Epiphany: St. Ambrose

A few years ago, I visited Genoa, Italy. If I had driven two hours north to Milan and then traveled about 1600 years into the past, I would have been under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of a honey-tongued anti-Arian preacher named Ambrose. The oldest of the four Latin Fathers,[1] this bishop played an enormous role in the conversion of St. Augustine, who was dabbling in Manichaeism,[2] Neo-Platonism, skepticism and concubinage. In fact, Ambrose baptized Augustine and even earned honorable mention in his Autobiography. In Confessions, Augustine writes admirably about Ambrose’s ability and tendency to read silently, apparently a rare activity in late antiquity, when most reading was done out loud.

Ambrose resembled today’s Revs. George Regas and Ed Bacon in his concern for the poor and in his courage to speak truth to power. After emperor Theodosius the Great massacred thousands of rioters, Ambrose threatened to excommunicate him lest he repented. Theodosius eventually succumbed to Ambrose’s insistence on repentance thus confirming the bishop’s assertion that “the emperor is in the church, not above the church.”

Relation to Jews

James Carroll would point out the anti-Jewish rhetoric of this church father, especially when he protested against Theodosius’ order to rebuild a synagogue that was destroyed by a Christian mob. Ambrose called the synagogue “a home of perfidy in which Christ is daily blasphemed,” thus affirming its destruction and preventing its reconstruction. Ironically, all of Ambrose’s complaints against the emperor led to the enactment of the Theodosian code, which actually gave some civil rights to Jews. This same code later influenced another Latin Father, Pope Gregory the Great, who laid the foundation for the official church position of giving Jews the right to enjoy lawful liberty in Sicut Judaeis. Also, in a commentary on the Psalms, Ambrose speaks highly of “some” Jews when he writes, “Some Jews exhibit purity of life and much diligence and love of study.”

Imago Dei

“The soul,” according to Ambrose, “adheres to God and bears in herself a likeness of the divine image.” Perhaps the most effective way that one can live according to the imago Dei is through virginity. Beloved Virgin Mary is the prime example of how virginity brings humanity and divinity together. Because of her virginity, Mary did not just access the divine image within; she brought down the Word from Heaven to dwell physically within her! Now, that same Word from Heaven can dwell spirituality within us, if we also take the vow of chastity. Ambrose highlights other holy virgins like St. Agnes (d. 304) and Thecla (supposed contemporary of St. Paul), who accessed the imago Dei through their virginity. According to Ambrose, virginity is a practical way to anticipate Heaven (where there is no marriage)[3], to enter into mystical marriage with Christ (as described in Song of Songs)[4], and to heal the “scar of sexuality” (which humans inherit from the Fall). Ambrose does not condemn marriage, but certainly sees it as far from the angelic ideal of virginity. In his treatise De Virginitate, written for his virgin sister Marcellina, Ambrose explains that accessing the imago Dei involves more than just sitting around and “being a virgin”: Fasting, avoiding certain meats, praying the Lord’s Prayer, repeating the Psalms every night and reciting the Creed every day are strongly encouraged.

Like Jerome (d. 420), Ambrose believed that human sexuality was the result of Original Sin. His mentee, St. Augustine, however, arrived at a more moderate understanding of human sexuality: Originally intended to be holy and good as it was for Adam and Eve, human sexuality turned perverse after the Fall. Although Augustine is often criticized for his negative views on sex, he is actually a moderate when seen in light of his contemporaries, especially in light of the great upholder of holy virginity, St. Ambrose.

[1] Ambrose [d. 390], Jerome [d. 420], Augustine [d. 430], and Pope Gregory the Great [d. 610]

[2] A Gnostic philosophy based on the teachings of Iranian prophet Mani

[3] Ambrose:  “Whoever condemns virginity condemns the promise of the resurrection. There can be nothing offensive in a way of life which actually anticipates our final state”

[4] If you are a virgin, the “Song of Songs” is honeycomb and you are a bee.

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