Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume XII/Leo the Great/Letters/Letter 16
To the Bishops of Sicily.
Leo the bishop to all the bishops throughout Sicily greeting in the Lord.
By God’s precepts and the Apostle’s admonitions we are incited to keep a careful watch over the state of all the churches: and, if anywhere ought is found that needs rebuke, to recall men with speedy care either from the stupidity of ignorance or from forwardness and presumption. For inasmuch as we are warned by the Lord’s own command whereby the blessed Apostle Peter had the thrice repeated mystical injunction pressed upon him, that he who loves Christ should feed Christ’s sheep, we are compelled by reverence for that see which, by the abundance of the Divine Grace, we hold, to shun the danger of sloth as much as possible: lest the confession of the chief Apostle whereby he testified that he loved God be not found in us: because if he (through us) carelessly
feed the flock so often commended to him he is proved not to love the chief Shepherd.
II. Baptism is to be administered at Easter-tide and not on the Epiphany.
Accordingly when it reached my ears on reliable testimony (and I already felt a brother’s affectionate anxiety about your acts, beloved) that in what is one of the chief sacraments of the Church you depart from the practice of the Apostles’ constitution by administering the sacrament of baptism to greater numbers on the feast of the Epiphany than at Easter-tide, I was surprised that you or your predecessors could have introduced so unreasonable an innovation as to confound the mysteries of the two festivals and believe there was no difference between the day on which Christ was worshipped by the wise men and that on which He rose again from the dead. You could never have fallen into this fault, if you had taken the whole of your observances from the source whence you derive your consecration to the episcopate; and if the see of the blessed Apostle Peter, which is the mother of your priestly dignity, were the recognized teacher of church-method. We could indeed have endured your departure from its rules with less equanimity, if you had received any previous rebuke by way of warning from us. But now as we do not despair of correcting you, we must show gentleness. And although an excuse which affects ignorance is scarce tolerable in priests, yet we prefer to moderate our needful rebuke and to instruct you plainly in the true method of the Church.
III. One must distinguish one festival from another in respect of dignity and occasion.
The restoration of mankind has indeed ever remained immutably fore-ordained in God’s eternal counsel: but the series of events which had to be accomplished in time through Jesus Christ our Lord was begun at the Incarnation of the Word. Hence there is one time when at the angel’s announcement the blessed Virgin Mary believed she was to be with child through the Holy Ghost and conceived: another, when without loss of her virgin purity the Boy was born and shown to the shepherds by the exulting joy of the heavenly attendants: another, when the Babe was circumcised: another, when the victim required by the Law is offered for him: another, when the three wise men attracted by the brightness of the new star arrive at Bethlehem from the East and worship the Infant with the mystic offering of Gifts.
And again the days are not the same on which by the divinely appointed passage into Egypt He was withdrawn from wicked Herod, and on which He was recalled from Egypt into Galilee on His pursuer’s death. Among these varieties of circumstance must be included His growth of body: the Lord increases, as the evangelist bears witness, with the progress of age and grace: at the time of the Passover He comes to the temple at Jerusalem with His parents, and when He was absent from the returning company, He is found sitting with the elders and disputing among the wondering masters and rendering an account of His remaining behind: “why is it,” He says, “that ye sought Me? did ye not know that I must be in that which is My Father’s,” signifying that He was the Son of Him whose temple He was in. Once more when in later years He was to be declared more openly and sought out the baptism of His forerunner John, was there any doubt of His being God remaining when after the baptism of the Lord Jesus the Holy Spirit in form of a dove descended and rested upon Him, and the Father’s voice was heard from the skies, “Thou art My beloved Son: in Thee I am well pleased?” All these things we have alluded to with as much brevity as possible for this reason, that you may know, beloved, that though all the days of Christ’s life were hallowed by many mighty works of His, and though in all His actions mysterious sacraments shone forth, yet at one time intimations of events were given by signs, and at one time fulfilment realized: and that all the Saviour’s works that are recorded are not suitable to the time of baptism. For if we were to commemorate with indiscriminate honour these things also which we know to have been done by the Lord after His baptism by the blessed John, His whole lifetime
would have to be observed in a continuous succession of festivals, because all His acts were full of miracles. But because the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge so instructed the Apostles and teachers of the whole Church as to allow nothing disordered or confused to exist in our Christian observances, we must discern the relative importance of the various solemnities and observe a reasonable distinction in all the institutions of our fathers and rulers: for we cannot otherwise “be one flock and one shepherd,” except as the Apostle teaches us, “that we all speak the same thing: and that we be perfected in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
