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The Greatness of a Lion

By Sister Constance Joanna, SSJD

Philippians 2.1-13; Matthew 16.13-19

The Letter to the Philippians and the Gospel from Matthew both declare who Jesus is – in Philippians, God who came to earth in humility, emptying himself of Godhead and greatness and living as a humble servant among humans – and in Matthew, the Messiah – the one who has the power to give Peter the keys of the kingdom. Two different aspects of God – the creator and ruler of the universe on the one hand, and on the other the humble servant of the very creatures God created. The divine and human, the great and the small, the powerful and vulnerable.

This is who Leo was, and who Leo remains for us as a saint we venerate. He was both a great leader and a humble man who cared for the poor among his people – very much in the way Jesus was both Messiah and humble servant. As a sidebar, I think he is aptly named – the lion symbol is often associated with God – we see a rather ineffective scared lion in The Wizard of Oz, for instance, seeking courage and humbly willing to learn from a little girl. And we see a much more obviously Christ-like lion in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, Aslan, who also balances strength and  humility. And then there is the Lion of Judah, representing Jesus in the Book of Revelation – and of course in our day, the Lion King who is a Messiah-like symbol.

This complementarity of the lion symbol – of gentleness, humility, courage, and compassion on the one hand, and the powerful ruler on the other, is reflected in Leo the Great. He was a Pope in the fourth century, shortly before the time of St. Benedict when Rome was being repeatedly invaded and attacked by pagan tribes and when the power of Rome was waning. As leader of the Christian world, he had the power and authority to negotiate with barbarian armies – successfully with the Goths the first time, less successfully with the Vandals the second time. Leo used the remaining church funds to assist the poor who were left alive in the city, and to bargain for the release of captives. He is called Leo the “Great” because of his strong leadership in a time of great crisis, and also because of his unique ability to teach the Christian faith and deal with theological controversy not by argument but by setting contrasting, or rather complementary concepts in partnership with each other – in particular the theological understanding of Jesus as both God and human.

Leo’s is exactly the kind of leadership that both the church and our world need now. In her address to COP26, the Queen said that what our home planet, earth needs now is not party politics but statesmanship. That is a word that has fallen out of disuse in recent decades – perhaps because there is so little of it that we don’t recognize it. We need a gender-neutral term now and maybe after COP26 one will evolve as the Queen as encouraged the whole concept of statesmanship to reassert itself. Perhaps leadership is the best alternative for now – a true leader is one who can bring opposites into complementarity, to bring together rich and poor, liberal and conservative, young and old. To celebrate cultural, racial, and gender diversity. Imagine a world where the old listened to the young and acted on their advice – and a world where the young respected the old because they had wisdom to offer and were not closed to new ideas.

Well you can see this kind of leadership for real – not just imagined – by tuning in to the activity at COP26. Young people listening raptly to David Attenborough at the age of 95. David Attenborough, sitting beside Boris Johnson, and a few people away from Justin Trudeau, Prince William, Joe Biden, all listening raptly and giving standing ovations to some of the most powerful and motivating speakers at the conference – those in their teens and 20s. Of the various speeches I have watched the most powerful was by a 15-year-old young woman from India who among other memorable statements said, “I do not think of myself as coming from India, but as coming from Earth.” She reminded us in several different ways that the countries that are the greatest polluters are the richest, and the countries that suffer most from pollution and other environmental problems are the victims of the rich and powerful. The poorest and most vulnerable – like India. and much of the global south. And so it is not just the complementarity of old and young who demonstrate Earth’s diversity at COPS26, but the range of speakers from those poorest countries and those richest countries, the mixture of gender and non-gendered identities, the mixture of cultures and races.

Who do you say that I am, Jesus asked Peter. You are the Christ, the Messiah, the King.

Who does St. Paul say that Jesus is? He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, born in human likeness, humbling himself in becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross.

And the complementarity of Christ, of Leo, and of each of us is something to be celebrated. Each of us is called to leadership – to sharing our gifts for the life of our world – and to humble submission to one another and to God. The opening words of Paul’s letter form a perfect conclusion to what Leo was about, what Christ was about, what COPS26 is about, and what we strive to be as well:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.