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The twofold character of Advent calls us to prepare for the remembering of the Word made Flesh at Christmas, and directs us to wait with alertness for Jesus’ second coming.
Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor, c. 340-397
A brilliant young lawyer, Ambrose was appointed in about 372 by the emperor Valentinian as governor of Liguria and Aemilia. Sending him to his new post which was located in the city of Milan, Valentinian told Ambrose, somewhat prophetically, “Go; and govern more like a bishop than a judge.”
The bishop of Milan at the time, Auxentius, strongly advocated the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of Christ. In 374, Auxentius died and there was considerable turmoil in the city over who should succeed him. The Arians demanded an Arian bishop while true Catholics called for one of their own. To prevent this conflict from breaking out into open warfare, Ambrose went to the church where the assembly to elect a bishop was being held. In speaking to this group, Ambrose urged the people to conduct their selection in a spirit of peace and without malice. While he was talking, a voice shouted, “Ambrose, bishop!” and the whole assembly took up the cry. The bishops of the province, recognizing the will of the people, ratified this selection causing Ambrose to remark sarcastically that “Emotion has overruled canon law.”
Though a professed Christian, Ambrose was still unbaptized and had no desire to be the bishop. He sought to be excused from this office by the emperor, but Valentinian, noting that it gave him great pleasure to have chosen governors who were worthy of the episcopal office, ratified the selection. Reluctantly, Ambrose accepted the will of the people and the emperor. He was baptized and, one week later on December 7, 374, Ambrose was consecrated as bishop of Milan. Now a man of Christ, Ambrose forsook all of the worldly things which he had acquired in his position as governor. He gave his money to the poor and his lands were given to the Church. He adopted a simple lifestyle, fasting on most days, and devoting himself to the service of his people. His door was always open to members of his flock.
Always noted for his intellect and aware of his ignorance in theological matters, Ambrose threw himself fervently into the study of Sacred Scripture and the writings of the great religious scholars. A gifted speaker during all of his public life, Ambrose carried this over into his ecclesiastical duties. His sermons and his writings on any theological subject had an influence far beyond his diocese. After gaining a better understanding of the Arian heresy, he spoke eloquently against it and largely eliminated it in his diocese after a few years.
During Ambrose’ episcopate, St. Augustine, who was teaching rhetoric in Milan at this time, was so impressed by the sermons of the bishop that he began to study with him. Augustine, whose faith had withered over several years, was baptized by Ambrose at the Easter Vigil in 387. He continued to work with Ambrose and be one of his strongest supporters.
Ambrose spent the remaining years of his life writing works of exegesis, theology, and ascetics, as well as poetry. He actively ministered to the needs of the people of his diocese, and was a prominent political figure in both the Eastern and Western empires.
St. Ambrose is honored on the date of his consecration as bishop, December 7.
Ambrose’s message today: As bishop of Milan, Ambrose held much power, both in his diocese as well as in the empire itself. Yet he was very careful to use the power to fair and just ends. Above all, he followed Scripture and Church teachings as his true guide.