IV. The reason explained why Easter and Whitsuntide are the proper seasons for baptism.
Although, therefore, both these things which are connected with Christ’s humiliation and those which are connected with His exaltation meet in one and the same Person, and all that is in Him of Divine power and human weakness conduces to the accomplishment of our restoration: yet it is appropriate that the power of baptism should change the old into the new creature on the death-day of the Crucified and the Resurrection-day of the Dead: that Christ’s death and His resurrection may operate in the re-born, as the blessed Apostle says: “Are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized in Christ Jesus, were baptized in His death? We were buried with Him through baptism into death; that as Christ rose from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with the likeness of His death, we shall be also (with the likeness) of His resurrection,” and the rest which the Teacher of the Gentiles discusses further in recommending the sacrament of baptism: that it might be seen from the spirit of this doctrine that that is the day, and that the time chosen for regenerating the sons of men and adopting them among the sons of God, on which by a mystical symbolism and form, what is done in the limbs coincides with what was done in the Head Himself, for in the baptismal office death ensues through the slaying of sin, and threefold immersion imitates the lying in the tomb three days, and the raising out of the water is like Him that rose again from the tomb. The very nature, therefore of the act teaches us that that is the recognized day for the general reception of the grace, on which the power of the gift and the character of the action originated. And this is strongly corroborated by the consideration that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, after He rose from the dead, handed on both the form and power of baptizing to His disciples, in whose person all the chiefs of the churches received their instructions with these words, “Go ye and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” On which of course He might have instructed them even before His passion, had He not especially wished it to be understood that the grace of regeneration began with His resurrection. It must be added, indeed, that the solemn season of Pentecost, hallowed by the coming of the Holy Ghost is also allowed, being as it were, the sequel and completion of the Paschal feast. And while other festivals are held on other days of the week, this festival (of Pentecost) always occurs on that day, which is marked by the Lord’s resurrection: holding out, so to say, the hand of assisting grace and inviting those, who have been cut off from the Easter feast by disabling sickness or length of journey or difficulties of sailing, to gain the purpose that they long for through the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the Only-begotten of God Himself wished no difference to be felt between Himself and the Holy Spirit in the Faith of believers and in the efficacy of His works: because there is no diversity in their nature, as He says, “I will ask the Father and He shall give you another Comforter that He may be with you for ever, even the Spirit of Truth;” and again: “But the Comforter which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you;” and again: “When He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He shall guide you into all the Truth.” And thus, since Christ is the Truth, and the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth, and the name of “Comforter” appropriate to both, the two festivals are not dissimilar, where the sacrament is the same.
V. S. Peter’s example as an authority for Whitsuntide baptisms.
And that we do not contend for this on our own conviction but retain it on Apostolic authority, we prove by a sufficiently apt example, following the blessed Apostle Peter, who, on the very day on which the promised coming of the Holy Ghost filled up the number of those that believed, dedicated to God in the baptismal font three thousand of the people who had been converted by his preaching. The Holy Scripture, which contains the Acts of Apostles, teaches this in its faithful narrative, saying, “Now when they heard this they were pricked in the heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the Apostles, what shall we do, brethren? But Peter said unto them, Repent ye and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, unto the remission of your sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For to you is the promise, and to your children and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call unto Him. With many other words also he testified and exhorted them saying, Save yourselves from this crooked generation. They then that received his word were baptized, and there were added in that day about three thousand.”
