December 7, 2018: ST. AMBROSE
December 7, 2018: ST. AMBROSE, BISHOP, CONFESSOR, AND DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH
“Ambrose, our Bishop!”
O God, who didst give to thy people blessed Ambrose, for a minister of eternal salvation; grant, we beseech thee, that he who was the instructor of our life here on earth, may in heaven become our intercessor. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
This illustrious Pontiff was deservedly placed in the Calendar of the Church side by side with the glorious Bishop of Myra [Dec. 6, St. Nicholas]. Nicholas confessed, at Nicӕa, the divinity of the Redeemer; Ambrose, in his city of Milan, was the object of the hatred of the Arians, and, by his invincible courage, triumphed over the enemies of Christ. Let Ambrose, then, unite his voice, as Doctor of the Church, with that of St. Peter Chrysologus, and preach to the world the glories and the humiliations of the Messias. But, as Doctor of the Church, he has a special claim to our veneration: it is, that among the bright luminaries of the Latin Church, four great Masters head the list of sacred Interpreters of the Faith; Gregory, Augustine, Jerome; and then our glorious Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, makes up the mystic number.
Ambrose owes his noble position in the Calendar to the ancient custom of the Church, whereby, in the early ages, no Saint's feast was allowed to be kept in Lent. The day of his departure from this world and of his entrance into heaven was the fourth of April, which, more frequently than not, comes during Lent: so that it was requisite that the memory of his sacred death should be solemnised on some other day, and the seventh of December naturally presented itself for such a feast, inasmuch as it was the anniversary day of Ambrose's being consecrated Bishop.
But, independently of these considerations, the road which leads us to Bethlehem could be perfumed by nothing so fragrant as by this feast of St. Ambrose. Does not the thought of this saintly and amiable Bishop impress us with the image of dignity and sweetness combined? of the strength of the lion united with the gentleness of the dove? Time removes the deepest human impressions; but the memory of Ambrose is as vivid and dear in men's minds as though he was still among us. Who can ever forget the young, yet staid and learned governor of Liguria and Emilia, who comes to Milan as a simple catechumen, and finds himself forced, by the acclamations of the people, to ascend the episcopal throne of this great city? And how indelibly impressed upon us are certain touching incidents of his early life! For instance, that beautiful presage of his irresistible eloquence,—the swarm of bees coming round him as he was sleeping one day in his father's garden, and entering into his mouth, as though they would tell us how sweet that babe's words would be? and the prophetic gravity with which Ambrose, when quite a boy, would hold out his hand to his mother and sister, bidding them kiss it, for that one day it would be the hand of a Bishop!
But what hard work awaited the neophyte of Milan, who was no sooner regenerated in the waters of baptism, than he was consecrated Priest and Bishop! He had to apply himself, there and then, to a close study of the sacred Scriptures, that so he might prepare himself to become the defender of the Church, which was attacked, in the fundamental dogma of the Incarnation, by the false science of the Arians. In a short time he attained such proficiency in the sacred sciences, as to become, like the Prophet, a wall of brass, which checked the further progress of Arianism: not only so, but the works written by Ambrose possessed that plenitude and surety of doctrine, as to be numbered by the Church among the most faithful and authoritative interpretations of her teaching.
But Ambrose had other and fiercer contests than those of religious controversy to encounter his very life was more than once threatened by the heretics whom he had silenced. What a sublime spectacle that of a Bishop blockaded in his church by the troops of the Empress Justina, and defended within by his people, day and night! Pastor and flock, both are admirable. How had Ambrose merited such fidelity and confidence on the part of this people? By a whole life spent for the welfare of his city and his country. He had never ceased to preach Jesus to all men; and now, the people see their Bishop become, by his zeal, his devotedness, and his self-sacrificing conduct, a living image of Jesus.
