07 December 2016

Singing the Priestly Song of Christ with St. Ambrose

It was 1,642 years ago that St. Ambrose was ordained and consecrated as the Bishop of Milan, one week after he was baptized.  That is not according to the usual good order of the Church, nor is it advised by the Apostle St. Paul, but in the case of this man God worked it all out for the good.

Normally the saints are commemorated on the date of their heavenly birthday, the day of their death, and we do know when Ambrose died.  It was on Good Friday in the Year of Our Lord 397, April the 4th.  But it is on this day that the Church remembers and gives thanks for him.

Prior to being baptized and becoming a bishop, Ambrose had been the Governor of Milan, and he had a promising future in politics like his father before him.

Milan in those days was deeply divided between catholics, that is to say, the orthodox Christians, and Arians, who considered themselves to be Christians but who denied the deity of the Son of God.  The Arians insisted that the Son of God was not true God from all eternity, that He was not of one Substance with the Father, but was instead the first and greatest of all God’s creatures, a sort of middle being through whom God dealt with the world.  It was a blatant and dangerous heresy, but it appealed to many who thought that it protected the dignity and unity of God.

It so happened that the Bishop of Milan, an Arian, died, and a fierce conflict developed between the catholics and the Arians, as to who would get to choose the next Bishop.  So they were all gathered in the cathedral, everybody yelling and shouting.  Typical politics.  Then Ambrose the Governor came in to the cathedral in the hopes of bringing peace to the assembly.

As you might imagine, when the Governor came into the room, things settled down and got quiet.  And a voice rang out, “Ambrose is Bishop!”  Tradition says it was a child who said it.  Whoever it was, Ambrose had brought peace where there was no peace, so the prospect of making him Bishop resonated with the people.  Everybody started chanting, “Ambrose is Bishop! Ambrose is Bishop!”  And the Emperor liked the idea when he got word of it.

As for Ambrose, he did not want the job, and he resisted.  He was, after all, still a catchumen; he had not even been baptized.  He was a politician, not a pastor.  He had studied law and rhetoric, not theology, not the Scriptures, and he knew it.  But after about a month, he consented.  He was quickly baptized, and a week later ordained as a priest and consecrated as the Bishop of Milan.

Whatever he may have lacked prior to that point, he applied himself to the duties of his office with earnestness and zeal and tireless service.  He sold off his possessions.  He gave most of the money to the poor, keeping only enough to provide for his mother and his sister.  He entrusted his home to the Church.  And he set about studying theology, the earlier church fathers, and the Holy Scriptures, so that he might be a faithful teacher in Christ’s Church.  And that indeed he was.

What he had learned in his study of law and rhetoric, he put to use in the teaching and preaching of the Word of God, and he became known as a powerful, eloquent preacher.  He was also attentive to the people and was a real pastor to them.  His parishioners, any one of them, had access to him.  He prayed and interceded for the people.  And though he was a peace loving man, he was also a strong and courageous man.  On several occasions, he called powerful men to repentance.

When the Emperor Theodosius, who had been a strong supporter of Ambrose, slaughtered an entire town of people, indiscriminately killing thousands of men, women, and children, without regard to innocence or guilt, Ambrose excommunicated the Emperor until he would repent of this sin.  St. Ambrose would not relent.  When Theodosius argued that David also had sinned, Ambrose replied, “So be it.  As you have sinned like David, now repent like David.”  And the Emperor did.

Such was the respect that people had for the great Ambrose.  Perhaps no one more so than the great Augustine, who, after all those years of his mother Monica’s praying, had been converted by the preaching of St. Ambrose.  Augustine first went to hear Ambrose because of his reputation as an eloquent speaker, but he was there confronted by the preaching of the Word of God and was converted by that preaching.  He was baptized by St. Ambrose shortly before St. Monica’s death.

One tradition concerning that occasion says that, when Augustine came up out of the water of his Baptism, he and St. Ambrose together burst into song and for the first time sang in the Church the great Canticle that we know as Te Deum Laudamus.

The reason a fantastic story like that would emerge is because Ambrose was indeed a hymnwriter.  In fact, there’s a whole body of Latin hymns that are named after him, because of his influence.  We know of about fourteen hymns that we can say with some confidence that Ambrose wrote, himself, including the two that we have sung this evening.  But he also left his mark on the history of Christian hymnody, such that he is regarded as the father of Western hymnody.

Hymns were already involved in the conflict between the catholics and the Arians, and Ambrose then also entered the fray with his hymns.  He recognized that hymnody could serve as a powerful teacher of the Word of God and of the faith.  When the Word of God is pleasingly set to music, and is sung, it is carried into the heart and mind, and it sticks.

Music is so powerful that Augustine was actually torn between his love for hymnody and his fear that he enjoyed the singing too much.  And as it was, the Arians were using music to advance their heresy among the people.  Yet, in response, the hymns of Ambrose and others were truly sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.  They taught and confessed the Word of God, and by the Spirit they carried the prayer and praise of the Church and of Christ’s people to the Father in heaven.

When you sing concerning God and His Self-revelation, when you say concerning Him what He has said, and when you sing what He has said and done, then you praise and give thanks to Him, even as you confess His holy Name.  Thus do you make good use of your time in the midst of this evil world, and all of your days and your deeds are sanctified by the singing of the Word of God.

