Jerome on the Seraphim in Isaiah 6

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I have before my the Isaiah volume of The Church’s Bible, edited by Robert Louis Wilken, a commentary that uses the ancient and medieval sources as a guide to interpretation (like the more famous Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture but, in my opinion, easier to use/read). Here we read from St Jerome’s commentary:

In Hebrew there is some ambiguity whether the pronoun his refers to God or to each seraph. For this reason, it is difficult to determine whether the seraphim were covering their own faces and feet or whether they were covering the face and feet of God. (p. 69)

Jerome, in this instance, takes us back to where we started with Ambrose last time. He goes on to interpret the veiling of God’s face and feet in the same way that, had we continued with Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan also does:

This veiling indicates that we cannot know what happened in the past before the creation of the world and what will happen in the future after the end of the world. Don’t be surprised that some things are veiled to the seraphim, for the apostles revealed the Savior to those who believed, but hid him from unbelievers. Furthermore, there was a veil before the ark of the covenant. (p. 70)

We’ll take a quick look at what the authors in this commentary tell us about the beatific vision shortly…

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St Ambrose on Scripture

2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper's House, Toronto
2-volume 19th-century Bible, The Tollkeeper’s House, Toronto

I missed getting this post out time for Advent 2 — called ‘Bible Sunday’ in some circles because the Book of Common Prayer’s collect (at the bottom of this post) is a masterpiece about Scripture. Here’s a bit of St Ambrose for you:

The Divine Scripture is a sea, containing in it deep meanings, and an abyss of prophetic mysteries; and into this sea enter many rivers. There are Sweet and transparent streams, cool fountains too there are, springing up into life eternal, and pleasant words as an honey-comb. Agreeable sentences too there are, refreshing the minds of the hearers, if I may say so, with spiritual drink, and soothing them with the sweetness of their moral precepts. Various then are the streams of the sacred Scriptures. There is in them a first draught for you, a second, and a last. (Letter 2.3: To Constantius, A Newly Appointed Bishop)

Taken from the blog Classical Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy for Today.

My previous Bible Sunday posts:

Some Cassiodorus for “Bible Sunday”

In light of Bible Sunday … (a catena of quotations)

Happy Bible Sunday!

The Collect for Advent 2:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.  

Monday of Holy Week: A Hymn of St Ambrose

Iam surgit hora tertia

Now dawns the third hour of the day,
the hour when Christ mounted the cros;
let our minds harbor no proud thought,
but foster eagerness for prayer.

He who takes Christ into his heart
controls his thoughts all free of blame;
by constant prayers deserves to win
the Holy Spirit’s presence there.

This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.

From that time on our blessed days
began, through merit of Christ’s grace;
through all the world the truth of faith
has filled the churches everywhere.

He on high from his triumph’s peak
addressed his mother with these words:
“O mother, here behold your son”;
to John: “Behold your mother here,”

Thus teaching that her bridal pact
concealed this mystery profound:
the virgin’s sacred birth would not
impair the mother’s chastity.

Jesus, by heavenly miracles,
provided proof that this was so.
The impious mob withheld belief;
he who belived will sure be saved.

We do believe the birth of God,
sprung from the sacred virgin’s womb;
he bore the sins of all the world,
and now sits at his Father’s right.

-St Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), trans. P G Walsh with Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns, pp. 9-11

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)
Mid-14th c. French ivory diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

The Duomo of Milan and the poor

Milan’s cathedral, or Duomo, is a grand sight. It is a shining white, marble beacon of Gothic beauty in a foggy, greyish-hued city. Within, it is filled with beautiful works of art, carvings in stone and wood, stained glass, paintings on canvas hung alongside the nave. A nail from the True Cross is in the Duomo’s cross high above.

The place fills one with wonder. The Gothic nature of much of the space persistently draws the eyes upward, and the grace of so much of the Roman-style Renaissance architecture keeps the observer in good cheer.

The worship is beautiful in the Latin-Italian modernish Ambrosian rite, with incense, robes, choir, acolytes, deacons, priests, bishops. The devotion of the faithful lighting candles and kneeling in prayer at side altars make one wish more Protestants were so obviously pious — and that more Catholics were as well!

This building — which is surely the largest place I have ever been barring the Skydome or Air Canada Centre, with its expansive floor below and high vaults above — was begun in 1387. Santa Maria Maggiore, the old Romanesque cathedral, was demolished, though the original facade was initially incorporated in the new structure, and a new, glorious building was begun. The final touches on this building, primarily on its Neo-Gothic (Gothic Revival?) facade were added in the 19th century.

