Friday, December 07, 2007

December 7--Ambrose of Milan

The first week of Advent is full of saints to be remembered on our calendar. One thing many have in common is that they were poets/hymn writers. We saw that in John of Damascus and Clement of Alexandria, and now, today, in Ambrose of Milan, so much so that he is often called “the Father of Western Hymnody.”

There is way too much to say about Ambrose. He was a giant figure in the life of the 4th century church as Bishop of Milan, a post he did not seek. As a layman who was a civic official, he attended the rather contentious meeting to elect Milan’s next bishop. As a popular official who happened to also be a catechumen preparing for baptism, he found himself nominated and elected. He had to be baptized and ordained a priest before he could be made a bishop. All these things apparently happened on the same day, December 7, 374.
Because of his experience in civic affairs, he became a great spokesperson for the church, at times advisor and at times critic of even the Emperor. In particular, he frequently gave Emperor Theodosius I a hard time, once goading him into doing public penance for the massacre of some innocent people by his troops.

Within the church’s life he was known as a great preacher (his preaching converted, among others, Augustine of Hippo, whom he baptized) and eloquent defender of the orthodox position against Arianism, a strain of Christianity popular at the time that denied the divinity of Jesus, and, therefore, the Trinity. His hymn writing stemmed from this debate. He used his hymns to teach people the orthodox way and to energize their own commitment to it. In the Hymnal 1982 there are six hymns attributed to him: 5, 14/15, 19/20, 21/22, 54/55, and 234. The fifth stanza of Hymn 55, an Advent hymn, is a favorite:

Your cradle shines with glorious light;
Its splendor pierces all our gloom.
Our faith reflects those radiant beams;
No night shall overcome it now.

Ambrose also had a keen sense of justice, particularly for the poor. A favorite (and enormously challenging) quote from him shows his “no holds barred” eloquence:

The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds—and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor…There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering!

Ambrose, like Christianity, was not anti-wealth, but certainly strongly anti-indifference to the poor, and an encourager of those of us who have what we need to survive, to make sure that others do as well.

Happy Ambrose Day!

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