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Ambrose

[am-brohz]
Saint Ambrose (c. 338 – 4 April 397) was a bishop of Milan who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the fourth century. He is counted as one of the four original doctors of the Church.

Life

Worldly career

Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family between about 337 and 340 and was raised in Trier. He was the son of a praetorian prefect of Gallia Narbonensis; his mother was a woman of intellect and piety. Ambrose's siblings, Satyrus (who is the subject of Ambrose's De excessu fratris Satyri) and Marcellina, are also venerated as saints. There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint's symbology.

After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father's career. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetor Anicius Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 made him consular prefect of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then beside Rome the second capital in Italy.

Ambrose was a governor in northern Italy before he became the Bishop of Milan. Ambrose never married.

Bishop of Milan

There was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan as well as the rest of the Church between the pro-Nicenes and the Subordinationists (often wrongly termed 'Arians'.) In 374, Auxentius, bishop of Milan, died, and the Subordinationists challenged the succession. The prefect went personally to the basilica where the election should take place, to prevent an uproar which was probable in this crisis. His address was interrupted by a call "Ambrose for bishop!" which was taken up by others upon which he was univocally elected bishop.

Ambrose was known to be personally pro-Nicene, but also acceptable to Subordinationists due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard. At first he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared: Ambrose was neither baptized nor formally trained in theology. Upon his appointment, St. Ambrose fled to a colleague's home to seek hiding. Upon receiving a letter from the Emperor praising the appropriateness of Rome appointing individuals evidently worthy of holy positions, St. Ambrose's host gave Ambrose up. Within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained and duly installed as bishop of Milan.

As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina, and committed the care of his family to his brother. Saint Ambrose also wrote a treatise by the name of "The Goodness Of Death".

Ambrose and Subordinationists

According to legend, Ambrose immediately and forcefully stopped Arianism in Milan. However, the term 'Arian' is falsely used of his opponents, who were actually Subordinationists, rather than followers of the doctrine of Arius. He moved more realistically and deliberately. At that time Subordinationism dominated especially among the higher levels of society. In his pursuit of the study of theology with Simplician, a presbyter of Rome he was to excel. Using his excellent knowledge of Greek, which was then rare in the West, to his advantage, he studied the Hebrew Bible and Greek authors like Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea, with whom he was also exchanging letters. (See letter of Basil to Ambrose) He applied this knowledge as preacher, concentrating especially on exegesis of the Old Testament, and his rhetorical abilities impressed Augustine of Hippo, who hitherto had thought poorly of Christian preachers.

In the confrontation with Subordinationists, Ambrose sought to theologically refute their propositions, considered as heretical. The Subordinationists appealed to many high level leaders and clergy in both the Western and Eastern empires. Although the western Emperor Gratian held orthodox belief in the Nicene creed, the younger Valentinian, who became his colleague in the empire, adhered to the Subordinationist creed. Ambrose did not sway the young prince's position. In the East, Emperor Theodosius I likewise professed the Nicene creed; but there were many adherents of Subordinationism throughout his dominions, especially among the higher clergy.

In this contested state of religious opinion, two leaders of the Subordinationists, bishops Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidunum, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. This request appeared so equitable that he complied without hesitation. However, Ambrose feared the consequences and prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops. Accordingly, a synod composed of thirty-two bishops was held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined. A vote was then taken, when Palladius and his associate Secundianus were deposed from the episcopal office.

Nevertheless, the increasing strength of the Subordinationists proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 386 the emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially military, professed the Subordinationist faith. They attempted to turn over two churches in Milan, one in the city, the other in the suburbs, to the Subordinationists. Ambrose refused and was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went, his eloquence in defense of the Church reportedly overawed the ministers of Emperor Valentinian, so he was permitted to retire without making the surrender of the churches. The day following, when he was performing divine service in the basilica, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up at least the Portian church in the suburbs. As he still continued obstinate, the court proceeded to violent measures : the officers of the household were commanded to prepare the Basilica and the Portian churches to celebrate divine service upon the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter.

In spite of Imperial opposition, Bishop Ambrose declared:

If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.

