Feast Day: December 7th
On April 4th in the year 397, early on Easter Saturday, the Bishop Ambrose of Milan was dying. His life was marvelous. He had been elected to the episcopacy by popular acclaim (before he was baptized! He had to receive all his sacraments on top of each other before being ordained bishop), fought heresies (Arianism especially, which said Jesus was not truly God), stood up to emperors (Theodosius I, for persecuting Jews and massacring the Thessalonians), and brought about the conversion of St. Augustine (of course, with the help of St. Monica’s prayers).
I could speak on any of those tremendous accomplishments, but today I rejoice to stick to a simpler part of his life. As he lay on his deathbed, Paulinus, his deacon, who was with him in his final moments, records: “we saw his lips moving … but we could not hear his voice” [St. Paulinus, Life of Ambrose]. It would not be a noticeable comment – perhaps these were Ambrose’s final whispered prayers – except for the fact that St. Augustine had written a similar line about Ambrose, his great mentor and friend, many years before:
When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.
[St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 3, Chapter 6]
At that time, surprisingly enough, it was uncommon for anyone to read silently. We have a few records of others in the ancient world who did so, but otherwise, the vast majority of everyone who could read, only did so out loud. Even if someone were just reading by themselves, they would still vocalize the words, or a person would have someone else read to them.
Now, that would remain just an interesting factoid except for the tremendous fact that Christianity is a religion of the Word, and Ambrose’s practice came from his love for the Word of God. Augustine also tells us that Ambrose, when he was consecrated bishop, immediately sold practically all the possessions he had (as an orator and governor) except for his books. He was a very literate and studious man, but as a bishop, and saint-in-the-making, this was his choice to prioritize the Word of God over even all the other books that he treasured. His labor over the books of scripture each day – the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew, Luke… – these were His daily sustenance and informed every other aspect of his life. His courage, eloquence, simplicity, wisdom, hymnody, and generosity … all flowed from his being saturated by the Bible.
We call Ambrose a doctor of the Church because this biblical foundation to his life flowed forth in his teaching, and his composition of some of the greatest hymns the Church has. Both are splendid tapestries of word, woven from the threads of scripture, and they have given Ambrose the nickname “honey-tongued” (for this reason he is the patron of beekeepers… Things you learn!) I will leave you with one of his best hymns, perfect for our continued meditation this Advent. (The language is even more splendid in its original Latin!)
Veni, Redemptor Gentium
1. Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth:
let every age adoring fall;
such birth befits the God of all.
2. Begotten of no human will,
But of the Spirit, Thou art still
The Word of God in flesh arrayed,
The promised fruit to men displayed.
3. The virgin womb that burden gained
With virgin honor all unstained;
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in His temple dwells below.
4. Forth from His chamber goeth He,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in two-fold substance one,
Rejoicing now His course to run.
5. From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds;
His course He runs to death and hell,
Returning on God’s throne to dwell.
6. O equal to the Father, Thou!
Gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.
7. Thy cradle here shall glitter bright
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin always struggles to answer the question “what kind of music do you like?” I like many classical pieces, especially orchestral works, certainly sacred music and Gregorian chant, Christian singers, some pop pieces, many different vocal groups/individuals, especially acapella and what is unhelpfully described as “easy listening”. What is a song that you are grateful for? Let me know, I want to give it a listen! For now, enjoy a video of Ambrose’s Veni, Redemptor Omnium: