Saint Ambrose of Milan


St Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor (Memorial)

Ambrose was born in 339 at Trier, son of the Pretorian Prefect of Gaul. There is a legend that, as a small child, a swarm of bees landed on his face as he lay in his cradle and left behind a drop of honey. His father took this as a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence and honeyed tongue.
He studied Greek literature, law and rhetoric. About 372 he was made consular prefect of Liguria and Aemilia with headquarters in Milan, then, after Rome, the second capital of Italy. Ambrose soon made a name for himself as an excellent administrator.
At this time in the Church there were deep divisions between the Arians, who denied the divinity of Christ and those who affirmed it. In 374, Auxentius, the Arian bishop of Milan, died, and the Arians wanted one of their own as successor. Ambrose went personally to the cathedral, where the election would be held, in order to prevent a riot. During his speech, a voice, which many claimed was that of a small child, cried out: “Ambrose for bishop!” To his embarrassment, since he was not yet a Christian, the whole assembly took up the cry. In vain did he assert his ineligibility for the office. Within one week he was baptised and ordained bishop. Under the guidance of a tutor, Simplician, Ambrose began the study of the Scriptures and the writings of Origen and Basil. He would become an influential promoter of their thought in the Western church. As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, distributed his money to the poor, gave away all of his land, only making provision for his sister and entrusting his family to his brother.
He also encouraged monasticism and recommended the Virgin Mary as a patron and model for religious sisters. His influence on the conversion of Augustine in 386 is well known.
Ambrose is said to have quickly brought Arianism to an end in Milan. For this, he used his knowledge of Greek (then rare in the West) to access Eastern theological writers and used this knowledge in his preaching. His speaking ability greatly impressed Augustine.
As Milan was the administrative capital of the Empire in the west, he played an important role in political issues of the day, giving both advice and admonitions to various rulers. In 377 he wrote a work On the Faith for the young emperor Gratian to warn him against the Arian heresy, of which his uncle Valens was protector.
When Gratian was murdered, Ambrose persuaded the new emperor, Maximus, to be satisfied with a part of the empire and leave the rest for Valentinian II. He also managed to prevent a restoration of the cult of the goddess of Victory. He refused to allow a church in Milan to be used by Arians in the court and was once put under siege with his people in another church for the same reason.
He reminded Valentinian that the emperor was in the Church and not above or outside it. Soon afterwards, Valentinian fled for protection to Theodosius, the emperor of the East, who had defeated and killed Maximus and in effect became the ruler of the West as well. Despite his enormous power, Ambrose did not hesitate in threatening Theodosius with excommunication following a notorious massacre in Thessalonica in 390 when an estimated 7,000 men, women and children were slaughtered in reprisal for the killing of the Roman governor by rioters. Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt. The emperor was readmitted to the Eucharist only after several months of penance.
Ambrose died on 4 April 397, in his 58th year. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician.
Ambrose’s body may still be seen in the church of Santo Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated, along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Sts. Gervase and Protase.
Ambrose ranks with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, as one of the Latin Doctors of the Church. He succeeded as a theologian despite his training in law and his comparatively late study of Biblical and doctrinal subjects. His spiritual successor, Augustine, whose conversion was helped by Ambrose’s sermons, owes more to him than to any writer except Paul.
In art Ambrose is often shown in bishop’s vestments with the emblem of a scourge, symbolising the penance he imposed on the emperor, or else with a beehive because a swarm of bees, symbolizing his future eloquence, settled on him when he was a child.
Neither the present Ambrosian Rite nor the Ambrosian chant can be definitely traced to him but he did teach his people to sing hymns, composed by himself. Some of these still survive in the Roman Breviary.

Postscript:
There is an interesting story in Augustine’s Confessions about Ambrose: “When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”
The striking point of this passage is that Augustine felt it worth mentioning that Ambrose could read silently, implying that hardly anyone else could do so at the time. It was felt that anything that was well written was intended to be read aloud in the ancient world. Ambrose surprised Augustine not by his ability to read silently, but by his habit of doing so.
 

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