Feast of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan
O God, you gave your servant Ambrose grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name: Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Ambrose was born in the year 337 to a Christian family. His father, Aurelius, was Prefect of Gaul, governing all of Britain, France, Spain,Portugal, part of Germany, and the islands of Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily. His father’s palace was in Trier, Germany, but his mother had a palace in Rome. Ambrose spent part of the year in Germany and part in Rome. According to his biographer, Paulinus, the pope and other important bishops used to visit his mother’s palace regularly. One day the ladies of the house were kissing the hands of the bishops, and young Ambrose, holding out his hand, mocked them and said, “You should do the same for me since I am going to be a bishop.” He was very close to his siblings, Marcellina and Satyrus. When his sister Marcellina took a vow of virginity, he did the same, and both Ambrose and Satyrus followed in their father’s footsteps, studying literature, law, and rhetoric in Rome and they both served as barristers in the Court of the Praetorian Prefect of Italy. They were both appointed Prefects.
Ambrose was appointed Prefect of the province of Aemilia-Liguria in Upper Italy, with its headquarters in Milan. Ambrose was a good administrator and a popular governor. In the year 374, Auxentius, the bishop of Milan, died. The Church in Milan was divided between those who were loyal to the Nicene Creed and those who supported the ideas of Arius. The Nicene and Arian parties of the Church in Milan prepared to fight for their particular candidates to be elected bishop. We’ve talked before about how the people of that era would actually fight and come to blows over theology and dogma, and the situation in Milan threatened to turn violent. Ambrose, the prefect, went to the basilica in Milan to try to prevent an uproar. He spoke to those gathered at the basilica and he didn’t take sides in the dispute. Suddenly someone shouted “Ambrose for bishop!” The cry was taken up by others and Ambrose was elected bishop. He was not interested in the position, plus, he wasn’t even a baptized Christian, let alone clergy! He pushed his way out of the cathedral and headed back to his palace. He figured that if he proved himself to be as cruel and evil as the Emperor Valentinian. He ordered some prisoners to be tortured, figuring that this would convince the people that they had made a mistake in their choice, but the crowed followed him around Milan, saying, “Your sin be on us!” He invited Women of Loose Virtue to his palace, yet the crowd still shouted “Your sin be on us!” Then he told them that he was going to retire from the world and become a hermit, but no one was buying it. Finally, he decided to make a break for it and snuck out the side door of the palace late one night to escape. It was a moonless night and he took the wrong road and got lost. In the morning he discovered his mistake; he was entering Milan through the Roman gate. This time he was kept under “Palace Arrest;” a guard kept watch while a messenger was sent to Valentinian, explaining what was going on and requesting an imperial seal on the people’s decision. Valentinan probably had his reasons for getting Ambrose out of the position of Prefect, and so he sent a fast courier to give the Christians of Milan his assent to Ambrose’s episcopacy. However, Ambrose had made another break for it and was hiding at his friend, Leontius’ country house. The Pope got involved and ordered that anyone harboring Ambrose must, under pain of severe punishment, give him up immediately (which was the Christian thing to do, of course!). That was too much for Leontius, who turned his good buddy Ambrose in to the authorities. Ambrose was arrested and led back to Milan under armed guard.
Ambrose’ elevation to bishop took place over six days. First, he was baptized, then moved through the minor orders: appointed to doorkeeper one day; the next day appointed Lector; the following day appointed to the office of exorcist; the next day he became a subdeacon. On the last three days he was ordained deacon, priest, and finally, bishop. No one had ever risen through the ranks so quickly!
Ambrose was very interested in relics, and one of the first acts of his episcopacy was to write Bishop Basil of Caesarea to request that the remains of St. Dionysius be brought to the cathedral in Milan. Basil agreed, and sent along a letter with the relics which called Ambrose a man of noble birth, of high office, of lofty character, of astonishing eloquence. Ambrose also searched for relics in Milan, checking the martyrologies and it is claimed that he discovered the relics of saints Gervasius and Protasius, who had been martyred by Nero, and also saint Nazarius, as well as saints Agricola and Vitalis, whose remains he discovered on a visit to Bologna.
Ambrose cared for the poor. In order to insure that the poor were cared for, he often sold the churches gold-plated vessels. When the Arians accused him of sacrilege for these actions, he responded, “which do you consider more valuable, church vessels or living souls?” He lived simply and fasted often as a means of saving money for the diocese. He had already given away his own inheritance to help the poor, and he couldn’t understand why wealthy Christians didn’t do the same. When his brother Satyrus died without leaving a will, Ambrose and his sister Marcellina inherited the fortune. They sold all of it and used the proceeds to help the poor. Satyrus’ death put Ambrose into a depression, which he decided to cure through work and study. He wasn’t much of a reader before, but after Satyrus death he began to study and read and write. Because he could read and write Greek, which was unusual for those in the West at that time, he was able to study the Christian scriptures in their original language, as well as the writings of Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea. His rhetorical skills enabled him to be a great preacher, and his preaching and theological discussions helped bring about the conversion of Augustine of Hippo. Ambrose was a great theologian, and he was also a poet and composer of music. In fact, five hymns in the 1940 Hymnal and eleven hymns in the 1982 Hymnal are attributed to him.
Ambrose had a full, active, and fulfilling episcopacy. He interacted with popes and emperors and never stopped caring for the poor. The winter of the year 396 was a difficult winter for him, as he was slowly dying. He had many secretaries who stayed next to his bed as he whispered his commentaries and letters and sermons. His chief secretary and biographer, Paulinus wrote that one day he saw a flame shaped like a small shield covering Ambrose’s head. Ambrose then sucked the flame down into his mouth and his face became dead white for a few minutes. Everyone in Italy was praying for Ambrose’s recovery; even the Regent, Stilicho, had issued an imperial order which read Ambrose must recover. The Regent said, “When Ambrose dies we shall see the ruin of Italy.” When Ambrose heard this, he said, “I have not so lived among you as to be ashamed to live on’ but I am not afraid to die, for our Lord is good.” A few days before he died he said that he saw Jesus coming to get him, sitting by his bedside. He lay with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross and prayed for several days. He died the day before Easter on April 4, 397, at the age of 58. He was bishop of Milan for twenty-three years and four months.