22 June 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
44, 22 June 2024

The icon of Saint Ambrose in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow is the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IV, 23 June 2024). The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (22 June) remembers Saint Alban (ca 250), first Martyr of Britain.

Before today begins (21 June 2024), I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

Saint Ambrose’s right hand raised in blessing and his left hand holding the Bible … a detail in the icon of Saint John the Forerunner in the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Matthew 6: 24-34 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 24 “No one can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the gentiles who seek all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

An icon of Saint Ambrose near the church door in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 7: Saint Ambrose of Milan:

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates facing the people is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

The church in Stony Stratford is dedicated to Saint Ambrosios (Ambrose) and Saint Stylianos, and both saints are depicted in the new iconostasis in the church.

Saint Ambrose (339-397) is a Doctor of the Church, Bishop of Milan, and strongly influenced Saint Augustine. He was born in Trier into an aristocratic Roman family. After his father’s death he went to Rome with his mother and brother. He was trained as a lawyer, and was appointed the governor of northern Italy, with his headquarters in Milan.

He was a highly educated and intellectual man who sought to harmonise Greek and Roman thinking with the Christian faith. 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 of 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 Arianism 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 the Arians and the 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 Valentinian – he was elected Bishop of Milan with the support of both sides.

Eight days after his baptism, Ambrose was ordained priest and consecrated bishop on 7 December 374, a date that eventually became 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 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.’

The chastened Theodosius 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 and 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 Greek Orthodox Community of Milton Keynes was founded on 7 December 1989.

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.

The three icons to the right on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict (from left) Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Forerunner and Saint Ambrosios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 22 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘Windrush Day.’ This theme was introduced last Sunday with reflections by the Right Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Bishop of Croydon.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Saturday 22 June 2024, Windrush Day) invites us to pray:

We pray for the Windrush generation and their descendants. We acknowledge who they are, their gifts, culture, and talents. We thank You for the many contributions they have made to our society, and we pray a blessing over them and their generations.

The Collect:

Eternal Father,
when the gospel of Christ first came to our land
you gloriously confirmed the faith of Alban
by making him the first to win a martyr’s crown:
grant that, following his example,
in the fellowship of the saints
we may worship you, the living God,
and give true witness to Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr Alban:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the eve of Trinity IV:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford, with the central doors open during the Divine Liturgy, and with the icon of Saint Ambrose at the right end of the icons (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Last Saturday’s introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Saint Ambrose among seven Fathers of the Church above the south door of Lichfield Cathedral (from left): Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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