O God, who gave your servant Ambrose grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name: Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today we commemorate the life and witness (and more especially, the ordination to the Holy Episcopate) of St. Ambrose of Milan, one of the greatest of leaders and theologians in the ancient and undivided Church.
Ambrose was an extraordinary person. Born into a powerful Christian family in the early days of the Church’s legal legitimacy, he was not baptized until adulthood. He was allowed to discern whether or not he wished to follow Christ himself. He made his way through the ranks of the Imperial service, likely being rewarded for his personal integrity, as revealed in the next chapter of his life.
After serving as the governor of a province (quite a responsibility, showing superior administrative skills), he found himself in the middle of a conflict over who should be the next bishop of the important city of Milan. The two “parties” of the day (Arian and orthodox) each had candidates, but neither had the capacity to force their person onto the Episcopal throne. In the process of mediating the conflict of a Church in which he was not yet a formal member, he was himself selected by the warring parties as the best candidate! He was baptized very quickly, and consecrated bishop immediately in a rare example of ecclesiastical economy (making a non-precedent setting exception to canonical rules when it is judged truly right and proper by the Church).
During his years as a bishop, Ambrose fulfilled this ministry in an amazingly complete way. He was superb teacher: thoroughly yet creatively orthodox, he wrote a large body of works for new Christians, instructing them in the essentials of the faith while preserving a deep respect for the ultimate mystery of God (these catechetical works are still very useful today). He was a gifted liturgist and hymn-writer, composing hymns to be used through the course of the day (they are part of the Church’s “Little Hours” of prayer at 6 AM, 9 AM, Noon, and 3 PM), and introducing a variety of singing and worship practices that greatly enriched the Western liturgical tradition. He was an inspiring preacher and friend – it was his witness to the faith that probably finally made Augustine realize that one could be a faithful Christian while retaining intellectual depth and curiosity. He served as a skilled pastor, showing by example the quality of a peaceful life of prayer, balance, and concern for the well-being of the poor. Finally, because of his lifetime of working in the higher circles of the State, he could “speak truth to power,” as we would say today: when the Emperor Theodosius had many of the people in the rebellious city of Thessalonica slaughtered, Ambrose forced him to do penance for this ghastly act of violence. For the first time, the Church had been able to demand the Empire to live up to the Gospel’s teachings in such matters.
We who live at the "other end" of the Christian era (if one can speak of "ends" in such a matter) must find all of this in some ways remote and peculiar: but the requirement that bishops be about the fullness of Apostolic witness and teaching – rather than merely ride their own hobby-horses or retire into a life of abstruse or venial comfort – remains the same today as it was then.
Holy Ambrose, pray for us and for our portion of the Church in this day!