One of the four great Western “doctors” of the Church (along with St. Gregory the Great, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome), St. Ambrose of Milan has blessed the Church with a holy example of praise to God (through his hymns and chants), of defense of the Truth against heresy (in his opposition to the Arians), and of fearlessness against the cruelty of rulers (in his order to the Emperor Theodosius to do public penance for the massacre of innocent people).
The son of the Roman governor of Gaul, Ambrose was born around the year 339. His family sent the boy to Rome to study poetry, rhetoric, Greek, and law and his intelligence helped him to become successful at an early age. In 370, Ambrose was made a regional governor, residing in Milan. Ambrose was still only a catechumen in the Church, but he strongly opposed the Arian heresy (which was very strong and constantly competing with Orthodoxy for the allegiance of the people). When the Arian bishop of the diocese died in 374, it was Ambrose’s duty as governor to preside over the election of a successor, so he called an assembly of the people for that purpose. During the governor’s opening speech, a child cried out “Ambrose for bishop” and there was a general outcry of all the people in agreement. After many attempts to refuse the election, Ambrose finally recognized God’s will in this event, and he was baptized and then ordained on December 7 (which is celebrated as his feast day in both the East and the West).
Ambrose’s continuing education now centered on the study of the works of the fathers, particularly St. Basil the Great. He used his great administrative skills in his new role, often acting as mediator in disputes. Having given his wealth to the poor, he founded charities, encouraged monastics in the ascetic life, and wrote numerous theological works. Loved by the people, he was a true father and guide for them, especially in difficult times, as when he and fellow Christians protected a church from being taken over by the Arians at the order of the emperor. As the emperor’s soldiers surrounded the church, Ambrose and the people remained inside, singing hymns and psalms until the soldiers retreated. His counsel to St. Monica gave her comfort and perseverance and also eventually led her son, St. Augustine, to accept the Orthodox faith. After a severe illness in the winter of 397, St. Ambrose fell asleep in the Lord on Good Friday, April 4.
We do not know if St. Ambrose composed music, but the style of chant which developed in the diocese of Milan became known as “Ambrosian chant” [the setting of the Creed, which we sing is an ancient Ambrosian melody]. We do have a number of hymn texts which he wrote and, through these words, St. Ambrose strengthens our faith. May we, with him, sing this hymn as we anticipate the coming of our Lord at Christmas:
Come, thou Redeemer of the earth, and manifest thy virgin-birth: let every age adoring fall, such birth befits the God of all.
Begotten of no human will, but of the Spirit, thou art still the Word of God, in flesh arrayed, the Savior, now to man displayed.