VI. In cases of urgency other times are allowable for baptism.
Wherefore, as it is quite clear that these two seasons of which we have been speaking are the rightful ones for baptizing the chosen in Church, we admonish you, beloved, not to add other days to this observance. Because, although there are other festivals also to which much reverence is due in God’s honour, yet we must rationally guard this principal and greatest sacrament as a deep mystery and not part of the ordinary routine: not, however, prohibiting the licence to succour those who are in danger by administering baptism to them at any time. For whilst we put off the vows of those who are not pressed by ill health and live in peaceful security to those two closely connected and cognate festivals, we do not at any time refuse this which is the only safeguard of true salvation to any one in peril of death, in the crisis of a siege, in the distress of persecution, in the terror of shipwreck.
VII. Our Lord’s baptism by John very different to the baptism of believers.
But if any one thinks the feast of the Epiphany, which in proper degree is certainly to be held in due honour, claims the privilege of baptism because, according to some the Lord came to St. John’s baptism on the same day, let him know that the grace of that baptism and the reason of it were quite different, and is not on an equal footing with the power by which they are re-born of the Holy Ghost, of whom it is said, “which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” For the Lord who needed no remission of sin and sought not the remedy of being born again, desired to be baptized just as He desired to be circumcised, and to have a victim offered for His purification: that He, who had been “made of a woman,” as the Apostle says, might become also “under the law” which He had come, “not to destroy but to fulfil,” and by fulfilling to end, as the blessed Apostle proclaims, saying: “but Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to every one that believeth.” But the sacrament of baptism He founded in His own person, because “in all things having the pre-eminence,” He taught that He Himself was the Beginning. And He ratified the power of re-birth on that occasion, when from His side flowed out the blood of ransom and the water of baptism. As, therefore, the Old Testament was the witness to the new, and “the law was given by Moses: but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ;” as the divers sacrifices prefigured the one Victim, and the slaughter of many lambs was ended by the offering up of Him, of whom it is said, “Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him that taketh away the sin of the world;” so too John, not Christ, but Christ’s forerunner, not the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom, was so faithful in seeking, “not His own, but the things which are Jesus Christ’s,” as to profess himself unworthy to undo the shoes of His feet: seeing that He Himself indeed baptized “in water unto repentance,” but He who with twofold power should both restore life and destroy sins, was about to “baptize in the Holy Ghost and fire.” As
then, beloved brethren, all these distinct proofs come before you, whereby to the removal of all doubt you recognize that in baptizing the elect who, according to the Apostolic rule have to be purged by exorcisms, sanctified by fastings and instructed by frequent sermons, two seasons only are to be observed, viz. Easter and Whitsuntide: we charge you, brother, to make no further departure from the Apostolic institutions. Because hereafter no one who thinks the Apostolic rules can be set at defiance will go unpunished.
VIII. The Sicilian bishops are to send three of their number to each of the half-yearly meetings of bishops at Rome.
Wherefore we require this first and foremost for the keeping of perfect harmony, that, according to the wholesome rule of the holy Fathers that there should be two meetings of bishops every year, three of you should appear without fail each time, on the 29th of September, to join in the council of the brethren: for thus, by the aid of God’s grace, we shall the easier guard against the rise of offences and errors in Christ’s Church: and this council must always meet and deliberate in the presence of the blessed Apostle Peter, that all his constitutions and canonical decrees may remain inviolate with all the Lord’s priests.
These matters, upon which we thought it necessary to instruct you by the inspiration of the Lord, we wish brought to your knowledge by our brothers and fellow-bishops, Bacillus and Paschasinus. May we learn by their report that the institutions of the Apostolic See are reverently observed by you. Dated 21 Oct., in the consulship of the illustrious Alipius and Ardaburis (447).
