“Three Saints of Advent: St. Ambrose of Milan, Pastor and Hymnwriter”

Midweek Advent Evening Prayer
Wednesday, December 7, 2022

“Three Saints of Advent: St. Ambrose of Milan, Pastor and Hymnwriter”

For our midweek Advent services this year, we’re doing a series I’m calling “Three Saints of Advent: Andrew, Ambrose, and John the Baptist.” Now how did I come up with that idea? By looking at the calendar. The first Wednesday in Advent this year was November 30, and that date is set aside in the church calendar as the Feast of St. Andrew, one of the twelve apostles. The second Wednesday in Advent is today, December 7, and this date is listed in the church year as the Commemoration of St. Ambrose of Milan, Pastor and Hymnwriter. Next Wednesday will be December 14, and while that date in itself is nothing noteworthy, we’re going to remember St. John the Baptist, who is featured prominently in the Gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays in Advent. Thus the theme for these three midweek Advent services.

Andrew, Ambrose, and John the Baptist: Andrew you’ve heard about. John the Baptist you know. But who is this fellow Ambrose? Why do we commemorate him? And why on December 7? Today you’ll find out. And in his story, you will be reminded again how well God provides for his church.

The year is 374. Across the Roman Empire, which by this time had become largely Christian, a great controversy was raging, which was threatening to tear the church apart. Earlier in that century, there had arisen a heretic named Arius, who was teaching wrongly about the person of Christ. Arius taught about Christ Jesus that, quote, “There was a time when he was not.” In other words, he taught that Christ was not the eternal Son of God, but rather that he was a created being. Well, this false teaching would absolutely destroy the Christian faith. For if Jesus is not true God, then his death on the cross would not be enough to atone for the sins of the world. That’s how dangerous the Arian heresy was.

And dealing with that heresy was the main topic at the Council of Nicaea in 325. And Nicaea got it right. The bishops there rejected Arianism and confessed the truth about the divinity of Christ. You confess it too, every time we speak together the Nicene Creed. We say about our Lord Jesus Christ that he is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” The Nicene Creed strongly affirms the person of Christ as both true God and true man, without which there is no saving Christian faith. And so the Arian heresy was unequivocally rejected in the year 325.

However, that was not the end of the story. The controversy raged on. Arianism was still being taught and held to in large portions of the church. And so we come to the year 374. And we come to the city of Milan, an important city in Italy. The bishop of Milan had recently died, and now the question is, who will succeed him? Will the next bishop of Milan be a supporter of the Arian heresy or will he be one who holds to the orthodox, Nicene faith? The decision could go either way, and a lot was riding on the outcome.

The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Large crowds were gathered outside the church in Milan. Things could easily lead to a riot. So the governor of the territory stepped in and stepped up to address the crowd. His name was Ambrose, not a churchman, but rather the young governor and administrator of the territory for the Roman Empire. Ambrose’s words to the crowd were so wise and persuasive and eloquent that he calmed the situation down, and everyone was impressed. But the question still remained: Who will be the next bishop of Milan? Suddenly, a child’s voice was heard from the crowd: “Ambrose, bishop! Ambrose, Ambrose!” And then, the whole crowd started chanting, “Ambrose, bishop! Ambrose, bishop!” He was the clear choice of the people, by their acclamation, to be the next bishop of Milan.

Only there was a little problem: Ambrose was not only not a priest, he was not even baptized yet! He was still a catechumen, taking instruction! At first Ambrose tried to hide and run away from becoming bishop. But in the end, God’s will was done. Ambrose was persuaded to take on the responsibility, and within about a week, he finished up his crash course in catechesis, he was baptized, he was ordained a priest, and he was consecrated as bishop. And what was the date on which he became the bishop? December 7, 374, a date which will live in beautiful history as the Commemoration of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan.

Now you heard in our reading from 1 Timothy the qualifications for being an “overseer,” which is the same word as “bishop,” since a bishop oversees the affairs of the church. And it says there that a bishop or overseer “must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” Well, in the case of Ambrose that did not happen. Indeed, Ambrose becoming bishop turned out spectacularly well! He became an excellent theologian and one of the greatest leaders in the history of the church. So much so, that Ambrose is regarded as one of the four greatest “Doctors of the Church,” Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great–all of them outstanding figures who had a profound influence on the course of church history.

During the time that Ambrose was the bishop of Milan, a young professor of rhetoric living in the city came to hear the bishop preach. Ambrose’s sermons were so powerful and persuasive that the young man took instruction and was baptized by Ambrose and became a Christian. That man’s name was Augustine, and he turned out to the most influential theologian for a thousand years. So you can see how important St. Ambrose’s legacy is.

And let me say one more way in which St. Ambrose continues to benefit the church. And that is, through his hymnody. Ambrose is regarded as “the Father of Western Hymnody.” Ambrose introduced hymnody as we know it into the life of the Western church. He himself wrote many excellent hymns. We’re singing two of them today: “O Blessed Light, O Trinity” and, Ambrose’s most famous hymn, one of the greatest Advent hymns, “Savior of the Nations, Come.”

And notice what Ambrose does in his hymns: He teaches the faith through memorable music and texts. In his hymns, Ambrose taught the true orthodox teaching of the person of Christ and the nature of the Holy Trinity, over against the Arian heresy. This was tremendous! For example, in hymn 332, “Savior of the Nations, Come,” stanzas 4-6:

Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began.

God the Father was His source,
Back to God He ran His course.
Into hell His road went down,
Back then to His throne and crown.

For You are the Father’s Son
Who in flesh the vict’ry won.
By Your mighty pow’r make whole
All our ills of flesh and soul.

This is the pure gospel of Christ in singable form! Ambrose’s hymn teaches us how the Savior of the nations came to us, that’s God’s own Son stepped forth and came into our world to rescue us from sin and death. God’s Son came in the flesh, born of the virgin Mary, to do the job only he could do: to change everything from darkness to light for you!

This is what good hymnody does: It plants the truth of the gospel in your heart and mind in memorable, singable form. And so we thank God for St. Ambrose and his role in advancing the singing of excellent hymns in the life of the church.

Dear friends, our merciful God cares for his church. He provides us with the people and the pastors and the resources we need to be his church. He provided us with St. Ambrose, pastor and bishop, Doctor of the Church and the Father of Western Hymnody.

I myself have written a number of hymns, and I belong to an association of hymnwriters called “The Society of Saint Ambrose.” And at the close of our three midweek services this year, we’re singing the hymn, “By All Your Saints in Warfare.” That hymn has stanzas for St. Andrew and St. John the Baptist, but it does not have a stanza for St. Ambrose. So I decided to write one. We’ll sing it at the close of this service, and it sums up what we can thank God for today:

We praise You for Saint Ambrose,
True Doctor of the Church;
The bishop his church needed,
The answer to their search.
A wise and faithful pastor,
He taught the Church to sing
Hymns to the nations’ Savior,
To Christ, the coming King.

Published in: on December 7, 2022 at 5:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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