The Honey-Tongued Doctor
According to the Golden Legend of the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine, "the name Ambrose comes from ambra, amber, which is a fragrant, precious substance. Ambrose was precious to the Church and spread a pleasing fragrance both in his speech and in his actions... Moreover in the Glossary we find ambrosia, the food of angels, and ambrosium, the heavenly honeycomb; for Ambrose was a heavenly perfume by the fragrance of his renown, a supernal flavour due to his contemplative prayer, a celestial honeycomb by the sweetness of his exposition of the Scriptures, a food for angels in his glorious fruitfulness."
This great 4th century bishop of Milan, whose relics still rest under the High Altar of his basilica in that city, became one of the four great Latin Doctors of the Church. In doing so, he was justly in the company of St Augustine whom he effectively converted, by the grace of God. Of him Augustine says: "No enemy has dared to question his faith nor his very correct understanding of the Scriptures" and even the heresiarch Pelagius is said to have said that "The blessed bishop Ambrose, in whose books the Roman faith shines, emerges like a flower among Latin writers." Indeed, Butler says that as the Roman empire declined, Ambrose's writings, mostly in the form of homiletics, gave Latin a new lease on life as the universal language of the Church. In addition, the Breviary hymn Aeterne rerum conditor is certainly one of his works among other hymns which are ascribed to him, as is the particular liturgical rite of Milan, the Ambrosian rite.
On this day, the Church honours him remembering that day in 374 when he was consecrated bishop of Milan, having been a Roman governor of Liguria and Aemilia. As the Ambrosian rite preface for today's feast puts it: "This is the day of our solemn festival, when you [O God] raised your disciple Saint Ambrose to the dignity and seat of a bishop. You set aside the symbols of his public office and made him the teacher and the judge of your flock, confirming his ministry as the pastor of your Church."
The Office hymn for today, Fortem piumque praesulem, is given below in a translation by Martin D. O'Keefe, SJ:
Be the theme of the song
We all sing today:
He it was who set at rest
The raging storms
That marked the roiling age
In the days when he lived on earth.
Though by royal sceptre beaten,
He showed no fear;
Nor did he yield
To an empress's demands.
He kept a blood-stained emperor
Away from the church,
Closing firm the doors
With full righteous force.
Of teachers the finest,
He makes clear the hidden secrets
Of Scripture's sacred pages;
Holy Church's sacred teachings
He makes plain,
And outstrips all with his eloquent word.
Faith sets his heart on fire
And so he pours out beauty
In everything he writes;
In faith too he is the equal
Of the martyrs and discovers
The strengths that are theirs.
Now, holy Ambrose,
With flashing whip put to flight,
The wolf-hound of hell
As he rages about.
But guard us, protect us forever,
With your mind's ever brilliant lore.
To the Sacred Trinity be glory!
And, o saint most renowned,
With our hymns may we
By dint of your powerful prayer
Praise the Triune God forever
in the holy halls of heaven on high.
The photo above is of the relics of St Ambrose in Milan, with relics of SS. Gervasius and Protasius.