The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Mosaic of Ambrose of MilanAmbrose of Milan
ca. 340 - 397

Born: Augusta Treverorum, in Gallia Narbonensis in the Roman province of Gaul. Today the city of Trier, Germany, stands there.

The third child of Ambrosius, who was the Prefect of the Gauls, Ambrose is thought to have been born in Trier. After the death of their father, the children, with their mother, went to Rome, where Ambrose received a typical Roman education, excelling in Greek. At first he studied law, as did his brother, and began his career in the court of Probus, the Pretorian Prefect of Italy. In 374 he was appointed Consular of Liguria and Aemilia, which brought him to Milan. While in Milan, the old bishop, Auxentius, died. As the church was electing a new one, and Ambrose was helping to keep order, a child was said to have called out--"Let Ambrose be bishop!"

Although he was only a catechumen at the time -- not a priest, and not even baptized -- the mob took up the cry. In the fourth century, Church order was not so rigid as it afterwards became; it could adapt itself to emergencies. And so within eight days, after his reluctance to accept the sacred office so unexpectedly conferred had been overcome, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and a week later, on December 7, 374, Ambrose was consecrated bishop of Milan at the age of 34.

After Emperor Valentinian died in 375, Ambrose began to have violent disagreements with his widow, the empress Justina, since she was an adherent of the Arian party and who had who had sent soldiers to arrest him. Ambrose and his faithful flock stayed in the sanctuary of the church for days, singing and praying. In his battles with Justina, Ambrose received the support of Gratian, the elder son of Valentinia, and Theodosius, who later became emperor. Ambrose had to fight the Arians alone, which he did successfully. His eloquence was noteworthy enough to bring the young Augustine to Milan to hear his preaching, which converted him to the Christians faith. At the Easter Vigil of 388 Ambrose baptized Augustine of Hippo, who was to become the greatest theologian in the West. Medieval legend has it that he and Augustine composed the Te Deum during the baptism. Historians, however, are not persuaded it happened thus.

He proved a strong statesmanlike bishop, and no mean theologian. He took the reins at a crisis when Arianism and Orthodoxy were in fierce conflict, but ere he died, and mainly through his influence, the Catholic faith was triumphant in Milan. Masterful as Hildebrand, he asserted himself successfully alike against the Arian Empress Faustina, his enemy, and the Orthodox Emperor Theodosius, his friend, in whose face he shut the doors of the Basilica, until he had done penance for ruthless slaughter at Thessalonica.

Engraving of Ambrose of MilanAmbrose is considered the Father of Latin hymnody for his introduction of metrical hymnody into the Daily Office of the West. Many later hymns from the sixth century Rule of Benedict were thought to be by him, or at least in his spirit, so they are called Ambrosian. By tradition, he is said to have introduced antiphonal or responsive singing in Milan, and, according to Mabillon (following Bellarmine), was the first in Italy to encourage general congregational singing.l This is borne out by the following classic passage from the Confessions of St. Augustine, whom Ambrose baptized:

How did I weep in Thy hymns and canticles, sharply affected by the voices of Thy Church sweetly sounding them I Those tones flowed into mine ear, and the truth distilled into my heart, and thence the affection of my devotion overflowed and tears ran down, and they did me good. Not long had the Church of Milan begun to practise this kind of conso1ation and exhortation, the brethren giving great care to the tuneful harmony of voices and hearts. For it was a year, or not much more, since Justina, mother of the boy Emperor Valentinian, persecuted Thy servant Ambrose, on account of her heresy, to which she had been seduced by the Arians. The devout people kept watch in the church, ready to die with their bishop, Thy servant. There my mother, Thy handmaid, bearing a chief part of those anxieties and watchings, lived in prayers. We, though as yet unmelted by the heat of Thy spirit, were nevertheless excited by the alarm and tumult of the city. Then it was first instituted that according to the custom of Eastern regions, hymns and psalms should be sung, lest the people should faint through the fatigue of sorrow, and from that day to this the custom has been retained; and to-day many, indeed almost all, Thy congregations throughout other parts of the world follow that example.

As a hymn-writer Ambrose belongs to the transition period when the classical meters were beginning to be laid aside, and rhymed verse was preparing to take their place. The golden age of Latin rhyme was yet to come. Many hymns are attributed to him, but only between four and twelve on good authority, including "Splendor paternae gloriae," "Veni redemptor gentium," and "Aeterna Christi munera."

O Jesus, Lord of heavenly grace, is a rendering by Chandler of his morning hymn.. A verse of an evening hymn is quoted in the Confessions of St. Augustine as coming to his mind in bed the night after his mother's funeral. In Cooke's Hymnary this verse is rendered by J. D. Chambers as follows :-

O Blest Creator, God Most High,
Great Ruler of the starry sky,
Who robing day with beauteous light
Hast clothed in soft repose the night,

That sleep may wearied limbs restore,
And Fit for toil and use once more;
may gently soothe the careworn breast,
And lull our anxious griefs to rest

Ambrose died on Easter, 397 at Milan, Italy.

Note:

1 According to tradition, Ignatius, c.-109, was the first to introduce responsive singing into the service of the Church, "because he had seen a vision of angels praising God in antiphonal hymns."

Sources:
The Cyberhymnal
Notes from the Hymnuts
Rev. Duncan Campbell, Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A. & C. Black, 1908, Fourth Edition)

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