- From this letter it might be gathered that it was a universal practice of the early Church based on the precepts of the apostles, to restrict Baptism to the feasts of Easter and Whitsuntide, and exclude Epiphany. Whereas as a matter of fact the restriction was almost exclusively Roman; all the Eastern Churches and a good many of the Western recognizing the Epiphany as a suitable occasion for the rite. Leo is too fond of claiming Apostolic authority for his dictates, and none such exists here, as far as we know.
- It will be noticed that Leo’s order of events, though probably correct, is not that of the modern Kalendar, which places the Epiphany (Jan. 6) soon after the Circumcision (Jan. 1), and not after the Purification (Feb. 2): unless it was some little time after, Herod’s cruelty was unnecessarily great in including children of two years old in his massacre (S. Matt. ii. 16).
- S. Luke ii. 49, in his quæ Patris mei sunt (Vulgate): this version leaves the expression ἐν τοῖς τοῦ Πατρός μου in its original ambiguity, but Leo’s commentary immediately following gives his decision in favour of “in My Father’s house.”
- S. Matt. iii. 17.
- Innumeris consecratos fuisse virtutibus, where virtutes, as often, corresponds to the Gk. δυνάμεις.
- Sacramentorum mysteria coruscasse: it is instructive to find the two words here conjoined, Leo so often using them apparently as equivalents. No one, moreover, after reading this sentence, can doubt what in early times Western Christians meant by sacramentum , see Letter XII. chap. 3, &c.
- S. John x. 17.
- 1 Cor. i. 10.
- Renascentibus (pres. part.) here, not renatis (past).
- Rom. vi. 3–5. Notice the support here given to the marginal alternative of the R.V., “united with,” instead of “united in” ( Lat. complantati similitudini, &c.).
- Per similitudinem et formam mysterii.
- This was a favourite interpretation of the symbolism with the fathers. Cf. Serm. LXX., chap. 4, and Bright’s n. 97 thereon.
- Celebrandæ generaliter gratiæ, where generaliterhas much the same sense as the Eng. “generally” has in the definition of a sacrament in the Eng. Ch. Catechism as “generally necessary to salvation.”
- S. Matt. xxviii. 19.
- S. John xiv. 16.
- Ibid. 26.
- Ibid. xvi. 13.
- It need hardly be pointed out that these words, “where the sacrament is the same,” refer to the sacramentum (in its Leonine sense), that has just been explained, viz,, that Christus est veritas et spiritus sanctus est spiritus veritatus.
- Leo does not often quote from the Acts, and here he expressly includes it in the Canon, and alludes to its authenticity (fideli historia docet).
- Acts ii. 37–41.
- Principalis et maximi sacramenti custodienda nobis est mystica et rationalis exceptio (another reading being exemplatio (symbolism), which Quesnel prefers, thinking that the words have reference to the appropriateness of this symbolic rite of Baptism being performed at Easter-tide).
- S. John i. 13.
- Gal. iv. 4.
- S. Matt. v. 17.
- Rom. x. 4.
- Baptismi sui in se condidit sacramentum: the baptism of Christ has very generally been associated with the Epiphany: the record of it, for instance, in S. Luke iii. 15–23, is the 2nd morning lesson for the Festival in the English Church. It is, however, not clear who the “some” were whom Leo mentions above as putting Christ’s baptism on the same day as the Epiphany; perhaps he means the Eastern Church.
- Col. i. 18.
- Cf. Lett. XXVIII. (The Tome), chap. vi., where the same explanation of the sacred incident in the Lord’s passion is given.
- S. John i. 17. Cf. Rev. xix. 20, “for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophesy.”
- S. John i. 29.
- Phil. ii. 21.
- S. Matt. iii. 11; S. Luke iii. 16.
- Cf. Lett. XIV., chap. 8, where the same rule is laid down.