St. Ambrose

Audio here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the Scriptures, a bishop is nothing other than a pastor. But very quickly in the history of the Church, bishops were those who were elected to oversee the pastors and congregations under their care. Ambrose was actually a lawyer who was trying to keep peace in Milan between the orthodox Christians and the Arians as they were trying to elect a new bishop. But while he was speaking, someone interrupted and cried “Ambrose! Bishop!” He tried to avoid it and stay out of the priesthood, but the Emperor Valentinian agreed with the choice, and announced penalties if anyone kept Ambrose hidden so that he could avoid being bishop. Strangely enough, Ambrose was still in the category of catechumen—or one being instructed toward baptism—and he couldn’t, technically, be a bishop at all. But he was soon baptized, and eight days after his baptism, in the year 374—December 7, in fact—he was made bishop of Milan. He died on Good Friday, April 4, 397.

So today we are remembering Ambrose on the day he was made bishop. Which is to remember him in his primary vocation, as pastor. This is why we hear 2 Timothy 4 and Matthew 5. He preached the Word of God, which St. Augustine heard, and was later baptized by Ambrose. He was constant and steady, even when the deniers of the Son’s full divinity were in power in the empire. He held to the teaching he had received, learning and teaching the Scriptures, and he fulfilled over 23 years the ministry he had been given. Our Lutheran fathers were fond of quoting and citing Ambrose, almost 10 times in the Book of Concord alone.

You may not know that you are familiar with St. Ambrose, but you are, through at least one of the hymns in our hymnal, though we have three total in our hymnal, and at least 12 are attributed to him. In fact, Ambrose is often considered the father of the way we sing modern hymns. Most Christians are familiar with Ambrose through the hymn we just sang, with which Luther was impressed enough to translate it into German, set to a German tune. Here Ambrose does some of his best work, because he distills the truth of the Scriptures into a memorable, singable summary. Here is some of the most profound theology of Christ for you that you will ever find. Marvel now, O heav’n and earth, that the Lord chose such a birth! Ambrose confesses the mystery of God in the flesh, as well as the mystery of the virgin giving birth: Here a maid was found with child, yet remained a virgin mild. In her womb this truth was shown: God was there upon His throne (stanza 3). The Son of God, eternally of the Father, His source, through whom all things in creation were made, now reigns from Mary’s womb. It is right to bow our heads at that mystery in the Creed. There is no understanding it; only worshiping this God become microscopic.

And Ambrose’s words strike me every time: the Father’s Son in flesh the vict’ry won, so that we pray that by that physical victory over death, He would make whole all our ills of flesh and soul. Even more, what a fantastic image it is of newborn light growing and spreading and of faith taking its shelter in that light from every enemy that belongs to the darkness.

It’s that same image of darkness and light that runs through an evening hymn of Ambrose, which we will sing in a minute [890]. Not Christ in isolation, but the Son in flesh with the Father and the Spirit as the Light in which faith resides, even when the physical light of the sun disappears each night. Each morning, each evening, we praise Your light in every age, who is the glory of our pilgrimage. In every age, indeed! God has granted that the faith handed down to Ambrose continued to be handed down, even until it has reached us over 1600 years later.

Ambrose has one more hymn in our hymnal, 874. This is a morning hymn to the Trinity, beginning with the Splendor of God’s Glory whom we see; that is, Christ. Again, Jesus as the Light of God that shines on all creation captured Ambrose’s thoughts and meditation. What we call light and day receive their names from Jesus who is Light of Light and the Day that makes bright all our days. And Ambrose’s joy in Christ is unrestrained: “On Christ, the true bread, let us feed; let Him to us be drink indeed; and let us taste with joyfulness the Holy Spirit’s plenteousness. Alleluia! (874:5). Just as we need light in which to live, we also need food and drink, and Christ is true bread and true drink, whom the Holy Spirit brings daily and richly in the Christian Church. Jesus is life itself, and Ambrose knew his own need: Because I always sin, he said, I always need the medicine (of the Sacrament). Like a seed planted in the ground, Ambrose longed to be nourished with the Light and the Food, which was Christ. And having been himself nourished and fed, he then worked tirelessly that those who heard him might have nothing but that pure light and that pure food. He not only did what Christ had given him to do, he taught others that same Word, and Jesus Himself says that such a one will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19).

So we, too, will call Ambrose great in the kingdom of heaven. Not, as he well knew, because he was worthy to be called a member of Christ—let alone a pastor and overseer in Christ’s Church—but because Christ was His life and he was commanded—however reluctantly at first—to deliver that life in Word and Sacrament to the people of Milan. As Ambrose wrote on Ephesians 4, “I do not…claim for myself the glory of the apostles…nor the grace of the prophets, nor the virtue of the evangelists, nor the cautious care of the pastors. I only desire to attain to that care and diligence in the sacred writings, which the apostle has placed last among the duties of the saints [1 Corinthians 12:10]. And this very thing I desire, so that, in the endeavor to teach, I may be able to learn. For one is the true Master, who alone has not learned what He taught to all; but men learn before they teach, and receive from Him what they may hand on to others” (quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer, 992).

May God make all pastors as faithful as Ambrose to both learn and teach the glory of the Savior of the Nations. Glory to the Father sing, glory to the Son, our king, glory to the Spirit be now and through eternity (332:8).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/6/16

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