Ambrose was born at Trier, the son of the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul. Following education at Rome and a traditional administrative career, he practiced in the lawcourts and in due course was appointed governor of Aemilia-Liguria, with his seat at Milan. On the death in 373 or 374 of Auxentius, the Arian bishop of Milan, Ambrose became involved in the election of his successor as a mediator between the battling factions of Arians and catholic (orthodox) Christians. The election was an important one in the struggle between the adherents of Nicene orthodoxy and the adherents of the Arian heresy because of the significance of the provincial capital city in northern Italy.
Ambrose exhorted the nearly riotous mob to keep the peace and to obey the law. The Milanese laity of both sides suddenly raised the cry, “Ambrose shall be our bishop!” Though brought up in a Christian family, Ambrose was not yet baptized, but was still a catechumen. After initial resistance, he accepted his popular election to the episcopate of the city, was baptized and ordained bishop on December 7. He devoted himself to the study of theology, perhaps under the guidance of Simplicianus, who later succeeded Ambrose as bishop of Milan.
Ambrose rapidly won renown as a defender of Nicene orthodoxy against Arianism and as a great and respected churchman. He wrote straightforward, practical discourses to catechize his people in such matters of doctrine as baptism, the Trinity, the eucharist, and the Person of Christ. About baptism, Ambrose wrote: “After the font (of baptism), the Holy Spirit is poured on you, ‘the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and godliness, and the spirit of holy fear'” (De Sacramentis 3.8).
Apart from De Sacramentis, his most notable work is De Officiis Ministrorum, a treatise on Christian ethics, based on Cicero, with special reference to the clergy. Knowledge of Greek enabled him to introduce much Eastern theology into the West. He also wrote on ascetical subjects and did much to encourage monasticism and the veneration of martyrs in northern Italy. His persuasive preaching was an important factor in the conversion of Augustine of Hippo.
In his dealings with the Roman emperors of his day, Ambrose asserted a remarkable degree of authority. He persuaded Gratian to refuse a hearing to those who objected to the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate House at Rome and threatened ecclesiastical sanctions against Valentinian the Second if he restored it. He excommunicated Theodosius for a massacre of several thousand citizens of Salonika (Thessalonika) in 390, forcing the emperor to do public penance for the slaughter. With equal strength he asserted the independence of the Church from imperial control, refusing to cede a basilica to Valentinian’s Arian protégés and protesting against the action of the Gallic bishops in involving Maximus in the execution of Priscillian as a heretic in the year 386.
Ambrose was also a skilled hymnodist, introducing antiphonal chanting to enrich the liturgy of the Church of Milan. It was through his influence that hymns became an integral part of the liturgy of the Western Church. Those hymns universally attributed to him include Veni redemptor gentium (“Come, thou redeemer of the earth”, “Savior of the nations, come”), the hymn for the first vespers of the Nativity (on Christmas Eve) in the Sarum Use, as well as three other hymns for the daily office. Hymns also attributed to him by later Benedictine editors include Splendor paternae gloriae (“O splendor of God’s glory bright”), Aeterna Christi munera (“The eternal gifts of Christ the King”), and O lux beata Trinitas (“O Trinity of blessed light”).
A meditation attributed to him includes these words: “Lord Jesus Christ, you are for me medicine when I am sick; you are my strength when I need help; you are life itself when I fear death; you are the way when I long for heaven; you are light when all is dark; you are my food when I need nourishment.”
prepared from material in Lesser Feasts and Fasts
and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
O God, you gave your servant Ambrose grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name: Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, are published on the Lectionary page website.
The icon of Saint Ambrose of Milan is from Aidan Hart’s gallery of Western Orthodox saints and is reproduced here with his generous permission.