07 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (8): 7 December, Saint Ambrose of Milan

Saint Ambrose of Milan baptises Augustine of Hippo (Gozzolini, 1575)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Ambrose of Milan (340-397), who is commemorated in the calendar of many churches on 7 December, is a Doctor of the Church, Bishop of Milan, and strongly influenced Saint Augustine.

Saint Ambrose was born ca 340 in Trier, the child of a noble Roman family. After his father’s death he went to Rome with his mother and brother, and was soon appointed consul with residence at Milan.

He was a highly educated and intellectual man who sought to harmonise Greek and Roman thinking with the Christian faith. At first he was trained as a lawyer, and eventually became the Governor of Milan. Even before his baptism, he used his intellectual gifts to defend Christianity.

While Ambrose was the Governor of Milan, Auxentius was the Bishop of Milan. Auxentius was an excellent public speaker and had a forceful personality, but he was a follower if Arius and accepted the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of Christ.

Although the Council of Nicaea reasserted the Orthodox teachings on the divinity of Christ, Bishop Auxentius clung to Arainism and became notorious for forcing clergy throughout the region to accept the Arian heresy.

When Bishop Auxentius died and the See of Milan fell vacant, it seemed likely that rioting would erupt, because the city was evenly divided between Arians and Athanasians. Ambrose, who had not yet been baptised, went to the meeting where the election was to take place, and appealed to the crowd for order and goodwill on both sides.

But his deep understanding and love of the Christian faith were well-known throughout Milan, and the Milanese mob saw him as the most logical choice to succeed Auxentius as bishop. Although he was still a catechumen, a child’s voice proclaimed Ambrose bishop, and – against his will but with the support of the Emperor Valentinan – he was elected Bishop of Milan with the support of both sides.

Eight days after his baptism, Ambrose received was ordained priest and consecrated bishop on 7 December 374, and this date would eventually become his liturgical feast.

As Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose began his ministry by giving his possessions to the poor and to the Church. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to the study of theology, and looked to the writings of Greek theologians like Saint Basil for help in explaining the traditional teachings of the Church to the people during times of doctrinal confusion.

Like the fathers of the Eastern Church, Saint Ambrose drew from the intellectual reserves of pre-Christian philosophy and literature to make the faith more comprehensible to his hearers. This harmony of faith with other sources of knowledge served to attract, among others, the young professor Aurelius Augustinus – a man Ambrose taught and baptised in 387 and who became known as Saint Augustine of Hippo.

Saint Ambrose lived a simple lifestyle, gave away his wealth, wrote prolifically, preached every Sunday and celebrated the Eucharist each day. He found time to counsel many public officials, those who were inquiring about the faith or who were confused, and penitent sinners.

He resisted the interference of the secular powers in the rights of the Church, opposed heretics, and was instrumental in bringing about the conversion of Augustine. He composed many hymns, promoted sacred chant, and took a great interest in the Liturgy.

By his preaching, he converted his diocese to the Athanasian position, except for the Goths and some members of the Imperial Household. Among those who plotted to remove him from the diocese were the Western Empress Justina and a group of her advisers, who opposed the tenets of the Nicene Creed and sought to impose Arian bishops in Italy. Once, when the Empress ordered him to turn over a church to her Gothic troops so the Arians among them could worship, Ambrose refused, and he and his people occupied the church.

Ambrose composed Latin hymns in the rhythm of “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” and taught them to the people, who sang them in the church as the soldiers surrounded it. The Goths were unwilling to attack a hymn-singing congregation, and Ambrose won that dispute.

Ambrose confronted Maximus, the murderer of the Emperor Gratian. When Maximus refused to do penance, Ambrose excommunicated him.

Saint Ambrose also displayed remarkable courage when he publicly denied Communion to the Emperor Theodosius, who had ordered the massacre of 7,000 people in Thessaloniki. It was on this occasion that allusion was made to King David as a murderer and adulterer, and Ambrose retorted: “You have followed him in sin, now follow him in repentance.” Theodosius accepted the imposed penance humbly.

The chastened emperor took Ambrose’s rebuke to heart, publicly repenting of the massacre and doing penance for the murders. He reconciled himself with the Church and the bishop, who attended the emperor on his deathbed, also spoke at his funeral.

The canticle Te Deum Laudamus (“We praise thee, O God”) was long thought to have been composed by Ambrose in thanksgiving for the conversion of Augustine. He is also said to have been the author of what we now know as the Athanasian Creed.

Ambrose is the first writer of hymns with rhyme and meter, and northern Italy still uses his style of plainchant, known as Ambrosian chant, rather than the more widespread Gregorian chant.

His 23 years in episcopal ministry had turned a deeply troubled diocese into an exemplary outpost of Christianity. His writings remained an important point of reference for the Church, well into the mediaeval era and beyond.

Saint Ambrose died on 4 April 397, but because this date so often falls in Holy Week or Easter Week he is commonly remembered on the anniversary of his consecration as a bishop on 7 December.

The Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Church in Constantinople in 553 named Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine among the foremost “holy fathers” of the Church, whose teaching all bishops should “in every way follow.”

Ambrose is regarded as one of the Eight Great Doctors of the Church. The list includes four Latin Doctors – Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great, and four Greek Doctors – Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

A Prayer of Saint Ambrose:

Lord Jesus Christ, you are for me medicine when I am sick; you are my strength when I need help; you are life itself when I fear death; you are the way when I long for heaven; you are light when all is dark; you are my food when I need nourishment.


O God, who gave your servant Ambrose grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honour 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.


Psalm 27: 5-11 or 33: 1-5, 20-21;
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 2: 7-11, 16-18;
Luke 12: 35-37, 42-44.

Tomorrow (8 December): Richard Baxter.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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