A lot of beauty. If you’re the sort of person who is drawn to the worship of God through the arts and through architecture, this is one of your places.

But a lot of money, right?

People often complain about places like this. They say that the Church wasted so much of its money building huge cathedrals when it could have been feeding the poor. If you go to the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio here, you do wonder a little at how St. Ambrose, famous for melting the Milanese church’s silver to redeem Christian slaves, would feel about the number of gold and silver vessels when there are hungry mouths abroad in the streets of Mediolanum to this day.

In response, people usually point out that the Church has fed many poor, built many hospitals, trained many jobless people, and so forth, marching through history. How many hospitals are named St. Joseph’s? Or what about the nuns a friend of mine volunteers with, giving food and friendship to the homeless of Edinburgh?

I would like to point out something else.

The Duomo in Milan did help the poor. And I don’t mean by providing them with the spiritual benefit of so lovely a building. I mean by providing them with what poor people need most: good, solid work.

Work for: the quarrymen who got the marble out of the earth; the people who dug the canals and worked on the canals and maintained them; the people who shipped the marble; the masons who shaped the marble and put it into place; the architects who designed the structure; the artists who made statues, paintings, stained glass; silversmiths who made chalices and patens and processional crosses; ditto goldsmiths; beekeepers who made beeswax for the candles; the people involved in linen production; and all the other varieties of tradespeople involved in the building of a mediaeval/Renaissance/Baroque/19th-century cathedral.

The Duomo provided them with work. Those men and women who work at maintaining and restoring the Duomo through the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano also get work from the Duomo. The Duomo draws visitors to Milan, thus making hundreds of businesses, small and large, succeed, producing many jobs, skilled and unskilled. And when these businesses and jobs succeed, so do others.

So, yes, the Duomo cost a lot of money. But without it, there would have been more poor folk for the past 600 years than otherwise.

Too Awesome Not to Share

The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.

Who is the rich man who will be saved?

There is abroad today a pernicious pestilence that believes that, while not every rich man is saved, every man who is saved is rich, for Christ came to give us, of all things, material prosperity.

As in, stuff. Good health, nice car, pure-bred dog, big house, ridiculously expensive clothes.

All you need is faith.  If you trust in Jesus, your problems of health and wealth will go away. If you see a big house on a hill, don’t say, “Too bad I’ll never live there.” No, indeed, according to Joel Osteen, that is the thought-life of defeat. You need, instead, to say, “I will live there.” Put your faith in God that He will provide you with the house. And He will.

This is the sort of idea one would expect, say, Charlemagne to comfortable with. I’m pretty sure that King of the Franks attributed his military success to the favour of God (and possibly the turning of the Wheel! of! Fortune!). And I’m certain the William the Bastard (aka Conqueror) directly attributed his conquest of England to God’s favour. The successors of Mohammed were known to say, do, and think similar things.

Of course, this isn’t the Middle Ages, anymore. So the modern prosperity heretic instead says that God will give you a big house and a nice car, not the better portion of Germany or North Africa. Same falsehood, new guise.

I’m being blunter than usual. This is because this teaching, this so-called “Prosperity Gospel” or “Health and Wealth Gospel” is pernicious and terrible and, quite frankly, pisses me off. And that’s righteous pissed-offness, if you’re wondering.

There are two issues we need to address here, my friends. One is: What is the “biblical” (orthodox? true?) view of wealth? What is the “b”(o?t?) view of salvation?

When trying to figure out a proper Christian view of something, the best place to start is not only the Bible, but the words of Jesus therein. What does Jesus say about wealth?

The core text for Jesus and money is Mark 10:17-31. This is the famous story of the Rich Young Ruler, a guy who wants to know how to be saved. Having told Jesus that he was good at fulfilling the law, he’s told that he lacks one thing: selling all his possessions and giving to the poor. If he were to do that, then he could go and follow Jesus.

Wait. According to Joel Osteen and his ilk, following Jesus makes me rich. But according to Jesus, this particular person should, necessarily, be poor. This doesn’t add up. I can understand people who rationalise this commandment, arguing that rich people can be saved, even if it be more difficult than a camel traversing the eye of a needle. The earliest known account of this is St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who wrote the beautiful treatise from which I stole this post’s name (at CCEL).