Ambrose in particular wrote hymns for evening and morning, for the seasons of the Church Year, and for different times of day that are rooted in the Holy Scriptures.  So these hymns, many of them evening hymns and morning hymns, such as the evening hymn we sang tonight, mark the passage of time and sanctify it with God’s Word.  And of course, what the Word of God does in any case, so also as it is sung, such hymns comfort in affliction and strengthen faith in Christ Jesus.

Ambrose in his hymnwriting is in many ways like another David.  David did not become a priest or a bishop, but as the King of Israel, as the Lord’s Anointed, he did have priestly functions, and he made a significant contribution to the priestly life of Israel in his plans and preparations for the Temple, which he did not build, but his son Solomon would build.  As we have heard in part from First Chronicles this evening, David also organized the Levitical choir according to the authority of God, following the instructions that God provided through the Prophets Nathan and Gad.

The service of the Levites was fundamental to the liturgical life of Israel.  The Levites would proclaim in song the Divine Name, the Name of the Lord, Yahweh, specifically in connection with the burnt offerings and around the Ark of the Lord.  By this singing, by this sung proclamation of His Name, the Lord came to His people.  It was a means of grace, a preaching of the Gospel.

Through the singing of the Levites, the singing of God’s Name, the Lord came to His people.  He made His Advent among them.  In turn, the Levitical singing also served a priestly role, bringing prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to the Lord on behalf of the King and all the people of Israel.

From First Chronicles this evening, we have heard how the Levites accompanied the Ark as it was brought from the home of the priest, Obed-edom, into Jerusalem.  Later, after Solomon had built the Temple, when it was dedicated with sacrifice and prayer, the Glory of the Lord filled the Temple in direct connection with the musical service and singing of the Levites.

But now the One greater than Solomon and greater than the Temple has come in the Person of Jesus Christ.  Already as a Fetus in the womb of His Mother, He is the Lord God in the Flesh.  God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, but now also true Man of flesh and blood like your own.  Within the body of His Mother, God comes to visit the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth.

You know this story.  What’s very interesting is that St. Luke tells this story almost as a repetition of the story when David first tried to move the Ark of the Covenant and only got as far as Obed-edom’s house because he did not have the Levites carry the Ark; he didn’t do things according to the Word of the Lord.  Later, as we have heard, with the Levites and their singing, the Ark is taken to Jerusalem.  But the point is that St. Luke here paints St. Mary’s rushing off to the hill country of Judah and coming to the home of another priest, another son of Aaron, as a movement of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord.  Indeed, St. Mary is herself a new and better Ark, because she carries within her body the Lord Himself, Christ Jesus, flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood.

She comes to the priestly home of Zacharias.  And what do Mary and Elizabeth do?  They sing.

St. Mary sings her Magnificat, of course, as we shall sing it with her this evening.  It is very much like the song of Hannah back at the beginning of First Samuel, when Hannah brought her little boy to the House of the Lord, and dressed him in a little ephod, and gave him to Eli, and left him there, dedicated to serve before the Ark of the Lord all his days.  Mary sings a song much like Hannah’s song, and much like the Psalms of her ancestor David.  And with her Magnificat she proclaims the Name of the Lord, who is indeed present within her womb.  She praises Him, and she gives thanks to Him in remembrance of His mercy, just as He has remembered her and all His people.

St. Elizabeth also sings in response to Mary’s greeting.  She cries out with a liturgical chant, in the same way as the Levites would sing around the Ark of the Covenant.  The word that St. Luke uses here is a word that is used in the Greek Old Testament only for the special singing of the Levites around the Ark of the Covenant.  That’s how Elizabeth sings in response to Mary’s visitation and greeting, because she recognizes, by the Spirit of God, that her Lord is here present in the Flesh.

To this day, the Church’s singing and her song still accompany the coming of the Lord.  We sing in celebration of His coming in Word and Sacrament.  But so too, the singing of His Word, the singing of His Gospel, is itself a means of grace.  For when you sing the Name of the Lord, when you sing His Word, His Gospel, Christ and His Spirit are actively present and at work in that Word and in that singing to sanctify and bless both the singer and the hearer.

The Church catechizes her dear children, and she with her children confesses the Lord Jesus with her song.  She comforts in affliction, and she strengthens faith in the Gospel.  She eases sorrow.  She serves and supports a right mourning, not as those who have no hope, but as those who hope in the Resurrection of Christ.  She rejoices in the Lord her God.  She gives Him thanks and praise.

This singing belongs to the royal priesthood of all who believe and are baptized into Christ Jesus, just as the singing belonged to the Levites appointed to the task in the Old Testament.  It is a priestly service.  It is a sacrifice of thanksgiving.  It is an offering to the Lord our God.  Not to make Atonement, but to acknowledge and rejoice in the Atonement of Christ, to confess and praise His Gospel, to give thanks for His forgiveness and salvation, and so also to intercede in His Name.

Whether you are a pastor or a parishioner, a priest or a bishop, a deacon or an acolyte, or a member of our choir; whether you are male or female, young or old, rich or poor, married or unmarried, you also sing the Church’s song.  With King David and the Levites, with St. Mary and St. Elizabeth, with St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, Dr. Luther, and all the faithful who have gone before us in the Word and faith of the Holy Trinity, you also sing and confess the Lord Jesus in His Holy Church.

So by such Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are you filled with the Spirit of Christ Jesus.  And as His Word is taken upon your lips, into your heart, and into your mind, you comprehend what the Will of the Lord is — to the praise and glory of His grace and great Salvation in Christ.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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