In the midst of these dangers which threatened his person, his great soul was calm and seemingly unconscious of the fury of his enemies. It was on that very occasion that he instituted, at Milan, the choral singing of the Psalms. Up to that time, the holy Canticles had been given from the Ambo by the single voice of a Lector; but Ambrose, shut up in his Basilica with his people, takes the opportunity, and forms two choirs, bidding them respond to each other the verses of the Psalms. The people forgot their trouble in the delight of this heavenly music; nay, the very howling of the tempest, and the fierceness of the siege they were sustaining, added enthusiasm to this first exercise of their new privilege. Such was the chivalrous origin of Alternate Psalmody in the Western Church. Rome adopted the practice, which Ambrose was the first to introduce, and which will continue to be observed to the end of time. During these hours of struggle with his enemies, the glorious Bishop has another gift wherewith to enrich the faithful people who are defending him at the risk of their own lives. Ambrose is a poet, and he has frequently sung, in verses full of sweetness and sublimity, the greatness of the God of the Christians, and the mysteries of man's salvation. He now gives to his devoted people these hymns, which he had only composed for his own private devotion. The Basilicas of Milan soon echoed these accents of the sublime soul which first uttered them. Later on, the whole Latin Church adopted them; and in honour of the holy Bishop who had thus opened one of the richest sources of the sacred Liturgy, a Hymn was, for a long time, called after his name, an Ambrosian. The Divine Office thus received a new mode of celebrating the divine praise, and the Church, the Spouse of Christ, possessed one means more of giving expression to the sentiments which animate her.
Thus our Hymns, and the alternate singing of the Psalms, are trophies of Ambrose's victory. He had been raised up by God not for his own age only, but also for those which were to follow. Hence, the Holy Ghost infused into him the knowledge of Christian jurisprudence, that he might be the defender of the rights of the Church at a period when paganism still lived, though defeated; and imperialism, or cesarism, had still the instinct, though not the uncontrolled power, to exercise its tyranny. Ambrose's law was the Gospel, and he would acknowledge no law which was in opposition to that. He could not understand such imperial policy as that of ordering a Basilica to be given up to the Arians, for quietness' sake! He would defend the inheritance of the Church; and in that defence, would shed the last drop of his blood. Certain courtiers dared to accuse him of tyranny: “No,” answered the Saint, “Bishops are not tyrants, “but have often to suffer from tyranny.” The eunuch Calligonus, high chamberlain of the Emperor Valentinian the Second had said to Ambrose: “What! darest thou, in my presence, to care so little for Valentinian! I will cut off thy head.” “I would it might be so,” answered Ambrose, “I should then die as a Bishop, and thou wouldst have done what eunuchs are wont to do.”
This noble courage in the defence of the rights of the Church, showed itself even more clearly on another occasion. The Roman Senate, or rather that portion of the Senate, which, though a minority, was still Pagan, was instigated by Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome, to ask the Emperor for the re-erection of the altar of Victory in the Capitol, under the pretext of averting the misfortunes which threatened the empire. Ambrose, who had said to these politicians, “I hate the Religion of the Neros,” vehemently opposed this last effort of idolatry. He presented most eloquent petitions to Valentinian, in which he protested against an attempt, whose object was to bring a Christian Prince to recognise that false doctrines have rights, and which would, if permitted to be tried, rob Him, who is the one only Master of nations, of the victories which he had won. Valentinian yielded to these earnest remonstrances, which taught him “that a Christian Emperor can only honour one Altar,—the Altar of Christ;” and when the Senators had to receive their answer, the prince told them, that Rome was his mother, and he loved her; but that God was his Saviour, and he would obey Him.
If the Empire of Rome had not been irrevocably condemned by God to destruction, the influence which St. Ambrose had over such well-intentioned princes as Valentinian would probably have saved it. The Saint's maxim to the Rulers of the world was this, though it was not to be realised in any of them until new kingdoms should spring up out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, and those new kingdoms and peoples organised by the Christian Church: but St. Ambrose could have no other, and he therefore taught the Emperors of those times, that “an Emperor's grandest title is to be a Son of the Church. An Emperor is in the Church, he is not over her.”
It is beautiful to see the affectionate solicitude of St. Ambrose for the young Emperor Gratian, at whose death he shed floods of tears. How tenderly, too, did he not love Theodosius, that model Christian prince, for whose sake God retarded the fall of the Empire, by the uninterrupted victory over all its enemies! On one occasion, indeed, this Son of the Church showed in himself the Pagan Cӕsar; but his holy father Ambrose, by a severity, which was inflexible because his affection for the culprit was great, brought him back to his duty and his God. “I loved,” says the holy Bishop, in the funeral oration which he preached over Theodosius, “I loved this Prince, who preferred correction to flattery. He stripped himself of his royal robes, and publicly wept in the Church for the sin he had committed, and into which he had been led by evil counsel. In sighs and tears he sought to be forgiven. He, an Emperor, did what common men would be ashamed to do, he did public penance; and for the rest of his life, he passed not a day without bewailing his sin.”
