Ambrose of Milan’s Daily Tasks
Ambrose is known for three things in particular. In the first place, he strongly defended the independence of the church in its relation to the state. As a church in the West we are still reaping the fruit of this today, compared to the church in Eastern Europe. In the second place, Ambrose is the spiritual father of Augustine, who came to listen to his sermons and who was baptized by him. Thirdly, Ambrose has meant a lot for congregational singing in the form in which we still know it today. Some of his hymns, and others that have been attributed to him, have been well-loved songs throughout the centuries.1
His struggle for the independence of the church from the emperor has always had the greatest attention in church history. This has created the image of a powerful church dignitary, the equal of emperors, elevated far above the common people in the church. Later office bearers in the church may have responded to that image, but it does not do justice to Ambrose. By far the greater part of his work takes place in an entirely different atmosphere. Ambrose gave direction to a church where the circumstances were totally different from today. The church was gaining recognition. It had gained a respectable position in society. Christianity had become the official religion in the Roman Empire; even the emperor was a member of the church. The church had come this far from its early beginnings with the message of God’s love, which it also underlined in its practice. In doing so, the church distinguished itself from the culture and society of the time. There was a sense of radicalism that made people willing to die for it. The time of persecution was now past, yet the memory of the martyrs remained alive. The Roman state was in decline and paganism was on its way out; the church was respected and it was in vogue to belong to it.
On the other hand, there was also much in the circumstances of the church that we are able to recognize immediately. Its members were sinners, and sin flourished. Many did feel involved with Christianity, however without being convinced and dedicated followers of it. They shied away from becoming professing church members because of the high standards set by the church. There was much of what we would classify as “nominal Christianity”.
1. His Preaching
How did Ambrose work in the church under those circumstances? He was bishop of Milan in the years 373 to 397. First of all, he preached — every Sunday and also on special feast days (you get a sense from his biographers that they regard this as a lot). He explained the Bible, often in serial sermons. The approach of his explanation might often seem rather strange and at times perhaps irresponsible to us. He tended to apply the allegorical method. For example: the arms that the father puts around the prodigal son represent Christ, through whom the Father embraces us. This way of preaching, full of symbolism, was familiar to the audience of his time and it appealed to them. There is much arbitrariness in this method of interpreting the Bible, but it is always the biblical truth that Ambrose illustrates in this way.
He had not studied theology, but in the scant time available to him from his work, he read the Greek church fathers and enriched the church in the West with their theological insights. He familiarized his audience with the Bible, including the Old Testament, which the audience at that time often regarded as a strange book full of crude stories. A number of his books are representative of his interpretation of the Bible.
His style of speaking often comes across as rather dull and long-winded to the modern, more impatient listener. But it is also straightforward and without any adornment. Augustine, who was at the time a professor of rhetoric in Milan, went to hear the famous bishop because he spoke so well, and as he listened he gradually became aware that it was the truth that was being proclaimed. Ambrose was taught as a legal expert, a training that some people claim to detect in his work. In it one can also sense his profound love for God. As a staunch adherent of the confession of the church and in opposition to Arianism, he wrote several books about the Triune God and his actions.
His preaching was focused on everyday life. He knew the weaknesses of his audience; he also knew about the hardness of their hearts. More profoundly than earlier theologians he probed human depravity and thus equipped Augustine for his later struggle against Pelagianism. As such, his influence found its way into the Reformed confession. He preached against the sins of his time. He exposed the rich, who flaunted their status in lavish meals with the most exotic and costly ingredients. He preached against drunkenness. He encouraged high sexual morals. Over against the practices of his days he insisted on controlling one’s lusts, advocating sobriety and abstinence. He spoke highly of remaining single, especially for women. In a world where the morals of many men were lax and unrefined and where women were heavily burdened, he unilaterally emphasized the one line that the apostle prescribed — the solution of the church of that time for what we know as the issue of women's emancipation, yet with the central ideal of humble devotion to the Lord in daily life.
Among his audience Ambrose had many catechumens — students in the doctrines of God’s Word. Many stayed for years on end to listen, for as long as they could, without saying farewell to a worldly lifestyle or applying to be baptized. Augustine was one of them. Ambrose urged them to make a decision and to register as applicants for baptism.
In the weeks prior to the administration of baptism, which was associated with the celebration of Easter, he preached every day, with special attention to those who applied to be baptized. His catechesis was presented in the form of sermons. Through these, many people were helped though this decision-making phase of their lives; he spent a great deal of time and effort on this. After their baptism they were then initiated into the mysteries of the church, the Lord’s Supper.
3. Pastoral Care and Discipline
People came to him for help with their questions. That was the custom in that culture; ministerial visits to the home were not as common at that time. The bishop was accessible to everyone. People would wait in large numbers for their turn; sometimes it was so busy that not even everyone got their turn and some had to try again another day. This work took most of Ambrose’s time and it sometimes exhausted even this extraordinarily energetic worker.
He gave practical advice, answered questions of conscience, and settled differences of opinion. He consoled the grieving, calmed down any who were hot-tempered, exposed hypocrites and encouraged people in need. Was there perhaps a touch of impatience in what he finally said to Monica, Augustine's mother, “It is impossible for a son of so many prayers to be lost”? He taught, pointed out solutions, and admonished where necessary. He also did some of this work through writing, in letters of correspondence.
Church discipline was often and strictly applied — a reflection of the high standard of the Christian church. Sinners had to do penance in public. Yet there were many who submitted to it willingly. Ambrose was able to stand so close to them in their misdemeanours that he could weep over the wrong that had been committed, thereby encouraging sinners to repent. Presumably he also allowed people to sometimes do their penance in silence.
At one occasion he even disciplined the emperor. Milan was the official residence of the emperor, and so belonged to his parish. After a serious riot, Theodosius’ rage resulted in the fact that his soldiers killed hundreds of citizens. Ambrose wrote him a composed, cautious, yet resolute letter: under these circumstances it was impossible for him to serve the Lord’s Supper to the emperor. The emperor publicly confessed his guilt, and the relationship between the two men remained good. This is often considered as one of the well-known episodes from the struggle between church and state, but in fact it shows a case of personal pastoral care. Like every other member of the community, so public persons too are under the supervision and discipline of the church, not only in regard to their private lives but also in their functions, in their public demeanour.
4. Diaconal Help
People also came to the bishop with diaconal issues. Although he could leave this work to the deacons, he himself carried the final responsibility. Besides the poor, care was also given to the sick, the elderly, orphans and strangers. Poor girls received a wedding gift, burial places were provided for people who were destitute, and prisoners of war were ransomed.
5. Legal Aid
The bishop was a public figure. Roman jurisprudence, famous even to our present time for its principles, was often corrupted; it offered little legal assurance and protection. The bishop stood up for the condemned and in the case of some death sentences pleaded that these would not be carried out. One could also go to him with civil cases. The secular judicial process tended to be complicated, cases dragged on for a long time and little came of it. With the bishop, people received personal attention and cordial care for their cases. This element considerably increased the workload of the bishop, but Ambrose thought of the word of Paul: it is better to ask competent people within the congregation to resolve matters (1 Cor. 6). In this way the church performed a great service to society.