Today the Church honors the memory of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, born in Trier in 340 A.D. He was yet a catechumen, in 374, when he was nominated Bishop by popular acclamation, and so ordained deacon, priest and bishop in quick succession – talk about a fast-track formation program! Unusually, his feast on December 7 is not the date of his death (as is the common practice) but of his episcopal consecration.
It was outside Ambrose’s cathedral that a searching young man from North Africa sat, listening to his homilies and, more importantly, listening to “the sweet chants” emanating from those sacred precincts. Years later, that young man would tell God that it was “your singing Church” that brought him into Catholic communion. That man was none other than Augustine of Hippo. In his Confessions, Augustine is quite specific:
How many tears I shed during the performance of Thy hymns and chants, keenly affected by the notes of Thy melodious Church! My ears drank up those sounds, and they distilled into my heart as sacred truths, and overflowed thence again in pious emotion, and gushed forth into tears, and I was happy in them. (Book 14)
In 1832, the future St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, while still a young Anglican clergyman, would write extensively about Primitive Christianity, devoting more than thirty-five pages to Ambrose. Years later, the Catholic Newman would acclaim the exquisite Gothic Cathedral of Milan the most beautiful church in the world. In a letter of 1846, Newman wrote the following:
I have said not a word about that overpowering place, the Duomo. It has moved me more than St. Peter’s did—but then I studiously abstained from all services &c. when I was at Rome,1 and now of course I have gone wherever they were going on and have entered into them. And, as I have said for months past that I never knew what worship was, as an objective fact, till I entered the Catholic Church, and was partaker in its offices of devotion, so now I say the same on the view of its cathedral assemblages. I have expressed myself so badly that I doubt if you will understand me, but a Catholic Cathedral is a sort of world, every one going about his own business, but that business a religious one; groups of worshippers, and solitary ones—kneeling, standing—some at shrines, some at altars—hearing Mass and communicating, currents of worshippers intercepting and passing by each other—altar after altar lit up for worship, like stars in the firmament—or the bell giving notice of what is going on in parts you do not see, and all the while the canons in the choir going through matins and lauds, and at the end of it the incense rolling up from the high altar, and all this in one of the most wonderful buildings in the world and every day—lastly, all of this without any show or effort—but what everyone is used to—everyone at his own work, and leaving everyone else to his.
One of the most moving experiences I ever have had of the doctrine of apostolic succession was a visit to the ancient baptistery of the Cathedral of Milan, where I read the following from a plaque on the wall: “In this place, at the Easter Vigil of 387, Ambrose, father and doctor of the Church, baptized Augustine, father and doctor of the Church.” Cardinal Newman, in one of his more famous meditations, would speak of being “a link in a chain, a bond of connection” – that’s a good way to view apostolic succession, isn’t it? Interestingly, it is the statues of Ambrose and Augustine that hover over the Altar of the Confession of St. Peter’s Basilica, representing the Latin Church, while John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzen hold forth for the Greek Church.
Ambrose was an exemplary bishop, as well as a theologian, apologist and liturgist. In that last capacity, he bequeathed to the Church of Milan the liturgy which bears his name, the “Ambrosian Rite.” He was also a gifted hymnographer, so important to the young Augustine. Years later, Bishop Augustine in one of his sermons would reflect on one of Ambrose’s Advent hymns in these words:
Blessed Ambrose has sung of this departure of our giant most briefly and beautifully in the hymn which you sang a little earlier. For speaking about the Lord Christ, he speaks as follows: “His departure from the Father, his return to the Father; his journey down to hell, his journey back to the seat of God.”2
Don’t miss the fact that the Ambrosian hymn had already been incorporated into the Sacred Liturgy. The hymn to which Augustine referred was “Intende, qui regis Israel,” coming into English as “Savior of the Nations, Come.” Let’s make its sentiments our own as we continue our Advent journey to Bethlehem:
Savior of the nations, come,
virgin’s Son, make here thy home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.
Not of flesh and blood the Son,
offspring of the Holy One;
born of Mary ever blest,
God in flesh is manifest.
Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
of the Virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
still to be in heav’n enthroned.
From the Father forth he came
and returneth to the same,
captive leading death and hell,
high the song of triumph swell!
Thou, the Father’s only Son,
hast o’er sin the vict’ry won.
Boundless shall thy kingdom be;
when shall we its glories see?
(Editor’s note: This homily was preached on the memorial of St. Ambrose, December 7, 2021, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.)
1The time to which Newman is here referring is when he was not yet a Catholic.
2Sermon 372, On the Incarnation.
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