But we should have a very false idea of St. Ambrose, if we thought that he only turned his attention to affairs of importance like these, which brought him before the notice of the world. No pastor could be more solicitous than he about the slightest details which affected the interests of his flock. We have his life written by his deacon, Paulinus, who knew secrets which intimacy alone can know, and these fortunately he has revealed to us. Among other things, he tells us that when Ambrose heard confessions, he shed so many tears that the sinner was forced to weep: “You would have thought,” says Paulinus, “that they were his own sins that he was listening to.” We all know the tender paternal interest he felt for Augustine, when he was a slave to error and his passions; and if we would have a faithful portrait of Ambrose, we must read in the Confessions of the Bishop of Hippo [St. Augustine, or St. Austin] the fine passage where he expresses his admiration and gratitude for his spiritual father. Ambrose had told Monica, that her son Augustine, who gave her so much anxiety, would be converted. That happy day at last came; it was Ambrose's hand which immersed into the cleansing waters of Baptism him who was to be the prince of the Doctors of the Church.
A heart thus loyal in its friendship, could not but be affectionate to those who were related by ties of blood. He tenderly loved his brother Satyrus, as we may see from the two funeral orations which he has left us upon this brother, wherein he speaks his praises with all the warmth of enthusiastic admiration. He had a sister, too, named Marcellina, who was equally dear to her saintly brother. From her earliest years, she had spurned the world, and its pomps, and the position which she might expect to enjoy in it, as being a Patrician's daughter. She had received the veil of virginity from the hands of Pope Liberius, but lived in her father's house at Rome. Her brother Ambrose was separated from her, but he seemed to love her the more for that; and he communicated with her in her holy retirement by frequent letters, several of which are still extant. She deserved all the esteem which Ambrose had for her; she had a great love for the Church of God, and she was heart and soul in all the great undertakings of her brother the Bishop. The very heading of these letters shows the affection of the Saint: “The Brother to the Sister;” or, “To my sister Marcellina, dearer to me than mine own eyes and life.” Then follows the letter, in a style of nerve and animation, well suited to the soul-stirring communications he had to make to her about his struggles. One of them was written in the midst of the storm, when the courageous Pontiff was besieged in his Basilica by Justina's soldiers. His discourses to the people of Milan, his consolations and his trials, the heroic sentiments of his great soul, all is told in these despatches to his sister, and where every line shows how strong and holy was the attachment between Ambrose and Marcellina. The great Basilica of Milan still contains the tomb of the brother and sister…
Such was Ambrose, of whom Theodosius was one day heard to say: “There is but one Bishop in the world.” Let us glorify the Holy Spirit, who has vouchsafed to produce this sublime model in the Church, and let us beg of the holy Pontiff to obtain for us, by his prayers, a share in that lively faith and ardent love which he himself had, and which he evinces in those delicious and eloquent writings, which he has left us on the mystery of the Incarnation. During these days, which are preparing us for the Birth of our Incarnate Lord, Ambrose is one of our most powerful patrons.
His love towards the Blessed Mother of God teaches us what admiration and devotion we ought to have for Mary. St. Ephrem and St. Ambrose are the two Fathers of the fourth century, who are the most explicit upon the glories of the office and the person of the Mother of Jesus. To confine ourselves to St. Ambrose, he has completely mastered this mystery, which he understood, and appreciated, and defined in his writings. Mary's exemption from every stain of sin; Mary's uniting herself, at the foot of the Cross, with her Divine Son for the salvation of the world; Jesus' appearing, after his resurrection, to Mary first of all;—on these and so many other points St. Ambrose has spoken so clearly as to deserve to be considered as one of the most prominent witnesses of the primitive traditions respecting the privileges and dignity of the holy Mother of God.