St. Clement demonstrates the uneasiness early Christian had with wealth, but encourages the wealthy to salvation nonetheless:

let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy.

And also:

a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened.

St. Clement’s treatise encourages all Christians to live lives of virtue, seeking the wealth and riches of good deeds and pure hearts rather than the temporal wealth of the world. And well he should, for the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

But wait, if we are only to serve God and not Mammon (Mt. 6:24), should we be desiring a bigger house, a nicer car, a bigger paycheque? Isn’t this just serving two masters (also Mt. 6:24)? And doesn’t it sound a lot like the Law of Attraction (The Secret)? And what about all that stuff about having your treasure in heaven? I’m not so sure Jesus will make us wealthy. In fact, as we’ll see in a later post, Jesus promises us something quite … different.

Rationalisations of Clement’s that allow Christians to have wealth usually work on me. This is no big surprise, since I am, on a global scale, wealthy. So, probably, are you. However, when we see Jesus has lots of things to say about money — and actual money, parables not counting as they are analogical and allegorical — I get a little worried. Maybe you should worry, too:

whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Happy 400th Birthday, KJV!)

I think Mr. Osteen has found a way to pack the pews, but not the path of righteousness.

If the evidence of the Fathers well allowable (I mean, besides St. Clement), the verdict against the Prosperity Gospel would be damning, for many of them were ascetics. St. Antony heard the call from Matthew’s version of the Rich Young Ruler and went and became a hermit. Similar stories for the rest of the Desert Fathers, really. The great theologian of the Trinity, St. Basil, was an ascetic as well. So was St. Augustine of Hippo. And St. Ambrose. Really, do I need to list them all? I know that sometimes the Fathers have wacky ideas, but I don’t think, “Lead a disciplined life and seek Christ through prayer and fasting — and avoid accumulating stuff,” is amongst them …

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba.  Since then, the list has grown considerably.  Most of them get the big ST, but not all.  The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us.  Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.

We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians.  We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox.  Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs.  All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.

My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar.  Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic.  Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.

Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always.  Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching.  Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint.  I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless!  Enjoy!

There are no women.  This is too bad.  I should fix this.  I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week.  She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011.  Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here)

St. John of the Cross

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Albert Lacombe

St. John the Baptist

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Matthias the Apostle

St. Boniface

St. Augustine of Canterbury

St. Anthony of Padua

Emperor Constantine the Great

St. Athanasius

Dante Alighieri

St. George the Dragonslayer

George MacDonald

Thomas Cranmer

St. Cuthbert

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John Wesley (here & here)

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Valentine

St. Antony the Great

St. Jean de Brebeuf

St. Francis of Assisi

Hans Egede

St. Juvenaly of Alaska

Edmund James Peck

St. John of Damascus

Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Maximilian Kolbe

CS Lewis

St. Alban the Martyr

Sts. Peter and Paul

St. Basil the Great

St. Columba

Saint of the Week: Leo the Great

In the year AD 440, the Archdeacon of Rome was away in Gaul on a diplomatic mission.  While he was there, the Bishop of Rome, St. Sixtus III, passed away.  Despite the fact that he wasn’t there, the powers that be in Rome elected the absent Archdeacon as Bishop.  They waited patiently for his return.  He thanked them for this patience in his accession speech.  This archdeacon was Leo I, the Great.

I have chosen Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461; see my review of Leo the Great as well) because he is a big part of my life right now, and hopefully this state of affairs will continue for the next three and a half years.  I have also chosen him because tomorrow is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the day we remember the coming of God as a man approximately 2000 years ago, and St. Leo was a theologian of the Incarnation.

We have scant knowledge about Leo before his election to the papacy.  We know that he was Archdeacon in the 430’s when he commissioned my friend John Cassian (this post gives a list of my major posts about Cassian) to write On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius (my thochts on that here).  He may also have been involved in the Roman See’s actions concerning the Pelagian Controversy.  The fact that he commissioned Cassian’s anti-Nestorian work lets us know that in the decade before his rise to the throne of Peter, St. Leo was involved in the Christological controversies sparked in the East by Nestorius in 428.

