Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Commemoration of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan - Pastor, Theologian, and Hymnwriter
Luke 6:20-23; Ephesians 5:15-21
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Ambrose of Milan was born in 340 AD in Trier, Gaul (modern day Germany). Ambrose was the son of a Prefect and was himself appointed to the Prefecture of Sirmium with his residence in Milan. It was in his capacity as Prefect, as a government official, that Ambrose was called upon to bring peace among Christians in Milan who were divided into quarreling factions when a new bishop was to be elected in 374 AD. Ambrose addressed the crowd, and someone cried out, “Ambrose, bishop!” The entire gathering voiced their support. Ambrose was thirty-four and, being only a catechumen at the time, was baptized on December 7 and was then consecrated Bishop of Milan. No one was surprised more by this than was Ambrose himself who later wrote, “I was carried off from the judgment seat, and the garb of office, to enter on the priesthood, and began to teach you what I myself had not yet learned. So it happened that I began to teach before I began to learn. Therefore I must learn and teach at the same time, since I had no leisure to learn before.”
Patristic historian Johannes Quasten states that, “In order to live up to his new responsibilities, Ambrose devoted himself, under the direction of Simplicianus [a presbyter in Rome], to acquiring a profound knowledge of Sacred Scripture, of the Greek Fathers and of Jewish and pagan writers such as Philo and Plotinus. Augustine testifies to the intense and assiduous study of Ambrose. This study, complemented by extended prayer on the Word of God, was to become the source of Ambrose’s pastoral activity and preaching.” St. Ambrose’s devotion and study were such that he became one of Four Great Latin Doctors of the Church along with St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great. Ambrose was also a prolific hymnwriter. We will sing three of Ambrose’s hymns this evening! Ambrose also created a style of chant, known as Ambrosian Chant, which is still used in Christian churches today. Theologically, St. Ambrose was a courageous defender of the faith. Ambrose persuaded Emperor Gratian in 379 AD to forbid the Arian heresy in the West, which denied that Jesus was truly God. At Ambrose’s urging, Gratian’s successor, Theodosious, also publically opposed Arianism.
Opposition to Arianism was one of St. Ambrose’s theological hallmarks. Ambrose defended the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, that Christ was at once fully divine and fully human while remaining one person, and the position occupied by the Son of God within the Holy Trinity. This doctrine is expounded both simply and poetically in the Ambrosian hymn “Veni, Redemptor Gentium (Savior of the Nations Come).” In this hymn St. Ambrose confessed of Christ that He is “Lord,” “not by human flesh and blood,” but “by the Spirit of our God,” “God of God, yet fully man.” Likewise, St. Ambrose proclaimed the mission of God’s Messiah in verse: “God the Father was His source, back to God He ran His course. Into hell His road went down, back then to His throne and crown.” In the doxological final stanza of his hymn “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright,” St. Ambrose confessed the Son’s equal place, as God and man, within the Holy Trinity: “All laud to God the Father be; all praise, eternal Son, to Thee; all glory to the Spirit raise in equal and unending praise. Alleluia!”
While an immensely brilliant, wise, and powerful government official, St. Ambrose was at the same time a man of great faith and humility. Upon being consecrated bishop, Ambrose immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina (who later became a nun), and committed the care of his family to his brother. Perhaps it was this quality of Ambrose that enabled him so profoundly to see and comprehend the great mystery that is the incarnation of Jesus Christ and its meaning and importance for the life and salvation of all people. St. Ambrose took to heart Jesus’ teaching in The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” Likewise, St. Ambrose lived his life and testified to others, exhorting them to do the same in humility, piety, and love, as St. Paul has taught repeatedly in his epistles: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Surely this message is as vital for us today within Christ’s Church, and out in the world, as it was for Ambrose’s flock in the fourth century.
St. Ambrose proved to be highly influential in the Christian Church, again, most notably, for his staunch defense and explication of the two natures of Christ, the Holy Trinity, and the divinity and equality of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Ambrose was instrumental in calling for an ecumenical council in Aquileia in 381 AD to further combat the Arian heresy, to expand the creed constructed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and to prepare the way for that Creed’s further development and ratification at the Council of Constantinople later that same year, 381 AD. We can observe the Ambrosian influence throughout the Church’s confession still in the Nicene Creed. St. Ambrose was also highly influential upon another Great Latin Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, helping him to convert to Christianity and then baptizing him! While still a pagan, Augustine was impressed, not so much by Ambrose’s elegant homilies, but by the unity of the Church with him and behind him, that they sang and prayed in unity as one body. Augustine remarked, “The devout people watched, ready to die with their Bishop.” Augustine also noted that the liturgical customs in Rome were different than those used in other places, and Ambrose told him something we still quote today: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” To further develop, foster, and maintain the unity of Christ’s Church, St. Ambrose developed the lectio divina (divine lectionary), an annual cycle of readings from Holy Scripture still in use in the Church today.
St. Ambrose died on Good Friday, April 4, 397 AD. He was given grace to proclaim the Gospel with eloquence and power. As bishop of the great congregation of Milan, St. Ambrose fearlessly bore reproach for the honor of the Holy Triune God. May the LORD mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching and fidelity in ministering His Word that His people might be partakers of His divine nature.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.