07 December 2015

Remembering Holy Father Bishop Ambrose of Milan

It would be highly remiss of me, having mentioned the writings of Holy Father Ambrose once already in my discussion of the dangers of money, to let his feast day pass us by unremarked. Ambrose, a Gallo-Roman Christian born to a wealthy and well-educated family in Augusta Treverorum (present-day Trier in Rheinland-Pfalz), was marked by intellect and humility even from a young age. As an infant, it is said that a swarm of bees each flew into his mouth, lit upon his tongue and left a drop of honey upon it, before flying out of reach. Ambrose’s father, Ambrose the Elder, took it as a sign that his son would be given the gift of eloquence. He received along with his brother Saint Satyrius an excellent education. The prætor noted Ambrose’s diligence, and recommended him to take charge of the prefecture of Mediolanum (now Milan), where he distinguished himself and gained a reputation for fairness even among his political and religious rivals. When he was still a young man – indeed, still a catechumen! – the previous bishop of Mediolanum, a man named Auxentius, reposed in the Lord; this left the bishopric contested between the Nicene Christians and the Arian heretics. As prefect, Ambrose was expected to resolve the issue of the bishopric. As he approached the assembly with a plea for order and a peaceful resolution, a cry went up from one of the children there, ‘Ambrose, bishop!’, and that cry soon spread to all the tongues of the populace.

Ambrose, still a catechumen and predisposed to humility, tried repeatedly – but in vain – to refuse the office, thinking himself unworthy. He even tried, without success, to flee the city, as the people grew ever more firm in their demands for him to succeed Auxentius. The people of Milan went to the Emperor of Rome, Valentinianus Augustus, to plead their case, and the Emperor commanded Ambrose to take the omophor. Ambrose did not dare to offend the Emperor. Thus he hurriedly finished his catechumenate, received the mystery of Baptism, was elevated within each of the clerical ranks of the Church within the space of a week, and acceded to the Bishopric of Milan on the seventh of December, 374. Upon his accession, he divided all of his possessions amongst the poor and the orphans, as well as for the upkeep of the Church, and devoted himself to the asceticism proper to a holy Hierarch of the Church.

Though perhaps not as fiery an orator as Archbishop Saint John Chrysostom in the East, in the West Ambrose was nonetheless an equally staunch defender of the poor, and stood constantly in solidarity with them. It must be remembered that at that time, Arianism was primarily a doctrine popular amongst the mercenaries of the late Western Roman army, and amongst the well-to-do artisans, whereas the Orthodoxy of Nicæa was primarily the faith of the poorer plebeians. The government, between the years of the Council of Nicæa in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, vacillated back and forth between Arianism and Nicene Christianity; Constantius II and Valens were both at least friendly toward Arianism and bestowed imperial favour on it, if they were not Arians themselves. Ambrose himself stood in firm solidarity with the poor and with the commoners, both politically and religiously; it is from him that we derive the formulation ‘justice does not stand in the way of mercy, because mercy itself is justice’. He introduced reforms into the Church such that poor men and women could stand alongside the wealthy in worship. ‘The poor of Christ are my riches,’ he once declaimed. ‘This is a treasure that I know how to amass. I only wish that they [in government] may always charge me with expending gold on the poor.’

On one occasion in the year 385, the Arian Empress Justina ordered Ambrose to turn over his basilica over to the soldiery for their use in prayers. Ambrose, however, refused – and he barricaded the church with many of the common people inside. He had taught his parishioners the beautiful yet simple hymns of his own composition, and the people began to sing them within the basilica, even as the Arian Gothic mercenaries began to take up their positions outside. However, God gave the soldiers to hear the strains of music being sung inside the Church, and moved their hearts to pity – they could not bring themselves to attack a Church full of singing people; thus Ambrose was given the victory in that instance over the Arians.

Ambrose, in addition to being a defender of the poor, also took an interest in actively spreading Nicene Christianity as well as he could. He was instrumental in the conversion of Blessed Augustine of Hippo in the year 387, and also seemingly imparted to him a particular zeal on behalf of the less-fortunate. He established a bishopric on the Pannonian marches at the fortress of Sirmium. He kept up an epistolary correspondence with Queen Fritigil, of the Marcomanni who then lived in Pannonia, and was instrumental in bringing her Teutonic tribe into the fold of Nicene Christendom. And even from the far East, men of Persia, in respect of his great wisdom, would visit him and converse with him on topics of philosophical interest.

Holy Father Ambrose was a staunch and fearless advocate for the public expression of Christianity, and was adamant that a Christian monarch ought to do all he could to encourage Christianity in the public sphere. He strongly rebuked Valentinianus Augustus when a request was made by a group of pagan elder statesmen to restore an old pagan monument, the Ara Victoriæ, to the Roman Senate; this request was subsequently denied. On another occasion, Bishop Ambrose strictly forbade the Emperor Theodosius from entering the church, after the Emperor had massacred a crowd at Thessaloniki. ‘You may not come in,’ Ambrose had told him at the door of the church. ‘There is blood on your hands.’ Ambrose demanded that the Emperor do a public penance before he be allowed to receive the chalice again at the altar, and promise that he would never engage in such a ruthless slaughter of innocents again; both of which he did. Holy Father Ambrose also protested against public funds being used to repair a synagogue that had been destroyed by an angry mob; however, he did believe that the Emperor was justified in punishing the leaders of the mob for their violence against the Jews.

In addition to all of this, by virtue of his excellent education, upbringing and God-given gifts, Holy Father Ambrose was a prolific and profound writer, and left a significant corpus of texts: On Belief in the Resurrection, Exposition of the Christian Faith, On the Holy Spirit, On the Duties of the Clergy and On the Holy Mysteries being a few of his most important works. Holy Father Ambrose, celebrated in his own lifetime for his kindliness and his generosity, reposed in the Lord on the fourth of April, 397.

You shone forth with divine doctrine eclipsing the deception of Arius,
Shepherd and initiate of the mysteries, Ambrose.
You worked miracles through the power of the Spirit,
Healing various passions;
Righteous father, entreat Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

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