Thus, he was already a student of theology by the time he became pope.  As Bishop of Rome, he changed the previously un-preachy* nature of the Roman episcopacy (taking his cue from our friend St. Ambrose) and began a cycle of preaching that followed the church year, with at least fifteen occasions throughout the year, including the Advent fast, the Nativity, Lent, the Pasch, ultimately Pentecost, the Feast of St. Laurence, the anniversary of his elevation to the Roman See, and other liturgical moments (see the CCEL for translations of a number of these).

These sermons are explications of the feasts/fasts and the theological underpinnings of the remembrance at hand.  In his Advent and Christmas sermons, St. Leo explicates in wondrous beauty the necessity and nature of the Incarnation — a birth “wondrously singular and singularly wondrous” — for our salvation from sin, death, and the devil.  The peroration, or conclusion, of each sermon exhorts the people of Rome to virtuous action; he wants to help them see that being a Christian is the same as being a good Roman.  He also takes aim at heretics in his sermons, at times Manichees, who had a presence in Rome, at times Eutyches, at times Nestorius.

If you read these sermons, and I encourage you to, you see that St. Leo was a theologian with a pastor’s heart.  No, actually, he was a pastor with a theologian’s insight.  He demonstrated for the edification of his congregation the theology and action necessary for a healthy Christian life.  He also emphasized strongly, contra the now-deceased Bishop of Hippo Regius, the will of God to save all mankind.  The question of how it therefore comes about that God happens not to save all mankind is not fully treated in Leo’s corpus.

In the letters, we see Leo as a pastor’s pastor, as a pontifical statesman, and as a controversial theologian.  He answered letters, for example, from bishops who had congregants from North Africa who weren’t sure if they had been baptised Catholic or schismatic.  His answer was that it was being baptised into the threefold Name of the Most Holy Trinity that counted, not the baptiser.  He answered questions about Priscillianism for a bishop in Spain.

He also tried to impose his will, to a degree, on the bishops of Illyricum.  Most strikingly, he tried to impose his will on the Bishops of Gaul.  He largely succeeded, diminishing to a degree the see of Arles under Hilary, demonstrating the power of the Bishop of Rome in disputes.  He saw the Pope as the universal court of appeal for the Church, a man who could intervene in the affairs of other dioceses beyond his own metropolitan zone in order to maintain and restore order.

In the year 444, St. Cyril of Alexandria passed away.  St. Cyril had been the theologian of the Incarnation par excellence throughout Leo’s career.  He had spearheaded the offensive against Nestorius and had largely engineered the outcome of the First Council of Ephesus.  With St. Cyril dead, the mantle of Christologian passed to St. Leo.  But was he up to the task?

St. Leo’s time came in 449 when he received a letter from an Archimandrite (a senior abbot) named Eutyches, whom a local synod in Constantinople had deemed a heretic.  Eutyches was appealing to Leo.  Soon Leo also received a letter from Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explaining to Leo the circumstances of Eutyches’ trial.  Leo responded to Flavian on June 13 with his famous Tome, letter 28.

This document is the piece of writing for which St. Leo is most famous for.  In this letter, Leo has in his sights both Nestorius as Leo understood him and Eutyches.  The former, as far as Leo was concerned, denied Christ’s divinity; the latter, Christ’s humanity.  The Tome is a text of balance and duality.  Leo sets forth for his reader the balance and duality within Christ of the human and divine natures.  He strikes a balance that seeks to avoid the perceived pitfalls of Eutychianism and Nestorianism.  God the Word took on flesh, he became fully human without the stain of sin, the lowliness not diminishing the glory.  This was necessary for our salvation.  Christ was and is a living paradox.

That same year, 449, saw the calling of a second general council in Ephesus.  This council was engineered by Dioscorus, episcopal successor to St. Cyril in Alexandria, to rehabilitate Eutyches and hold aloft a one-nature Christology, an incipient Monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature.  Leo, as was the wont of Rome’s bishop, sent delegates.  They were to read aloud the Tome, Leo being convinced that all the Church needed was to read his account of the Incarnation and then all this controversy would end.  These delegates were steamrolled by Dioscorus and not allowed to speak.  Bishop Flavian received blows that may have led to his death shortly thereafter.  He was replaced by a supporter of Dioscorus.

Leo called Second Ephesus a Latrocinium, a den of pirates.  He wrote letters to Emperor Theodosius II trying to convince him to change his mind and overturn the decisions of the council.  He wrote letters to Pulcheria Augusta, the Emperor’s sister, enlisting her help to convince her brother.  Theodosius would not be convinced.

