Friday, December 07, 2018

"Stand back! A man defiled by sin is not worthy to enter within these sacred precincts." ~ Saint Ambrose of Milan defies Theodosius the Great

Ancient mosaic portrait of Saint Ambrose which may, in fact, represent
his appearance in life. From the Basilica of St. Ambrose, Milan.
December 7 is the feast day of Aurelius Ambrosius, known to history as Saint Ambrose of Milan. He was born in Trier to a wealthy Roman family—his father, also named Ambrose, was Praetorian Prefect of Gaul according to Ambrose's ancient biographer, Paulinus of Milan. Paulinus relates a miracle associated with Ambrose's youth that seemed to presage a great future for the child:
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When he, as an infant placed in a cradle within the courtyard of the governor's residence, was sleeping with open mouth, suddenly a swarm of bees came and covered his face and lips in such a way that they kept entering and coming forth from his mouth alternately. The father, who was walking nearby with his wife and daughter, fearing lest the bees might be driven away by the servant who had undertaken the task of feeding the baby, kept her back—for she was alarmed lest they injure the child—and with fatherly affection waited to see with what end this miracle would terminate. And sometime later, flying out, they rose to such a height in the air that they could not be seen at all by human eyes. Terrified by this event, the father said: "If this little child shall live he shall be something great." [Kaniecka, Paulinus of Milan, Vita Sancti Ambrosii, Chapter II]
Though Ambrose would indeed go on to become one of the most remarkable saints of the Church, as well as the spiritual father of even greater saints, he had a most unusual entrance into Christianity. In the early 370s AD, Ambrose served as governor of Liguria in northern Italy. He was not even baptized when he was named bishop of Milan by popular acclamation. Here's the story as told by the mid-5th century historian, Hermias Sozomen:
The clergy of the West, having thus anticipated the designs of those who sought to introduce innovations among them, carefully continued to preserve the inviolability of the faith which had from the beginning been handed down to them. With the solitary exception of Auxentius [Arian bishop of Milan] and his partisans, there were no individuals among them who entertained heterodox opinions. Auxentius, however, did not live long after this period.

At his death, a sedition arose among the people of Milan concerning the appointment of a successor, and the city seemed in danger of a general insurrection. Those who had aspired to the bishopric and been defeated in their expectations, were loud in their menaces, as is usual on such occasions. Ambrose, who was then the governor of the province, being fearful lest further tumult should arise, went to the church and exhorted the people to cease from contention, to re-establish peace and concord, and to respect the laws. Before he had ceased speaking, all his auditors suppressed the angry feelings by which they had been mutually agitated against each other and declared that he who was exhorting them to concord should be their bishop, and receive the rite of baptism, for he had never been baptized.

After Ambrose had repeatedly refused the proffered dignity and even quitted the place that it might not be forced upon him, the people still persisted in their choice and declared that the disputes would never be appeased unless he would accede to their wishes, and at length intelligence of these transactions was conveyed to court. It is said that the emperor Valentinian [I] prayed and returned thanks to God that the very man whom he had appointed governor, had been chosen to fill a priestly office. When he was informed of the earnest desires of the people and the refusal of Ambrose, he inferred that events had been so ordered by God for the purpose of restoring peace to the church of Milan and commanded that Ambrose should be ordained as quickly as possible.

He was baptized and ordained at the same time, and forthwith proceeded to bring the church under his sway to unanimity of opinion concerning the Divine nature. For while under the guidance of Auxentius, it had been long rent by dissensions on this subject. We shall hereafter have occasion to speak of the conduct of Ambrose after his ordination, and of the admirable and holy manner in which he discharged the functions of the priesthood. [The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VI, Chapter XXIV]
Ambrose would go on to become a staunch opponent of the Arians, incurring the displeasure of the empress-mother Justina and her son, Valentinian II. Later when Theodosius the Great entered Italy after putting down the revolt of Eugenius and Arbogast, Ambrose declared the victorious emperor excommunicated from the Church for his massacre of 30,000 people in Thessalonika four years before. Sozomen picks up the story:
After the death of Eugenius, the emperor went to Milan and repaired toward the church to pray within its walls. When he drew near the gates of the edifice, he was met by Ambrose, the bishop of the city, who took hold of him by his purple robe and said to him in the presence of the multitude, “Stand back! A man defiled by sin and with hands imbrued in blood unjustly shed is not worthy, without repentance, to enter within these sacred precincts or partake of the holy mysteries.”
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The emperor, struck with admiration at the boldness of the bishop, began to reflect on his own conduct, and with much contrition retraced his steps...Theodosius publicly confessed his sin in the church, and during the time set apart for penance, refrained from wearing his imperial ornaments as being inconsistent with a season of mourning. He also enacted a law prohibiting the officers entrusted with the execution of the imperial mandates from inflicting the punishment of death till thirty days after the mandate had been issued, in order that the wrath of the emperor might have time to be appeased and that room might be made for the exercise of mercy and repentance. [The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, Book VII, Chapter XXV]
Theodosius the Great perished a year later, and Ambrose outlived the emperor by only a couple years, passing to his eternal reward in AD 397. He would later be recognized as a Doctor of the Church thanks to his voluminous writing and is remembered for introducing antiphons and hymnody into the church of Milan which later spread throughout the West.

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