Ambrose and emperors

The imperial court was displeased with the religious principles of Ambrose, however his aid was soon solicited by the Emperor. When Magnus Maximus usurped the supreme power in Gaul, and was meditating a descent upon Italy, Valentinian sent Ambrose to dissuade him from the undertaking, and the embassy was successful.

On a second attempt of the same kind Ambrose was again employed; and although he was unsuccessful, it cannot be doubted that, if his advice had been followed, the schemes of the usurper would have proved abortive; but the enemy was permitted to enter Italy; and Milan was taken. Justina and her son fled; but Ambrose remained at his post, and did good service to many of the sufferers by causing the plate of the church to be melted for their relief.

Ambrose was equally zealous in combating the attempt made by the upholders of the old state religion to resist the enactments of Christian emperors. The pagan party was led by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, consul in 391, who presented to Valentinian II a forcible but unsuccessful petition praying for the restoration of the Altar of Victory to its ancient station in the hall of the Roman Senate, the proper support of seven Vestal Virgins, and the regular observance of the other pagan ceremonies.

To this petition Ambrose replied in a letter to Valentinian, arguing that the devoted worshipers of idols had often been forsaken by their deities; that the native valour of the Roman soldiers had gained their victories, and not the pretended influence of pagan priests; that these idolatrous worshipers requested for themselves what they refused to Christians; that voluntary was more honourable than constrained virginity; that as the Christian ministers declined to receive temporal emoluments, they should also be denied to pagan priests; that it was absurd to suppose that God would inflict a famine upon the empire for neglecting to support a religious system contrary to His will as revealed in the Holy Scriptures; that the whole process of nature encouraged innovations, and that all nations had permitted them even in religion; that heathen sacrifices were offensive to Christians; and that it was the duty of a Christian prince to suppress pagan ceremonies. In the epistles of Symmachus and of Ambrose both the petition and the reply are preserved.

To support the logic of his argument, Ambrose halted the celebration of the Eucharist, essentially holding the Christian community hostage, until Theodosius agreed to abort the investigation without requiring reparations to be made by the bishop.

Theodosius I, the emperor of the East, espoused the cause of Justina, and regained the kingdom. Theodosius was threatened with excommunication by Ambrose for the massacre of 7,000 persons at Thessalonica in 390, after the murder of the Roman governor there by rioters. Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt - Ambrose readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist only after several months of penance . This incident shows the strong position of a bishop in the Western part of the empire, even when facing a strong emperor - the controversy of John Chrysostom with a much weaker emperor a few years later in Constantinople led to a crushing defeat of the bishop.

Ambrose's influence upon Theodosius is credited with eliciting the enactment of the "Theodosian decrees" of 391 (see entry Theodosius I).

In 392, after the death of Valentinian II and the acclamation of Eugenius, Ambrose supplicated the emperor for the pardon of those who had supported Eugenius after Theodosius was eventually victorious. Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the Roman empire, Theodosius died at Milan in 395, and two years later (April 4, 397) Ambrose also died. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician. Ambrose's body may still be viewed in the church of S. Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated — along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Sts. Gervase and Protase — and is one of the oldest extant bodies of historical personages known outside Egypt.

Character

Many circumstances in the history of Ambrose are characteristic of the general spirit of the times. The chief causes of his victory over his opponents were his great popularity and the reverence paid to the episcopal character at that period. But it must also be noted that he used several indirect means to obtain and support his authority with the people.

He was liberal to the poor; it was his custom to comment severely in his preaching on the public characters of his times; and he introduced popular reforms in the order and manner of public worship. It is alleged, too, that at a time when the influence of Ambrose required vigorous support, he was admonished in a dream to search for, and found under the pavement of the church, the remains of two martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius. The saints, although they would have had to have been hundreds of years old, looked as if they had just died. The applause of the people was mingled with the derision of the court party.

Theology

Ambrose ranks with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, as one of the Latin Doctors of the Church. Theologians compare him with Hilary, who they claim fell short of Ambrose's administrative excellence but demonstrated greater theological ability. He succeeded as a theologian despite his juridical training and his comparatively late handling of Biblical and doctrinal subjects. His spiritual successor, Augustine, whose conversion was helped by Ambrose's sermons, owes more to him than to any writer except Paul.