And then, in 450, he fell off his horse and died.  His sister married a nonentity named Marcian and became Empress.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon occurred.  This time, Leo’s Tome, along with three letters of St. Cyril, was read out and approved by the Council — albeit, not unanimously, with protests coming from some of the Illyrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian delegates.

It seems, as Bernard Green has argued,** that Leo didn’t really know what Nestorianism was until after Chalcedon.  Seeing what the objections to the Tome were, he quickly adjusted certain passages and clarified his thinking.  Thus, his letter 124 to the monks of Palestine is more representative of the mature thought of St. Leo and would be a better testimony to his thought for the generations to come.

Leo spent the years from 451 to 465 maintaining his preaching practice in Rome, keeping order in his Metropolitan, clarifying what the Tome was supposed to say, and keeping Attila the Hun from sacking Rome (this last may not be true, but it colourful nonetheless).

He was one of the good popes.  He was also one of the first strong steps down the road to the papacy’s claims to universal jurisdiction.  We cannot have Innocent III (1160-1216) without Leo I.  He produced, ultimately, a clear, lucid theology that dealt with the problems of Eutyches and Nestorius while synthesising the teaching of the great western theologians Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers with a dash of Cyril of Alexandria.  He truly deserves the appellation “the Great”, being one of only two such popes along with Gregory I.

*I was going to make up the word un-kerygmatic, but then I figured that if I’m going to neologise, why not at least make a word people will understand?

**See The Soteriology of Leo the Great, pp. 227-247.

St. Ambrose and hymnody

St. Ambrose of Milan is, unsurprisingly, best remembered for his role in the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo.  Many also remember him for his humbling of the Emperor Theodosius.  At Orthodox Vespers the other night, this was a recurring theme in the hymns.  He is also well-remembered for the dispute surrounding the Altar of Victory.

But how many remember him as the writer of many a hymn (see the list at the CyberHymnal)?

Indeed, St. Ambrose was a hymnist.  And why not?  Who better to supply the people of Milan with hymns than their bishop?  Especially when we consider that they didn’t really have any Latin hymns before St. Ambrose.

What? No hymns?

It seems that congregational singing — ie. everyone singing a hymn together — was an innovation in the West on the part of St. Ambrose.

Furthermore, although we have a certain amount of pre-Ambrosian Christian Latin poetry, the only hymnist who predates dear St. Ambrose is Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368).  Not only this, but Christian Latin poetry doesn’t really start rolling until the fourth century, anyway.

Why?  Because poetry is pagan, of course!  No, seriously — poetry’s relationship to paganism, ribaldry, and myth gave it a certain stigma in Rome, thanks to such illustrious Romans as Plautus, Terence, Virgil, and Ovid.  Oh, and Catullus.  Dirty, dirty Catullus.  Anyway, poetry was not associated with the sorts of things Christians liked to be associated with.  Nevertheless, Christians did write poetry in the 300’s, like Juvencus’ harmony of the Gospels in epic meter.

Anyway, there weren’t very many Latin hymns to go around in St. Ambrose’s day, anyway.  So he wrote a bunch and encouraged the whole congregation to sing.  I imagine it must have been like Vespers the other night with Fr. Raphael singing everything alone.  So here’s a hymn of Ambrose for you today, translated by Carolinne M. White in Early Christian Latin Poets:

Splendor paternae gloriae

Radiance of the Father’s glory
Bringing forth light out of light,
Light of light and source of all light,
Daylight, illuminating days,

True sun, come down upon us,
Shining with brightness eternal,
And pour forth into our minds
The Holy Spirit’s brilliance.

Let us pray to the Father, too,
Father of eternal glory,
Father of all-powerful grace,
To rid us of seductive sin

And to fill us with energy,
Blunt the tooth of the envious,
Support us in times of hardship
And give us the grace to endure.

May he guide and control our minds
In bodies pure and full of faith;
May our faith be fervent, burning strong,
Far from the poisons of deceit.

Let our nourishment be Christ,
Let our refreshment be the faith,
Let us with joy drink in the Spirit
Who inebriates us soberly.*

May this day be spent joyfully;
May our purity be like the dawn,
May our faith be like the noontide,
May our minds never know the dusk.

As dawn moves steadily on her course
May the Dawn entire advance,
In the Father the Son entire,
In the Word the Father entire.

*Albert Blaise notes this as typical of Christian Latin’s love of anithesis (Manuel du Latin Chretien)

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.