Saturday, December 8, 2012

St Ambrose

I missed this yesterday, but oh well. I was busy, and very tired after the vigil Mass for the Immaculate Conception. December 7 in the West is his feast day.

St Ambrose was born c. 330 to a Christian family in Trier. His father was the praetorian prefect of Gaul, who served as the deputy to the emperor in governing Gaul, Germania, Britannia, and Mauretania Tingitana. Satyrus and Marcellina, Ambrose's siblings are also saints. A legend holds that his father found honey on his face when Ambrose was a baby, after a swarm of bees landed on his face. I think this is really cool, because bees are a symbol of purity, and the wax of bees symbolize the pure flesh extracted from the Virgin i.e. Christ. At any rate, his father thought he would become a gifted orator, and indeed, he studied rhetoric and law before moving into government. (Lesson for today's world: There is something striking about the study of rhetoric by a great number of the Fathers, not only for preaching, but for all of us with less-than-desirable modern educations.)


In 374, the bishop of Milan kicked the bucket, and the Arians had a hissy fit over his successor, because they were deathly afraid that a Catholic would be given the see. Well, Ambrose was governor of Aemilia-Liguria, and went to the church where the election was held to prevent a violent outcome. In a  turn of events that only God could bring about, the people began to acclaim him as bishop. The Arians knew him to be Trinitarian, but thought his charity towards them in the matter made him acceptable. Only a catechumen (remember, many chose to be baptized later in life in the ancient days of the Church) without formal theological studies, he refused the post, and fled to the home of a friend. The Emperor Gratian wrote a letter to the friend praising Rome's appointment of worthy men to ecclesiastical positions, so his host gave Ambrose up. He was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop all within the span of a week (By the way, it's still theoretically possible for the latter two to be occur that quickly if the episcopal see in question is that of the Diocese of Rome...baptized Catholic male is the only explicitly defined requirement to be elected; the canons and traditions are somewhat conflicted on the issue.)

His relics along with those of Sts Protasius and Gervasius
After he became bishop, he gave all his money and land away, and only made an exception for his sister, who became a nun. The Arians quickly paid the price for their choice of bishop, because Ambrose quickly studied theology with the Roman priest St Simplician, and utilized his knowledge of Greek to converse with the Greek Fathers, and study the Septuagint. He also learned Hebrew in order to study the Masoretic Bible. Ambrose always tried to use theological reasons to counter the heresy, while the Arians tried to sway imperial opinion in their favor. This worked only in the East where Valentinian II was an Arian. Ambrose one-upped them once again when Palladius, an Arian bishop, asked Gratian to convene a council, because Ambrose asked for it to be a synod of Western bishops instead of a general council. Ambrose served as presider, and the synod deposed two Arian bishops- Palladius and his buddy Secundianus- of their sees.

On several occasions, the empress Justina demanded that Ambrose give up churches so that the Arians could use them. Each time he refused, and stood against imperial troops and even continued to say Mass on one occasion. A contrast with the East is noted, since he always won in his conflicts with the empire (John Chrysostom fought much weaker emperors and managed to lose...). He threatened to excommunicate Theodosius, not for Arianism- he was a staunch adherent to the Nicene Creed- but for massacring 7,000 Greeks after the Roman governor of Thessalonica was murdered. Also, Ambrose convinced them to further restrict pagan practices.

The altar and ciborium of the Basilica
He died in 397, and named Simplician as his successor. Ambrose's relics are found in the Basilica of St Ambrose in Milan. A style of chant developed in Milan, known as Ambrosian chant; he introduced hymnody from the East and wrote his own hymns. I just received in the mail the beautiful 'Advent at Ephesus' CD from the Benedictines of Mary Queen of the Apostles. The first track is 'Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth,' a translation of one of his hymns.

A rite of the Latin Church, known as the Ambrosian Rite, is named in his honor. Though unlikely to be the exact rite of his time, the principal distinguishing practices probably had developed by then according to St Augustine's Confessions. (Remember, he was baptized by Ambrose.) This seems to stem from his occupation of the Portian basilica in a dispute with the empress as she wanted it for the Arians. Ambrose had the people sing Psalms hymns through the night, and introduced antiphonal singing into the Mass and office in order to rebut the Arian usage of the liturgy. This spread into the Roman Rite over time but its usage remained specific to Milan.

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