Today we honor Saint Ambrose and his many contributions to our faith. Known as the Father of Western Hymnody, he left a prolific number of song texts, many of them familiar to modern worshipers. He also promoted Antiphonal chant, a style in which one side of the choir answers in response to the other.
He was born c. 340 AD in Augusta Treverorum, in the Roman province of Gaul. A beautiful legend surrounds his infancy, here described: While asleep in his cradle, a swarm of bees settled on his face. Without harming the child, they deposited a single drop of honey, then flew away. His father, standing nearby, declared this a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence, a man with a “honeyed tongue.”
Ambrose followed his father’s example of public service. After studying literature, law, and rhetoric in Rome, he became the governor of Liguria and Emilia, which had headquarters in Milan. Saint Ambrose served as governor until 374 AD, at which time he was named Bishop of Milan. Neither baptized nor a theologian, Ambrose vehemently refused the office. He hid in the house of a colleague, but a letter from the Emperor Gratian convinced the friend to release Ambrose from his protection. Within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as Bishop of Milan. A Nicene Christian, Ambrose as Bishop was at odds with the then-popular Arian heresy. Arians did not submit to the tenants of the Nicene Creed and therefore undermined the official church.
Ambrose, however, was not rigid in smaller matters and felt that liturgy was the servant of the people and the enhancer of worship. He believed in following local liturgical custom, which prompted him to say, “When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not.” Sound familiar? We introduced this doctrine into everyday life with the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
The life of Saint Ambrose influenced and supported our faith. He was generous, a consoler and instrument of hope, eloquent in word and manner, and a defender of truth. He died on April 4th, 397 at the age of 57, in the city of Milan.
Among his beautiful texts we sing today are, At the Lamb’s High Feast, Before the Ending of the Day, Holy God, Thy Name We Bless and Hark! A Thrilling Voice Proclaiming.