The Feast of Ambrose of Milan: Preaching the Good News, Ready or Not

Image of Ambrose of Milan from the Iglesia St. Ambrogio in Milan

Nestled in between the feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra on December 6th (also known as Santa Claus, gifter of candy in shoes and purported puncher of Arius at the Council of Nicaea) and the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8th, and, sharing December 7th with that day in 1941 that will forever live in infamy, the feast of Ambrose of Milan doesn’t get much attention from Catholics in my part of the world, the United States. For most American Catholics, Ambrose’s light seems a bit dim in comparison to the glowing legends about Nicholas that have grown through the centuries. Ambrose wasn’t known for a big fight with Arius like Nicholas, though according to legend he is credited with ending a resurgence of Arianism in his diocese of Milan. Nor is he fondly remembered with presents and candy like gift-giver Nicholas, though Ambrose did sell many church treasures to feed the poor and there does exist one bizarre miracle story about his childhood involving bees (connected to his later reputation for having a “honeyed” tongue as a persuasive preacher). But as someone with a bee phobia, I’d prefer not to dwell on that.

Thanks to the writings of his protégé, Augustine of Hippo, and to his lasting influence on the city of Milan, however, we have a much richer picture of Ambrose the bishop, the teacher, the saint, than we have surviving of Nicholas: his liturgical innovations, his political influence, his theological contributions, and more. Perhaps more than anything else, however, Ambrose is remembered as an exemplary teacher of the Christian faith and so was named one of the four original doctors of the Church. It is in this role of teacher, and particularly preacher, that I will consider the example of Ambrose for those of us who wish to, like the Bishop of Milan, embrace the Christian vocation of evangelization through our own teaching and example.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms, the first task of bishops is indeed to preach the Good News of God to everyone, as Jesus commanded. [1] And so, bishops are to be “heralds of the faith, who draw new disciples to Christ…authentic teachers” of the apostolic faith, endowed with this authority by Christ. [2] This is a role that Ambrose-as-Bishop embodied in a more exemplary manner than perhaps any of his brother bishops. Let’s draw out of his life, ministry, and teachings some of his particularly commendable characteristics as a teacher of the Christian faith.

Ambrose the Preacher

Ambrose is most renowned as a preacher. The point of preaching is twofold: celebrate the Word of God in the Gospel and explain its meaning to the congregation so that they can live it out the Good News their lives. Some of Ambrose’s most treasured preaching was preserved in his De Mysteriis, On the Mysteries, and his De Sacramentis, On the Sacraments. These sermons are examples of mystagogical preaching. According to Craig Satterlee, scholar of Ambrose’s mystagogical preaching, mystagogy is “sustained reflection on the Church’s rites of initiation”—baptism and communion—which takes place after the one receiving instruction has already been initiated into the Church.[3] That is, the person receiving instruction on how to be a Christian and what the sacraments mean and do has already participated in the sacraments being explained to her or him. Mystagogy is central to Christian education because the formation of the Christian in faith—including his or her ongoing reformation into the image of Christ—is a life-long process of intellectual instruction, reflection upon the mysteries of the faith, participation in the sacraments, and vocational learning-by-doing. In his mystagogical preaching, then, Ambrose explained not only the Good News of salvation laid out in the Bible, but also how the neophytes (newly-made Christians) were to now participate in God’s work of salvation in their everyday lives.

Ambrose’s preaching might not have been as polished as his admirer Augustine’s, but the persuasive nature of his sermons and their content was bolstered by Ambrose’s own lived witness. Ambrose was famous as a bishop both for giving away his vast wealth to the poor and for living as an ascetic. The integration of his message, way of life, and the office of bishop was clearly seen as attractive and admirable by his flock. Apparently there was even a problem of young women becoming so inspired by his preaching and ascetic lifestyle that they sought to be consecrated to the religious life by him—much to the chagrin of their parents. Thus, Ambrose’s own holy life served as an attractive proof of the value of his words.

While Ambrose’s sermons today read as neither particularly well-organized nor brilliant, his style was compelling to his fourth-century audiences because of his innovative approach to sermon writing. Ambrose had the advantage of being able to borrow concepts from the previous generation of great Greek theologians and translating their thoughts to his Latin audience for the first time ever. Moreover, Ambrose was not afraid to put the teachings of the Christian biblical and theological tradition into conversation with popular pagan philosophies. In doing so, he appealed both to the masses who longed for new ways to understand their Christian faith and to the educated spiritual seekers of his city, such as Augustine.

