Monday, February 10, 2014

St. Ambrose of Milan (339-397 AD) by Chris White

“..Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”  Rev. 1:5

If you are at Rome live in the Roman style; if you are elsewhere live as they live elsewhere.   –Ambrose of Milan

Ambrose was born to a powerful Roman family (strongly Christian) and was destined for a career in public service.  Highly educated and charismatic, before age 30 he was governing most of Italy’s northern provinces and was well respected by his superiors and subordinates alike.

When the bishop of Milan died, Ambrose went to the meeting where a successor was being selected.  He was there to give public support but before the meeting was over, he was elected as the new bishop by acclamation.  Ambrose felt a bit awkward about his election since, even though he was a Christian, he had neglected to go through catechism and baptism.  After several attempts to get out of this commitment failed he finally agreed to serve as bishop and did so with great zeal.

As a well-educated man and being very knowledgeable in Greek, Ambrose became famous for being a dynamic preacher and writer.  He wrote many books on theological doctrines which are still read and considered important today.  One person Ambrose was to greatly influence was a young skeptic who had recently moved to Milan and came to hear him preach because he was so eloquent.  That person was St. Augustine of Hippo who is himself a huge theological influence for Roman Catholics and Protestants.

One of Ambrose’s most remembered quotes is “when in Rome do as the Romans do”.  This has been taken to mean that when in Rome you are free to indulge in the debauchery of the Romans (sort of like “what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas”).  The true meaning of the saying has its source believers in his church who were concerned that the worship services in Rome’s churches were different from theirs.  Ambrose knew that customs on Sunday morning differ from church to church and that believers should not question them or correct them, but be good guests and fit in with the Christians in that locale.

But the biggest contribution of Ambrose was neither his preaching, writing or wise guidance. It was his discipline of the Roman Emperor Theodosius.  Theodosius I (his name means worshipper of God) was a strong Christian and was the person who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  One day in a fit of rage over some riots in Thessalonica, Theodosius ordered the mass execution of nearly 7000 people.  Such a thing was as horrible then as it would be now, but it was something an emperor could pull off especially one as powerful as Theodosius.

When Ambrose heard the news he wrote a letter to the Emperor forbidding him to attend worship or receive communion until he had repented and prostrated himself at the altar out of sorrows for his grievous sin.  Because  Theodosius greatly respected the authority of Ambrose and knew that he did this out of love and spiritual concern, he did the unthinkable and repented publicly for this great sin.

While this was a one-time event it established a precedent that was to be followed for the next thousand years.  Kings have secular authority but are still under the authority of God by being under the authority of the Church.  This authority of accountability over monarchs by the church was to profoundly affect Western Civilization and because of this Bishop Ambrose of Milan is considered one of the important shapers of the Christian Church.

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