This his devotion to Mary explains St. Ambrose's enthusiastic admiration for the holy state of Christian Virginity, of which he might justly be called the Doctor. He surpasses all the Fathers in the beautiful and eloquent manner in which he speaks of the dignity and happiness of Virginity. Four of his writings are devoted to the praises of this sublime state. The Pagans would fain have an imitation of it, by instituting seven Vestal Virgins, whom they loaded with honours and riches, and to whom they in due time restored liberty. St. Ambrose shows how contemptible these were, compared with the innumerable Virgins of the Christian Church, who filled the whole world with the fragrance of their humility, constancy, and disinterestedness. But on this magnificent subject, his words were even more telling than his writings; and we learn from his contemporaries, that when he went to preach in any town, mothers would not allow their daughters to be present at his sermon, lest this irresistible panegyrist of the eternal nuptials with the Lamb, should convince them that that was the better part, and persuade them to make it the object of their desires.
But our partiality and devotion to the great Saint of Milan has made us exceed our usual limits: it is time to read the account of his virtues given his by the Church.
Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, the son of a Roman citizen, whose name was also Ambrose, and who held the office of Prefect of Cisalpine Gaul. It is related that when the saint was an infant, a swarm of bees rested on his lips; it was a presage of his future extraordinary eloquence. He received a liberal education at Rome, and not long after was appointed, by the Prefect Probus, to be Governor of Liguria and Emilia, whence, later on, he was sent, by order of the same Probus, to Milan, with power of Judge; for the people of that city were quarrelling among themselves about the successor of the Arian Bishop, Auxentius, who had died. Wherefore, Ambrose, having entered the Church that he might fulfil the duty that had been imposed on him, and quell the disturbance that had arisen, delivered an eloquent discourse on the advantages of peace and tranquillity in a State. Scarcely had he finished speaking, than a boy exclaimed: Ambrose, Bishop! The whole multitude shouted:
On his refusing to accede to their entreaties, the earnest request of the people was presented to the Emperor Valentinian, who was gratified that they whom he selected as Judges were thus sought after to be made Priests. It was also pleasing to the Prefect Probus, who, as though he foresaw the event, said to Ambrose on his setting out: Go, act not as Judge, but as Bishop. The desire of the people being thus seconded by the will of the Emperor, Ambrose was baptised (for he was only a catechumen), and was admitted to sacred Orders, ascending by all the degrees of Orders as prescribed by the Church; and on the eighth day, which was the seventh of the Ides of December (December 7th), he received the burden of the Episcopacy. Being made Bishop, he most strenuously defended the Catholic faith, and ecclesiastical discipline. He converted to the true faith many Arians, and other heretics, among whom was that brightest luminary of the Church, St. Augustine, the spiritual child of Ambrose in Christ Jesus.
When the Emperor Gratian was killed by Maximus, he was twice deputed to go to this murderer, and insist on his doing penance for his crime; which he refusing to do, Ambrose refused to hold communion with him. The Emperor Theodosius having made himself guilty of the massacre at Thessalonica, was forbidden by the Saint to enter the church. On the Emperor's excusing himself by saying that King David had also committed murder and adultery, Ambrose replied: Thou hast imitated his sin, now imitate his repentance. Upon which, Theodosius humbly performed the public penance which the Bishop imposed upon him. The holy Bishop having thus gone through the greatest labours and solicitudes for God's Church, and having written several admirable books, foretold the day of his death, before even he was taken with his last sickness. Honoratus, the Bishop of Vercelli, was thrice admonished by the voice of God to go to the dying Saint: he went, and administered to him the Sacred Body of our Lord. Ambrose having received it, and placing his hands in the form of the cross, prayed, and yielded his soul up to God, on the vigil of the Nones of April (April 4th), in the year of our Lord 397.
℟. Upon whom shall I rest, saith the Lord, but upon him that is humble and meek,
*Who trembleth at my words?
℣. I have found David my servant, and with my holy oil have I anointed him.
*Who trembleth at my words?
℟. This illustrious man was sent that he might destroy Arius:
he was the glory of the Church, the ornament of Pontiffs;
*Whilst wearing an earthly mitre, he gained that of heaven.
℣. It was said to him as he set out: Go, act not as Judge, but as Bishop.
*Whilst wearing an earthly mitre, he gained that of heaven.
Another account of St. Ambrose.