Most compelling, however, must have been Ambrose’s immersive scriptural sermon style; listening to him preach must have felt like being washed over with waves of the Word of God. To those who heard Ambrose’s sermons, his use of the Bible—sometimes hundreds of references in one sermon—sounded less like him quoting an authority or riffing off of the biblical authors and more like the language of worship. For most ancient Christians, and indeed most Christians throughout history until the modern day, the Word of God in the Bible was not read but heard. It was not an activity of solitary study or personal piety, but the communal experience of prayer in daily worship: proclaimed in liturgical readings, sung in psalms and acclamations, infused in the prayers of the eucharistic rite. Scripture is—then as now—not merely a collection of stories or a list of doctrine; for Christians, scripture is the ancient Jewish and Christian accounts of and reflection upon encounter with the majestic, mysterious Creator God, the intimate and incarnate Word of God, and God’s loving, sanctifying Spirit. The use of scripture in liturgy, then, is a special remembering and entering into those accounts of relationship as we likewise enter into relationship through prayer and sacrament. As Timothy O’Malley has noted in his chapter on the liturgical homily in his book Liturgy and the New Evangelization, the primary role of the sermon is that it should “invite the listener to participate in that divine history, the pedagogy of God, which is at the heart of the liturgical life of the church.” [4] For a sermon to do such a thing the preacher must first be him or herself immersed in that same narrative of salvation through scriptural study and prayer. Ambrose’s practice of what became in the West the method of scriptural prayer called lectio divina no doubt aided him in his own biblical immersion and scriptural education. For Ambrose was certainly in need of intensive, immersive education in Christian prayer, scripture, theology, and worship.

Ambrose the Unready

One of the most fascinating facts about the life and work of Ambrose, famed bishop of Milan, was that Ambrose was patently not ready for the office of bishop. At his election, he was not even baptized. Ambrose was raised by members of the Christian church (his widowed mother and his sister, Marcellina, a nun) and was a longtime catechumen—or Christian-in-the-making. But he put off baptism because the demands of life in the Church were at odds with his public work life and his eventual role as the governor of Aemilia-Liguria. In fact, Ambrose, living in Milan and trying to calm the Milanese crowds who were quarreling over their lack of a bishop, was chosen by those same crowds to be their bishop before he was even baptized. In the lead up to his episcopal ordination, then, Ambrose was first baptized, then ordained through the orders of ministry, before he was finally ordained a bishop. As a result, he had very little theological training and so he endeavored to learn as he taught and ministered to his congregation.

It is somewhat fitting that Ambrose, who so famously was forced to immerse himself in intensive study and had no choice but to learn-by-doing, is also the most prominent example of a mystagogical preacher that we have in the West. In a sense, much of Ambrose’s own Christian, not to mention his episcopal, formation was mystatogical. As someone who has recently defended her dissertation and completed the (anti)climactic transition from student to instructor, I find this to be a particular comforting idea. As anyone who has finished a dissertation will tell you, you cannot wait to begin writing when you feel “ready:” the writing would never begin at all. As a one-time substitute teacher and now an instructor of Theology at Notre Dame, further, I have found the preparation for teaching to be similar: if I waited until I felt “ready” to teach, I would never teach anyone. Thankfully, my classes don’t wait until I’m ready: I draw upon my learning and training and do my best, adjusting my pedagogy and reworking my lectures as I go. Likewise, the world and those who live in it—seeking answers to life’s big questions, searching for a way of life that treats all with care and respect, trying to find a way live everyday lives in relationship with a transcendent God—they will not wait until we feel adequately prepared to evangelize. To all my Christian friends, lay and religious, men and women, whether educated or not: The people in our lives seek our opinions, our wisdom, our experiences, our passion, our witness, our example, our hopes and dreams. They do this not because we are the experts or because we have a special relationship with God: they do it because by virtue of our baptisms we are called to be Christ to others, and they intuitively seek encounter with Christ through us. Helping others to know God as we know God does not require Ambrose’s honeyed tongue, his education, his administrative abilities, or his prestige. It does not require Augustine’s education or famous conversion experience. It does not require Nicholas’s charity or doctrinal zeal or the Blessed Virgin Mary’s life of virginity and faith. Like Ambrose, we are called before we are comfortably ready and we must be formed and reformed in Christ’s image as we go.

And so today we honor Ambrose, patron saint of Milan, of the poor, of bee keepers(!), and of learners. And informally, the patron saint of all those who preach and teach the Good News of the Living God, ready or not.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #888.

[2] Lumen Gentium, 25

[3] Craig Alan Satterlee, Ambrose of Milan’s Method of Mystagogical Preaching (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), p. 2.

[4] Timothy O’Malley, Liturgy and the New Evangelization (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), p. 58.