Ambrose was a Christian universalist; he believed that all people would eventually achieve salvation. He argued:

Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection in the Apocalypse. 'Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection,' for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved unto the second resurrection, these shall be disciplined until their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection.

It has been noted that Ambrose's theology was significantly influenced by that of Origen and Didymus the Blind, two other early Christian universalists.

Ambrose's intense episcopal consciousness furthered the growing doctrine of the Church and its sacerdotal ministry, while the prevalent asceticism of the day, continuing the Stoic and Ciceronian training of his youth, enabled him to promulgate a lofty standard of Christian ethics. Thus we have the De officiis ministrorum, De viduis, De virginitate and De paenitentia.

Mariology

The powerful mariology of Ambrose of Milan influenced contemporary Popes like Pope Damasus and Siricius and later, Pope Leo the Great. His student Augustine and the Council of Ephesus were equally under his spell. Central to Ambrose is the virginity of Mary and her role as Mother of God.

  • The virgin birth is worthy of God. Which human birth would have been more worthy of God, than the one, in which the Immaculate Son of God maintained the purity of his immaculate origin while becoming human?
  • We confess, that Christ the Lord was born from a virgin, and therefore we reject the natural order of things. Because not from a man she conceived but from the Holy Spirit.
  • Christ is not divided but one. If we adore him as the Son of God, we do not deny his birth from the virgin... But nobody shall extend this to Mary. Mary was the temple of God but not God in the temple. Therefore only the one who was in the temple can be worshipped.
  • Yes, truly blessed for having surpassed the priest (Zechariah). While the priest denied, the Virgin rectified the error. No wonder that the Lord, wishing to rescue the world, began his work with Mary. Thus she, through whom salvation was being prepared for all people, would be the first to receive the promised fruit of salvation.

Ambrose viewed virginity as superior to marriage and saw Mary as the model of virginity He is allegded to have founded an institution for virgins in Rome.

Writings

In matters of exegesis he is, like Hilary, an Alexandrian. In dogma he follows Basil of Caesarea and other Greek authors, but nevertheless gives a distinctly Western cast to the speculations of which he treats. This is particularly manifest in the weightier emphasis which he lays upon human sin and divine grace, and in the place which he assigns to faith in the individual Christian life.

  • De fide ad Gratianum Augustum (On Faith, to Gratian Augustus)
  • De officiis (On the Offices of Ministers, an important ecclesiastical handbook)
  • De Spiritu Sancto (On the Holy Ghost)
  • De incarnationis Dominicae sacramento (On the Sacrament of the Incarnation of the Lord)
  • De mysteriis (On the Mysteries)
  • Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam (Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke)
  • Ethical works: De bono mortis (Death as a Good); De fuga saeculi (Flight From the World); De institutione virginis et sanctae Mariae virginitate perpetua ad Eusebium (On the Birth of the Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary); De Nabuthae (On Naboth); De paenitentia (On Repentance); De paradiso (On Paradise); De sacramentis (On the Sacraments); De viduis (On Widows); De virginibus (On Virgins); De virginitate (On Virginity); Exhortatio virginitatis (Exhortation to Virginity); De sacramento regenerationis sive de philosophia (On the Sacrament of Rebirth, or, On Philosophy [fragments])
  • Homiletic commentaries on the Old Testament: the Hexaemeron (Six Days of Creation); De Helia et ieiunio (On Elijah and Fasting); De Iacob et vita beata (On Jacob and the Happy Life); De Abraham; De Cain et Abel; De Ioseph (Joseph); De Isaac vel anima (On Isaac, or The Soul); De Noe (Noah); De interpellatione Iob et David (On the Prayer of Job and David); De patriarchis (On the Patriarchs); De Tobia (Tobit); Explanatio psalmorum (Explanation of the Psalms); Explanatio symboli (Commentary on the Symbol).
  • De obitu Theodosii; De obitu Valentiniani; De excessu fratris Satyri (funeral orations)
  • 91 letters
  • A collection of hymns
  • Fragments of sermons
  • Ambrosiaster or the "pseudo-Ambrose" is a brief commentary on Paul's Epistles, which was long attributed to Ambrose.

