Book Reviews

Day Thirty-six: St. Ambrose of Milan: Concerning the Mysteries: 5-9

Who: Bishop of Milan from 374 to 397; born probably 340, at Trier, Arles, or Lyons; died 4 April, 397. He was one of the most illustrious Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

What: The treatise was composed for use during the latter part of Lent, for the benefit of those about to be baptised, the rites and meaning of that Sacrament, as well as of Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. For all these matters were treated with the greatest reserve in the Early Church, for fear of being misused by unbelievers.

Why: Ambrose states that after the explanations he has already given of holy living (in previous texts not included here), he will now explain the Mysteries. Then after giving his reasons for not having done so before, he explains the mystery of the opening of the ears, and shows how this was of old done by Christ Himself.

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When: About 387 AD

You can find today’s reading on page 173 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf

 

Continuing on from yesterday, we'll jump straight into the second, and final part, of Ambrose's catechism on the mysteries.

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Continuing on the mystery of baptism, Ambrose explains that Christ is Himself present in Baptism, and because of that “we need not consider the person of His ministers”, since it is spiritually Christ baptising us. He then goes on to give a brief explanation of the confession of the Trinity, which is usually said by those being baptised, and how confessing belief in Father, Son and Spirit doesn't mean accepting one more than the other, but that they are all equal.

But one thing of importance they must also confess is “the cross of the Lord Jesus alone”. Which I suppose means that they accept the Gospel and reject all other religions and beliefs that they may have.

Fire from heaven

Ambrose also makes a link between a couple of times in the Old Testament where a sacrifice was consumed with heavenly fire, and the baptism of fire we receive in the New Testament.

In Judges 6:21 when Jerubbaal had an angel burn up the sacrifice, and another time in 1 Kings 18:38 when Elijah was battling with the prophets of Baal, fire from the Lord came down to burn it up. “To those [of old] a visible fire was sent that they might believe; for us who believe, the Lord works invisibly” – our fire from heaven is in the form of the Spirit of God who falls upon us, who are “living sacrifices” to the Lord Jesus (Rom 12:1).

Anointed as priests

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After baptism, straight from coming out of the water, the catechumens are then anointed with oil.

This isn't a small dab of oil wiped on the forehead, but it is poured over their heads to run down their beards as David wrote about Aaron in Psalm 133:2; this is so that they, like the Israelites, “may become a chosen race, priestly and precious, for we are all anointed with spiritual grace for a share in the kingdom of God and in the priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9).

Ambrose points out here something unusual I’ve not heard before about foot washing. After these are baptised and anointed with oil, the converts then have their feet washed because of the example set by Jesus. It really is an example we are meant to follow too which is something I hadn’t noticed before, nor ever really been taught. Jesus specifically said to his disciples:

John 13:14-15

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

Ambrose here interprets this as meaning that although Peter was clean (vv.13),

...his feet were therefore washed, that hereditary sins might be done away, for our own sins are remitted through baptism [...] since the Author of Salvation Himself redeemed us through His obedience, how much more ought we His servants to offer the service of our humility and obedience.

After all of this process is done, the catechumens are then given a white robe to wear to symbolise the putting off of sins and the old self, and of putting on “the chaste veil of innocence”; as Isaiah prophesied: “Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).

A more excellent sacrament

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Ambrose makes a point here that even though the Jews had manna and quail sent by God, and it was physical and seen, the Church now has sacraments which “are both more ancient than those of the synagogue, and more excellent than the manna” because “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9), for the invisible things of God cannot be comprehended by the human mind.

As “water flowed from the rock” for the people of old (Num 20:11), Ambrose says, now “for you Blood flowed from Christ” – that water only satisfied them for a short time, the now the Blood of Christ satisfies us for all eternity; just as the Body of Christ is now far better than the manna, “for light is better than shadow” which these things prefigured.

Ambrose finishes of his lecture with a lengthy explanation about the Eucharist and how it really is the body and blood of Christ, even though it may still look like bread and wine. He goes on to give many examples from the Old Testament about how the prophets did many things contrary to nature, such as the axe head floating (2 Kings 6:1-7), the Red Sea parting (Exodus 14:21), etc, so why now is it so hard to believe that by blessing and consecration, the bread and wine change their nature to become the true Body and Blood? These things aren’t called “mysteries” for no reason, I suppose!

After saying this, he then goes on to say that if these elements can be changed in nature, then so are we by being born again through the waters of baptism, even though we don’t re-enter the womb to be physically changed. The Spirit is working in us and through us to make the change, just as He does in the elements of the Eucharist.

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It’s becoming clearer each day we read, that the early church accepted some form of transubstantiation/Real Presence in the Eucharist, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you can accept this, if you don’t already. I’ll instead close off with this quote from Ambrose, because whatever we believe concerning these things, we truly are sealed by the Spirit of God first, and our understanding of doctrine comes second:

So that the Lord Jesus Himself, invited by such eager love and by the beauty of comeliness and grace, since now no offenses pollute the baptized, says to the Church: Place Me as a seal upon your heart, as a signet upon your arm; (Song of Songs 8:6)

 

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