St. Ambrose, one of the greatest doctors of the Church, a fearless defender of her rights, a terrible scourge to heresy, a most perfect example for all prelates, a miracle of Christian wisdom and eloquence, was the son of a Roman nobleman, who presided in Gaul as imperial governor. One day, while Ambrose was yet in his cradle, a swarm of bees alighted on his mouth without in the least harming the sleeping infant. It is believed that God by this announced the future sweet and yet powerful eloquence of St. Ambrose. After his father's death, the Saint went to Rome with his mother, brother and sister. There he, one day, saw the people kiss the hand of a bishop, and, on his return home, he offered his hands to some children to kiss, saying: “Kiss my hands; for, when I grow up I shall be a bishop.” These words, spoken in childish jest, were prophetic. Ambrose was endowed by the Almighty with unusual facility for acquiring knowledge. Untiring in his studies, he became so excellent an orator, and so celebrated a jurist, that he was made governor of Ӕmilia and Liguria when he was hardly thirty-two years old. Probus, the imperial chancellor, said to him, before his departure: “Go, and administer your functions, not as a judge, but as a bishop.” He meant by this that Ambrose should not govern by severity but with love and mildness; heaven's signification of these words, however, was different. When Ambrose, invested with this high dignity, arrived at Milan, he so completely gained all hearts by his wise and mild government, that the people obeyed him implicitly, and loved him most devotedly. Hardly had he been two years at Milan when Auxentius, the Arian bishop, whom the Emperor Constantius had placed in the episcopal chair, died. The Catholics desired a Catholic, the Arians, an Arian bishop, and the conflict of contending parties produced a dangerous excitement. Ambrose, as imperial officer, thought it his duty to prevent greater mischief, and hence, going into the church, he endeavored by his eloquence to calm the people. Hardly had he ended his speech, when a child cried aloud: “Ambrose, bishop!” This came like a call from heaven, and all the people, together with the clergy, rejoiced and repeated three times:
“Ambrose, our bishop!”
This sudden accordance of so many different minds could only be regarded as providential, the more so, as Ambrose was still a layman, and not even baptized; as, at that period, some delayed their baptism until they had become quite old. Ambrose, inexpressibly amazed at this unexpected turn of affairs, employed all his eloquence to change the thoughts of the people; he mingled his tears with his words, and when he found that all was of no avail, he secretly fled. Being soon found and brought back, he twice attempted to escape again, but was each time found. Valentinian, the emperor, was greatly pleased with the choice, and when Ambrose recognized that it was the will of the Almighty that he should fill the vacant See, he made no further resistance. After having prepared himself, he was baptized, ordained priest, and consecrated bishop; and then entered upon his high ecclesiastical functions with the most holy intentions.
He who would endeavor to relate all that the bishop, so miraculously elected, performed for the welfare of the Church, and the holy life he led, would have to write many volumes. Let it suffice to say, that he exercised himself in all kinds of good works. Early in the morning he passed a long time in prayer. He often exhorted others to do the same, saying: “Do you not know, O man, that you owe your first thoughts, the first words of your mouth to the Lord your God? Daily must you make Him this offering.” His severity in fasting was extremely great, and when advised to moderate it, for the reason that it would occasion his early death, he said: “Many have found death from too much eating, no one from fasting.” Unbounded was his charity to the poor, and his episcopal revenues were almost all employed to assist the needy. Three points he had determined to observe most strictly: to say Mass every day; to preach to the people every Sunday, and to leave nothing undone to spread the true faith, abolish heresy, and correct the morals of the people. In his sermons, he spoke so frequently of the merit and worth of virginal purity, that the number of those can scarcely be counted who made the vow of chastity, and received from his hands the consecrated veil. Still greater was the number of hardened sinners and heretics whom he converted by his sermons. Among the latter was Augustine, who afterwards became so shining a light in the Church. St. Ambrose baptized him with his own hand, to his great consolation. The knowledge of the divine mysteries which Ambrose manifested in his preaching and writings, was imparted to him by heaven; hence he is represented with a dove at his ear, as a symbol of the Holy Ghost, who inspired him when he spoke or wrote. An Arian heretic testified that he had seen an angel speaking to St. Ambrose in the pulpit; and this miracle converted the heretic. The fortitude with which he protected the rights and privileges