December 7 – Ambrose of Milan

Ambrose of Milan (340–397) was a wee bairn when a whole grist of bees landed on his face and left a drop of honey on his tongue. His father knew right then and there that Ambrose would be a famous orator with the nick name “The Honey-Tongued.” After Dad died, Ambrose wandered into Rome and got educated, whereupon he became governor of Liguria.

In those days the Trinitarians and the Arians were making each other’s lives miserable, and when the bishop of Milan died, it looked like the two groups, in vying to replace him, were about to start a riot or a civil war or a Super Bowl halftime show or something worse. Ambrose rushed to the cathedral and tried to calm everyone down. A lone voice cried out, “Ambrose for Bishop!” and soon the whole place was roaring with “Ambrose for Bishop!” Ambrose, still a catechumen and thus not even wet behind the ears yet, ran to a friend’s house, saying, “Hide me. They want to make me bishop.” The people, not to be denied, fired off a letter to the Emperor, who wrote back saying, “Ambrose, you’re it baby.” The friend yielded Ambrose to the mob, and within a week he was baptized, priested, and bishoped.

Ambrose took his new position very seriously. He embraced a strict asceticism, used his inherited wealth to succor the poor, donated all of his land (except what his sister needed (she later became a nun and a saint (in that order))), and turned over the family affairs to his brother (who also became a saint, although not a nun).

Knowing Ambrose to be a crack negotiator, Emperor Valentinian II sent him to Gaul to broker peace with Magnus Maximus (whose mother clearly expected him to achieve greatness), who was poised to invade Italy. (Things were pretty higgledus-piggledus as to who was going to be emperor in those days.) Ambrose staved off invasion for a time, but ultimately Max roared into Milan, driving out the emperor. Many fled, but Ambrose remained, and sold the church’s silver to buy food for the poor. He was not afraid to speak to power, either, and frequently excoriated public figures he felt were out of line. He excommunicated Emperor Theodosius for ordering the slaughter of 7,000 Thessalonians, and demanded a long and very public penance before restoring him to communion.

His preaching was very popular and influential, as his father had predicted. No less a personage than Augustine of Hippo (Nov 17) was converted to Christianity by Ambrose’s preaching, and received baptism at his hand. His (Ambrose’s) wisdom was sought by visitors from Persia, and Fritigelda, queen of the Germanic Markomanni (as opposed to those other Markomanni), wrote to him asking for instruction in the Christian faith. He couldn’t visit her, but he sent her a letter explicating the faith, which induced her conversion, following which she induced her husband’s.

When not attending to matters of state, preaching against government officials, excommunicating Emperors, or baptizing future theological giants, Ambrose wrote reams of letters, essays, perorations, hymns, sermons, treatises, and unsuccessful screenplays. He was rare among the Latin theologians of his day in that he could read Greek, and his writings bear witness to his knowledge of the writings of the Greek Fathers as well as some philosophers from those parts. He was also a wonderworker and healer, and raised at least one person from the dead. Eventually of course he himself died, on Holy Saturday (whether during a service or not, I could not discover). His relics are still in Milan, which is a wonder right there. He is one of the original four Doctors of the Church declared by Pope Boniface VIII in 1295 (or 1298), and the patron saint of bees, geese, and starlings.