What has not been assumed has not been healed.

Through Jesus Christ’s participation in our humanity (to return to the text of the prayer), God has ‘more wondrously reformed the dignity of the human substance’. As I say, the thoughtworld is deeply, inescapably Leonine here. I am revelling in it as I type.

And what is the actual petition in this collect? ‘That we may be sharers in the divinity of Jesus Christ your Son’.

This, my friends, is Theosis. We, as the adopted children of God, enjoy by grace what Christ enjoys by nature. He was a participant in humanity. We can participate in divinity. He became man that man might become God (St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.3).

Quick closing musings. We should not be surprised that a Veronese liturgical codex of the 600s has such strong Leonine influences, especially on its Christmas prayers. Christmas is when Leo is most quoted. Furthermore, I think that Verona is in that part of Italy that entered in to schism with Rome over the ‘Three Chapters’ following the Council of Constantinople in 553 (the Istrian Schism) — the final reconciliation did not occur until during the pontificate of Pope Sergius in 700. The ‘Tricapitoline’ Christians in northern Italy were hardline, conservative followers of Leo and Chalcedon who felt that the council of 553 had abrogated Chalcedon, and therefore Leo the Great. Leo, as a result, was very close and very dear to their hearts. That his theology would penetrate a Veronese codex, then, is no issue.

As you reflect on these rich theological truths, rooted in Scripture and tradition, I hope that the joy of Christ’s Nativity will fill hearts with joy!

Merry Christmas! Christus natus est!


1. These posts are: Advent 1, Sarum: Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord; Advent 2, Sarum: More Stirring up!; Advent 3, Sarum: Give Ear to Our Prayers; Advent 4, Sarum: Raise up Thy Power and Come
2. Ancient and Early Medieval Prayer 1: An Invitation; 2: Why; 3: Sources

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