Saint of the Week: St. Ambrose of Milan

I had been tempted to continue the Scotland-related theme, but St. Ambrose’s feast was yesterday, so I couldn’t pass over this one.

If you had been in Milan in the year 390 while the August Emperor Theodosius I was there, you would have noticed something peculiar about the Emperor’s behaviour at the divine liturgy: he did not receive the sacrament.  Of course, the truly remarkable fact is that Theodosius was receiving it by Christmastide, for he had been excommunicated by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, for massacring up to 7000 people in Thessalonica (according to Theodoret of Cyrus, but who can be sure with the figures of ancient historians?) in the middle of the year.  The rehabilitation of someone so soon after penance for so great a crime was not common in the ancient world.

St. Ambrose and Theodosius by van Dyck

This event is one of the most famous events of an illustrious career, and it shows us how powerful St. Ambrose (340-397) was, for he secured the penitence of the emperor for an act akin to what many an emperor before and after had perpetrated.

Yet when we consider the Italy of the late fourth century, then the Bishop of Milan is an easy choice for the role of ‘powerful man,’ for by this stage, the emperors were not regularly living at Rome.  Constantine had spent much of his early reign in Trier, and had later moved to Constantinople.  This trend continued with the most popular western choices falling to Milan and Ravenna.

Furthermore, the papacy in Rome, where many of us would expect to find at least a very influential bishop, was in a bit of hot water in these days.  366 had seen the great low point of the ancient bishopric of Rome, when a contested episcopal election led the deaths of around 160 people within a basilica.  It would take St. Leo the Great (read about him here and here) to raise the papacy to the heights that its dignity as a patriarchal see required.

With the papacy in disarray, and Milan one of the most powerful cities in the Empire, the rising star of St. Ambrose strikes me as almost to be expected.  This is especially the case when we consider his outstanding talents.

St. Ambrose, according to his biographer Paulinus, had no great intention of becoming an ecclesiastic.  His was a standard career for many aristocratic Romans ever since someone inscribed the Twelve Tables of Roman law (c. 450 BC): that of advocate/lawyer.  And what is a lawyer in the ancient world but a great orator?

But this orator was everyone’s choice when the see of Milan became vacant, so he reluctantly left behind the lawcourts and was duly ordained then consecrated bishop of Milan.  We know that he was well-skilled in oratory not only from the wealth of homilies he left us but also from the testimony of St. Augustine of Hippo who held the chair of rhetoric in Milan for a while, who would go to church just to hear St. Ambrose preach.

St. Augustine also demonstrates St. Ambrose’s ability to communicate the truths of the Gospel, not simply beautiful orations, for it was through this saint’s sermons that St. Augustine was converted, and it was by the Bishop of Milan that he was baptised.  For some, this is all they know of St. Ambrose of Milan.

I heard somewhere (this is officially hearsay) that upon his election to the episcopate, St. Ambrose melted down a large quantity of the Church’s flatware and gave to the poor.  If this is true, then we see his concern for the evangelical injunctions to help the poor.  Worship is not only what goes on in the liturgy.

Of course, worship certainly includes what goes on in the liturgy!  It is here that we see more of St. Ambrose’s genius, for he wrote many hymns and has a style of chant and an entire liturgical use named after him.  But more on that tomorrow.

Another aspect of Ambrose’s force and sheer awesomeness is his relentless attack on Arianism.  He preached against it; he wrote the Emperor Gratian his On the Faith concerning what orthodoxy believes; he did his best to keep Arians away from the emperors and out of bishoprics, especially after Theodosius declared orthodoxy the only orthodoxy allowed in 381.

This attitude towards Arianism and the establishment of orthodoxy is parallelled in his attitude towards pagans & Jewish people and the establishment of Christianity.  He was involved in a letter-writing campaign against Symmachus, Rome Prefect and one of the last great pagans, who wanted to reinstall the Altar of Victory in the Senate House.  Symmachus’ case may have been as much about tradition and culture as about paganism.  Ambrose’s was as much about Christianity as it was about what he believed a Christian emperor should endorse.

This question of Christian-imperial endorsement also explains his chastising of Theodosius regarding the emperor’s shelling out coin for the rebuilding of a synagogue.  This was not a matter of ‘Jews are bad; don’t do stuff for Jews,’ as so much else in the ancient Christian world was, but, rather, a matter of, ‘Jews aren’t Christians.  You are a Christian emperor.  The role of the Christian emperor is to build churches, not synagogues.’  One could argue with that logic, but it was a logic informed by religion and an increasingly Christianised sense of civic duty rather than by racism.*

Ambrose was a man of many talents: an orator, a poet, a politician, a lawyer, a liturgist, a letter-writer, a theologian.  He was able to bring the emperor to repentance.  He was able to convert pagan philosophers.  He truly belongs with the other three ancient doctors of the western church, with St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great.

*There are explicit cases of racism in late-ancient Christianity.  Or at least, the closest thing the ancient world gets to racism, given that their concept of ‘race’ is not the same as ours.

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2 thoughts on “Saint of the Week: St. Ambrose of Milan

  1. I found your blog today, thanks to your reference to Theodoret. (I have a google alert set for Theodoret of Cyrus.) I would like to congratulate you on your good work, and wish you well in your future doctoral studies.

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