of the Church against the heretics and against crowned heads, was almost more than human. The Arians persecuted him in every possible manner, especially after the death of the pious emperor Gratian, when the wicked empress Justina, wife of Valentinian the younger, ruled the land. The holy man, however, always resisted bravely. One day, the emperor Valentinian, counselled by the empress Justina, sent an order to him to give up a church to the Arians at Milan. The bearer of this order menaced the bishop with death in case he refused; but Ambrose paid no attention to the menace, refused to obey the order, and reprimanded the emperor. Among other things he said to him: “Do not imagine that you possess an imperial right over that which belongs to God. To the emperor belong the palaces, but the churches to the priests. You have power over the walls of the churches, but not over the sanctuary.” To this subject belongs, also, what he wrote at another time to the emperor Theodosius: “The purple makes one a king or an emperor, but not a priest.” Justina raged with anger, and hired a man to carry the bishop off secretly out of the city, that she might deal with the Catholics according to her own pleasure. The hired ruffian waited in the neighborhood of the church with a carriage, into which he was forcibly to place the bishop; but the Saint was accompanied by so many people, that the plan of the empress could not be executed. God even so ruled it that, a year later, this godless man was taken out of the city in the same vehicle, on account of his crimes. At another time, the Arians sent an assassin into the episcopal palace to murder the Saint; but when the wretch raised the sword for the deadly stroke, his arm suddenly stiffened in such a manner that he was unable to move it. He then repented of his evil design, knelt at the feet of the bishop, and begged pardon. Ambrose not only forgave him, but also restored the use of his arm, and admonished him to reform his life. At another time, they bribed a magician to strangle the Saint in his own room by his witchcraft. Although this magician conjured several demons of hell, and commanded them to strangle the Saint, they could not harm him, nor even go near his dwelling, as it was surrounded by angelic hosts. The bishop, thus miraculously protected, was not to be frightened by the persecutions of the Arians, but continued in his zeal to work against them, so that many of them became converted. He strove with equal fortitude against the heresiarch Jovinian and his followers, whom he banished entirely out of his diocese.
The Saint never manifested greater strength of mind than at the time when the pious emperor, Theodosius, at the instigation of some wicked courtiers, had cruelly slaughtered several thousand inhabitants of Thessalonica, in reprisal for the assassination of one of his generals. When, some time afterwards, the emperor wished to enter the Church, the bishop, clad in his episcopal robes, went to meet him, and commanded him to stop and not enter the sacred building until he had done penance. The emperor, awestruck at this proceeding, said: “Did not King David sin?” The holy bishop replied: “You have followed King David in his sin; follow him also in doing penance;”—and permitted him not to enter the church until he had done penance during eight months. Much that the holy man did for the honor of God and the welfare of the true Church and of his flock, we must omit, and say a few words of his happy departure from this life. St. Ambrose became enfeebled by the unceasing labor imposed upon him, and also by his rigorous fasting and other penances, and his soul longed to see God, the end and aim of his being. The day of his death was revealed to him, and when he was seized by his last illness, he was begged to pray that his life might be prolonged for the benefit of the Church and the salvation of souls; but he replied: “I have lived in such a manner among you that I need not be ashamed; and I fear not to die, because we have a merciful Lord.” St. Honoratus, bishop of Vercelli, was at that time in the palace of the bishop. During the night he was suddenly awakened by a voice saying to him: “Honoratus, rise quickly; the Saint is dying.” Honoratus repaired hastily to the sick bishop, administered once more the holy sacraments to him, after which the Saint, his arms folded over his breast, gave his soul to our Lord, in the year 397 of the Christian era, at the dawn of Easter Sunday. Oh! how happy a dying day! God, who had glorified His faithful servant during life by miracles and especial graces, ceased not to increase his glory after his death. The many eloquent works which still exist of this great Father of the Church, are witnesses of his perfect holiness and heavenly wisdom.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year - Advent, Edition 1870;
The Lives of the Saints, Rev. F.X. Weninger D.D., S.J. Vol. II, Permissu Superiorum, 1876; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
O most admirable Doctor, Light of the holy Church, Blessed Ambrose, lover of the divine law, pray for us to the Son of God.