Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ambrose of Milan (339-397)

You may have experienced finding yourself in what you think is the wrong place at the wrong time...but as things unfold you're later made to understand that you were just in the right place and time where God wanted you to be. Ambrose, I think, must've had that feeling any number of times in his life.

Born in Trier, Germany, Ambrose's father was the Roman governor of Gaul (current Spain & Britain). Ambrose's family raised him as a Christian, but he was, amazingly, never baptized. Growing up in an aristocratic family, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he'd serve in some exalted political post. Educated in Rome, he became a highly successful attorney.

So it was that Ambrose became governor of northern Italy, with headquarters in Milan, just at a time when heretical Arian Christians were battling with the orthodox Christians over theology, and, wouldn't you know it, at the time when Bishop Auxentius of Milan, an Arian, had died, and a contentious election had begun for a successor. It fell to Governor Ambrose to get himself involved in the process, addressing the unruly opponents so as to keep some semblance of peace during the election. Suddenly, during one of the lulls of quiet in the midst of the infighting, a little child's voice was heard to cry out over and over: "Ambrose! Bishop!...Ambrose! Bishop!" Tentatively, a few people in the crowd began to take up the cry. Soon more and more voices joined in, until a crescendo of both Arians and orthodox Christians were thundering: "Ambrose! Bishop!" Ambrose was flabbergasted, and probably a bit mortified! Definitely wrong place, wrong time! He was still only an unbaptized catechumen.

Ambrose resisted, to the point of fleeing from Milan in the dark of night, with the intention of going to Pavia. In the darkness, however, he lost his way, wandered about, and took a wrong turn. As the sun arose, a weary Ambrose found himself at the city gates...of Milan! Wrong place, wrong time...again! As the old saying goes, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!" Realizing in his heart that God had put him in the exactly right place at exactly the right time, Ambrose relented and agreed to be baptized and consecrated as the new Bishop of Milan.

And what a bishop he turned out to be! He became a compelling teacher, a popular preacher, always defending Christ's divinity, the local hot-button theological issue, as central to the Christian faith. Ambrose was the first to introduce hymns into the Western liturgy, and even contributed several theologically rich compositions of his own. With the backing of his whole community, he stood firm against the imperial powers' attempts to interfere in Church affairs and matters of faith.

In 384 a new professor of rhetoric, Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis, arrived in Milan. At 30 years of age, he was young, handsome, definitely a ladies-man, and a brilliant and popular teacher. Ambrose, no slouch himself academically, had become aware of the new arrival's presence, mainly through the man's mother, Monica. Monica was, as they say, verklempt with fear for her son's spiritual destiny. He'd lived a raucous life since his adolescence, and was very taken with a bizarre and dangerous philosophical school, Manichaeism, which, Monica knew, had little in common with her own Christian belief. She, of all people, was aware of her son's brilliance and essentially good heart, and she wanted only the best for him. So she approached Bishop Ambrose and plead with him to do something about it. Ambrose, to her astonishment, said "No...but let him be. Only pray to the Lord in his behalf. He will find out by reading what is the character of that error and how great is its impiety."

What Monica didn't know at the time was that Ambrose himself, as a small child, had been given over by his deluded mother to be educated by the Manichees. He not only read all their books, but even copied them out. On his own, Ambrose had concluded that the truth was not there, and that he should flee from it as quickly as possible, which he did. But Monica keep pressuring Ambrose, over and over, shedding copious tears, to talk to her son and set him straight. Finally, Ambrose, probably feeling this was the wrong place, wrong time again, got a bit ticked off, and said to Monica: "Go away from me now. As you live, it is impossible that the son of such tears should perish." Three years later, at Easter in 387, the same year that Monica died, Bishop Ambrose baptized that young man as a Christian, as well as his illegitimate son, Adeodatus, composing for the occasion a great canticle which we now sing at Morning Prayer on major feasts: the Te Deum laudamus = We praise you, O God. We know the young man as Augustine, later Bishop of Hippo, and one of the greatest saints and doctors of the Western Church.

The moral of the story: think twice the next time you find youself in what you think is the wrong place at the wrong time! 

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