The Condescension of Compassion

From “Letter 28, to Flavian,” also called “The Tome” (449)

Lowliness is assured by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity. To pay the debt of our sinful state, a nature that is incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer. Thus, in keeping with the healing that we needed, one and the same mediator, between God and humanity, Jesus Christ, was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other.

He who is true God was therefore born in the complete and perfect nature of a true human being, whole in his own nature, whole in ours. By our nature we mean what the Creator had fashioned in us from the beginning, and took to himself in order to restore it.

For in the Savior there was no trace of what the deceiver introduced and we, being misled, allowed to enter. It does not follow that because the Savior submitted to sharing in our human weakness he therefore shared in our sins.

He took the nature of a servant without stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity. He emptied himself; though invisible he made himself visible, though Creator and Lord of all things he chose to be one of us mortals. Yet this was the condescension of compassion, not the loss of omnipotence. So he who in the nature of God had created mankind, became, in the nature of a servant, human himself.

Thus the Son of God enters this lowly world. He comes down from the throne of heaven, yet does not separate himself from the Father’s glory. He is born in a new condition, by a new birth.

He was born in a new condition, for, invisible in his own nature, he became visible in ours. Beyond our grasp, he chose to come within our grasp. Existing before time began, he began to exist at a moment in time. Lord of the universe, he hid his infinite glory and took the nature of a servant. Incapable of suffering as God, he did not refuse to be a human being, capable of suffering. Immortal, he chose to be subject to the laws of death.

He who is true God is also truly human. There is no falsehood in this unity as long as the lowliness of humanity and the preeminence of God co-exist in mutual relationship.

As God does not change by his condescension, so humanity is not swallowed up by being exalted. Each nature exercises its own activity, in communion with the other. The Word does what is proper to the Word, the flesh fulfills what is proper with the flesh. One nature is resplendent with miracles, the other falls victim to injuries. As the Word does not lose equality with the Father’s glory, so the flesh does not leave behind the nature of our race.

St. Leo the Great (ca. 400-461) was a Roman cleric and theologian. He served as a diplomat for the papal court and became Bishop of Rome in 440, exercising pastoral care during the depredations of the Huns and the Vandals. His letter to Flavian, the Archbishop of Constantinople, commonly called “The Tome,” a clear defense of the teaching that the one person of Christ has two natures, divine and human, was adopted by the Council of Chalcedon as a crucial marker of orthodoxy. His feast day is November 10.

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