Church music

Ambrose is traditionally credited but not actually known to have composed any of the repertory of Ambrosian chant also known simply as "chant, a method of chanting, or one side of the choir alternately responding to the other, much as the later pope St. Gregory I the Great is not known to have composed any Gregorian chant, the plainsong or "Romish chant. However, Ambrosian chant was named in his honor due to his contributions to the music of the Church; he is credited with introducing hymnody from the Eastern Church into the West. Catching the impulse from Hilary and confirmed in it by the success of Arian psalmody, Ambrose composed several original hymns as well, four of which still survive, along with music which may not have changed too much from the original melodies. Each of these hymns has eight four-line stanzas and is written in strict iambic dimeter (that is 2 x 2 iambs). Marked by dignified simplicity, they served as a fruitful model for later times.

In his writings, Ambrose refers only to the performance of antiphonal psalms, in which solo singing of psalm verses alternated with a congregational refrain called an antiphon.

St. Ambrose was also traditionally credited with composing the hymn Te Deum, which he is said to have composed when he baptised Saint Augustine, his celebrated convert.

Ambrose and reading

Ambrose is the subject of a curious anecdote in Augustine's Confessions which bears on the history of reading:
When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

This is a celebrated passage in modern scholarly discussion. The practice of reading to oneself without vocalizing the text was less common in antiquity than it has since become. In a culture that set a high value on oratory and public performances of all kinds, in which the production of books was very labor-intensive, the majority of the population was illiterate, and where those with the leisure to enjoy literary works also had slaves to read for them, written texts were more likely to be seen as scripts for recitation than as vehicles of silent reflection. However, there is also abundant evidence that silent reading did occur in antiquity and that it was not usually regarded as freakish.

Ambrose and celibacy

Ambrose is yet again the subject of a curious anecdote in Augustine's Confessions which bears on the history of celibacy:
Ambrose himself I esteemed a happy man, as the world counted happiness, because great personages held him in honor. Only his celibacy appeared to me a painful burden.

Not until the fifth century in the West did celibacy come to be widely regarded as a requirement for all higher ranks of clergy; even then, and for long afterward, the rule was not generally enforced. To make celibacy a condition for full Christian profession by one who did not expect to take holy orders was even more extreme.

Further reading

  • Hexameron, De paradiso, De Cain, De Noe, De Abraham, De Isaac, De bono mortis – ed. C. Schenkl 1896, Vol. 32/1
  • De Iacob, De Ioseph, De patriarchis, De fuga saeculi, De interpellatione Iob et David, De apologia prophetae David, De Helia, De Nabuthae, De Tobia – ed. C. Schenkl 1897, Vol. 32/2
  • Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam – ed. C. Schenkl 1902, Vol. 32/4

· Expositio de psalmo CXVIII – ed. M. Petschenig 1913, Vol. 62; editio altera supplementis aucta – cur. M. Zelzer 1999

  • Explanatio super psalmos XII – ed. M. Petschenig 1919, Vol. 64; editio altera supplementis aucta – cur. M. Zelzer 1999
  • Explanatio symboli, De sacramentis, De mysteriis, De paenitentia, De excessu fratris Satyri, De obitu Valentiniani, De obitu Theodosii – ed. Otto Faller 1955, Vol. 73
  • De fide ad Gratianum Augustum – ed. Otto Faller 1962, Vol. 78
  • De spiritu sancto, De incarnationis dominicae sacramento – ed. Otto Faller 1964, Vol. 79
  • Epistulae et acta – ed. Otto Faller (Vol. 82/1: lib. 1-6, 1968); Otto Faller, M. Zelzer (Vol. 82/2: lib. 7-9, 1982); M. Zelzer (Vol. 82/3: lib. 10, epp. extra collectionem. gesta concilii Aquileiensis, 1990); Indices et addenda – comp. M. Zelzer, 1996, Vol. 82/4

Several of Ambrose's works have recently been published in the bilingual Latin-German Fontes Christiani series (currently edited by Brepols).

Several religious brotherhoods which have sprung up in and around Milan at various times since the 14th century have been called Ambrosians. Their connection to Ambrose is tenuous-->

Notes

External links

References

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