In the chancel area of the parish church is an icon of St. Ambrose. The icon is based upon the oldest known image of this venerable bishop, a mosaic that dates back to the time of his life. The mosaic is in his Basilica in Milan which St. Ambrose consecrated in the year 387 and where his relics lie today in the crypt.
St. Ambrose is a truly great Doctor of the Church. He was born into a privileged and powerful family. His father had been Prefect of Gallia, ruling over what is today France, Britain, Spain, and parts of Africa. After the death of his father, the family moved to Rome. Ambrose studied law, and was sent to Milan to work in the civic government, but he was soon chosen to be Bishop of Milan. The Church in Milan had been controlled by an Arian heretic bishop from the east, so Ambrose (as a committed Catholic, but only a young man of 34 years) could not have expected to be raised up as bishop. Nevertheless, he was elected unanimously by the Milanese, and the emperor conceded to his election. Ambrose was consecrated bishop eight days later on December 7th, 374, the date that would become his feast day.
A great many people in Ambrose’s time were Arian. Arianism was a heresy that came forth from the teachings of an African priest named Arius who died only a year prior to the birth of St. Ambrose. Arians called themselves Christians, but they did not believe that Christ was co-eternal with the Father. Already in our parish, we have two icons of bishops who resisted the teachings of Arius, an icon of St. Nicholas of Myra (who reportedly once slapped Arius when at the Council of Nicaea) and an icon of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who was a heroic voice for orthodox teaching and who was also a contemporary with both Arius and Ambrose. This new icon of St. Ambrose will give us the image of yet another opponent of Arius.
Arius was attractive and intelligent. His simple heresy was also very popular, and it had spread all over the world. Even after Arius’s ignominious death, his heresy continued to be popular for generations. In some ways, the temptation to see Christ as “sort-of-God-but-not-really-
Interestingly, the heretical teachings of Arianism were spread, in part, through popular music. Arius had reportedly been something of a musical genius who had taken the popular music and melodies of his day and created popular church songs that spread his doctrine. Not to be outdone, St. Ambrose also composed hymns that countered Arianism and expressed the Catholic orthodox teachings on the Trinity. It was Ambrose who introduced hymnody to the liturgies in the west, and the Te Deum is attributed to his authorship (in our icon, St. Ambrose holds a scroll featuring this hymn).
Ambrose also composed antiphonal chants that were meant to console his congregation while they were literally trapped inside a church protesting the visit of the empress (who was herself Arian, and demanded to be allowed to worship in Milan). Probably his greatest pastoral challenge were the Arian heretics of his day, many of whom were highly ranked and powerful people who were not afraid to challenge Catholic bishops. But St. Ambrose would not cower, and went toe to toe with imperial authority, refusing to back down from his Catholic Faith expressed in the Nicene Creed. Ambrose said “no” to imperial power more than once. He was a bishop who could checkmate even the most powerful people of his day. He was an amazingly courageous bishop at a time when most bishops were not. Ambrose championed truth, and we would be wise to invoke his intercession ourselves, that we may have the courage to speak out for truth in our own age.
Ambrose became the model bishop, giving up his personal wealth to the poor, and turning his brilliant intellect to proclaiming the Gospel. His door was always open for confession, and he offered the Mass daily for his people. He also was constantly writing. Ambrose was fluent not only in Latin, but also in Greek, and this allowed him to correspond with a great many saints in the east. St. Ambrose was known for his sweet and rich way of teaching and preaching, so in our icon he is shown with a beehive (the word for honey in Latin is ambrosia).
Our icon was painted by Mr. David Clayton, an Englishman living and teaching in New Hampshire. Mr. Clayton took two western saints, Ambrose and Gregory, and interpreted them through all that he knows of Eastern and Western art to give us something unique for our parish. These icons are real treasures and they establish a beautiful precedent for future images of both these saints. Certainly with Ambrose, Mr. Clayton has successfully captured the humanity of such a great bishop (here youthful, and with almost the look of being a bit daunted by the responsibility he has). What follows is a prayer we invite our parishioners to pray as they learn more about this truly great bishop and saint.
“Venerable son of Rome and most worthy Bishop of Milan, your patrician family long professed the Catholic Faith of the apostles and martyrs. Destined for worldly power, you acquiesced to accept the mantle of leadership in the Church where you pushed back against the heresies of your day, and held firm against the power of unjust rulers seeking to control the Church. Where others caved to political pressure and imperial intimidation, you held your episcopal ground. No prince was too powerful for you to chastise. Known far and wide for both your piety and wisdom, your words turned the restless heart of Augustine to the Gospel. O defender of the Sacred Mysteries and champion of the Triune Divinity of Christ, you teach us truth even today through your many hymns. Pray for us St. Ambrose, that our bishops may be worthy of their office, and that we may persevere in the Catholic Faith that you served with such heroic virtue. Amen.”