Ambrose was not even baptized when in 374, as Governor of Aemilia-Liguria in northern Italy, he went to a church to quell a conflict between Arians and Catholics over the choice of the next bishop. When the cultured and educated Ambrose, well trained in law and rhetoric, began to speak, the restive crowd began to chant in unison, ‘Ambrose for bishop!’ Ambrose would later be known for his composition of chants, more beautiful and ornate than the one which summoned him to office.
Still technically a pagan, but with Christian sensibilities, Ambrose fled into hiding, but eventually relented with the emperor’s urgin, accepting in quick succession baptism, confirmation and ordination, after which, as bishop, he adopted an ascetic lifestyle of prayer, study, writing and pastoral work.
He was a great foe of the aforementioned heresy of Arianism, a political heresy, lingering long after its condemnation at Nicaea in 325. As someone once reflected, the heresy was a fitting foil for power hungry emperors and potentates, who could ‘reduce’ a non-divine Christ to a sort of quasi-divine demi-God who could then be manipulated to their own purposes, instead of the true omnipotent God, to Whom every knee – emperor, prime minister or not – must bow . Its influence is still with us in some insidious way.
Ambrose is also famous for consoling the distraught Monica, weeping over her prodigal son, saying the child of such tears could not possibly be lost. Sure enough, it was Ambrose, according to tradition, who eventually baptized Augustine, after the restless wandered pilgrimaged to meet the famous bishop – being amazed at first that Ambrose read ‘without moving his lips’. One might surmise that Augustine later wrote for such efficient reading, his works far surpassing what any one man might consume, never mind produce.
But it is Ambrose we celebrate today, one of the great Church Fathers, whose inimitable works gained him a place amongst the Doctors. His great devotion to Our Lady makes him a fitting saint on this vigil of her Immaculate Conception, and I will leave you with the words of his great Advent hymn, Veni redemptor gentium, used in the Office of Readings in that final novena before Christmas, from December 17th to the night before the great feast:
Veni, redemptor gentium;
ostende partum Virginis;
miretur omne saeculum:
talis decet partus Deum.
Come, Redeemer of the nations;
show forth the Virgin birth;
let every age marvel:
such a birth befits God.