It is the 7th of December 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
In the 1995 Episode of the Simpsons entitled “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily” the Simpson kids are placed in foster care and end up at the home of their neighbors, the Flanders. When Ned Flanders learns that the Simpson children haven’t been baptized, he takes them to a river, and just as he is about to baptize Bart, Homer jumps in his way, action movie style, and receives the baptism himself. Bart asks him how he feels, and Homer responds, “Oh, Bartholomew, I feel like St. Augustine of Hippo after his conversion by Ambrose of Milan,” Flanders asks him what he just said. Homer responds, “I said shut your ugly face Flanders”- while the theology of baptism might be questioned, the church history is good- it was, in fact, Ambrose of Milan who helped to effect Augustine’s conversion, and tradition holds that Ambrose baptized him.
It was on this, the 7th of December in 397, that one of the most esteemed men in Church history died- he is one of the few characters in all of Church history to be recognized almost universally for his work as a Bishop, theologian, and patron saint of beekeepers.
Let me explain that one; the legend goes that when he was born, he was swarmed by bees- Thomas J style, but was unharmed. In fact, it is said they left a drop of honey on his mouth as they dissipated, presaging the eloquence with which he would speak.
He was born in or around 339- the biographical works on him are unfortunately sparse in his own age, and what we do have is marred by the kinds of hagiography (or exaggerations) that come with so great a character but in the distant lands of the 4th century.
His father, also named Ambrose, was a prefect- one of the more respected men in the Roman government in this newly “Christianized” empire. He was given an education in the faith and the Liberal Arts. He could read and speak eloquently in both Greek and Latin. His knowledge of Greek and friendship with Basil the Great (one of the Greek church fathers) greatly enhanced Latin worship. It is from the Greeks that Ambrose helped introduce the then-Greek practice of singing antiphons and hymns. Ambrose himself was the author of many hymns, although his name is also affixed to many 4th-century hymns he did not write- you may be familiar with the Ambrosian hymns: “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing” and “Hark a Thrilling Voice Proclaims.”
He was not initially interested in going into church work. In fact, he was among the first men of high standing in society to divest himself of world goods for service to the church. He was called to Milan to oversee a contentious election to a bishopric. This particular seat had recently been held by an Arian, and the Emperor called Ambrose to attend the next election to ensure peace- it was there that the people called on Ambrose to be their bishop by public acclamation. He fled, but when the emperor threatened to arrest him, he accepted the position for which he would be known in posterity. Interestingly, he was not yet baptized when he was elected Bishop- it was not uncommon for some in these early years to put it off until the latest possible time in order to maximize the amount of forgiveness it could afford (so both the Simpsons and the Bishop had curious doctrines of Baptism)
One of the more remarkable stories in church history, alas, also often subject to exaggeration, comes from Ambrose and his relationship with Emperor Theodosius. Theodosius, in Milan, heard of unrest in Thessalonica. The stories vary, but the emperor gave orders to have as many as 7,000 of the rioters lured into a stadium where they were massacred. According to one of the more dramatic telling of this story, the Emperor then attempted to enter the church, where he was stopped by Ambrose and told that unless he repented for this act, he could not be received by the church nor receive communion. As the story goes, the emperor Theodosius eventually did public penance for his acts and was readmitted to the church. Of course, the story would be useful for Medieval clerics who would claim spiritual authority over temporal rulers.
Theodosius would die soon after, and his funeral sermon was preached by Ambrose, whose funeral sermons are amongst his more famous writings- along with his hymns and commentaries on Scripture. It was in 397, traditionally held to be on this the 7th of December, that the great bishop of Milan, Ambrose died.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- from Genesis 15:
4 Then the word of the Lord came to [Abram]: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of December 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man pastor Lovejoy of Springfield has nothing on. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who hopes the few of you who got the Thomas J reference enjoyed it. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.