Ambrose of Milan 339 – 397

In 04 Post-Nicean Fathers on 2011/12/13 at 2:09 AM

Ambrose was not a large man in size, but huge in courage and integrity.   His times were confused and violent, and he stood firmly against evil and was a superb administrator who strengthened the Church, administering his diocese with unusual ability.

Originally a professional military man, he later became the civil governor of Milan.  When the bishop of Milan died the people clamored to have Ambrose as their bishop, crying out:  “Ambrose, bishop!”

His first act as bishop was to give all his lands and money to the poor after making secure the living of his maiden sister.

Ambrose was aware he needed to increase his knowledge of theology and dedicated himself to intensive study of the Scriptures and the writings of the Nicean fathers.  His learning would eventually gain Ambrose the title of Doctor of the Church.

Ambrose was an unsual teaching bishop. At the request of his sister, Ambrose created a manual for the people which was a collection of his sermons on the topic of virginity a virtue when chosen for the love of God.  Monica, the mother of Augustine of Hippo introduced her son to Ambrose. Augustine found Ambrose to be “a man affectionate and kind”.  They became very good friends.  Ambrose’s sermons moved Augustine deeply.  Ambrose baptized Augustine, and this great convert of Ambrose was to be a dominant voice in the Church for the next thirty years. Ambrose combined firmness in matters of God’s.  He was a model of  warmth, moderation, and generosity. Trusted by sovereigns, loved by the people, Ambrose was to quote Augustine’s words after their first meeting—”a man affectionate and kind.”

The Western portion of the Roman empire was in danger and its doom surged in the horizon.  In the East, Ambrose of Milan fought a dramatic battle with the emperor.   Theodosius the Great had made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.  However, he needed to be sanctioned and made for face the reality of the massacre in the stadium in Thessalonica for which he was responsible.  Ambrose was to Theodosius what Nathan was to David. The Emperor repented and did penance. The Emperor went to Rome where under the guidance of  Benedict, he donned the habit of the Benedictines and entered Monte Cassino.

Ambrose said: “If a bishop is to be taught by a layman, what will follow? Let the layman argue, and the bishop listen; let the bishop learn from the layman…In matters of faith the bishops are accustomed to judge Christian emperors, and not emperors of bishops.”

Ambrose could be said to embody the Western Churchʼs attitude towards the state.  He made a strict distinction between what was Caesar’s and what was Godʼs, insisting upon the Churchʼs autonomy in sacred matters.

In the East, the Throne and the Altar were closely connected.  The ruler considered himself God’s instrument, but the difference between Ambrose’s view and the view of the ruler indicated the great and every growing cultural differences between the two halves of the Empire.

In the violence and confusion of his time, he stood out courageously resisting evil, strengthening the Church and administering it with extraordinary ability.  The whole structure of the Roman empire was collapsing.

The regent of the empire at the time of Ambrose’s impending death said: “When Ambrose is gone, the ruin of Italy will not be far off.”  He sent delegates to ask Ambrose to pray for his own life, but Ambrose said to the delegates: “I have not so lived among you as to be ashamed to live, not yet do I fear to die; for we have a kind Lord.” He was only 57 and had served his flock well for over two decades.

Ambrose knew that he would die at Easter time and prepared himself for his imminent death by composing a treatise “The Goodness of Death” and an interpretation of Psalm 43. On Good Friday, he received the last rites and died Easter eve.  Receiving the last sacraments on Good Friday, he died on Easter eve 397.

Ambrose’s numberous and diverse writings influenced the growth and development of the Church. While most of the Church Fathers wrote in Greek, Ambrose was the first of the Fathers to use Latin effectively. This was instrumental in the preservation of this classical language, transforming it into the service of the Christianity at the time of the collapse of the empire and the subsequent difficult times for the Christian Church.  The seven hymns he wrote in Latin are still part of the liturgy and he is remembered for his enrichment of Church music.

One of his writings reveals much to us about him.  He wrote: “To us, Christ is all: if you are wounded, he is the doctor; if you are oppressed, he is justice; if you are in need of help, he is strength; if you fear death, he is the way; if you are in darkness, he is light. Taste and see how good is the Lord; blessed is the person who hopes in Him.”


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