December 3, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The wisdom of the saints: St. Ambrose

John F. FinkThe Catholic Church thinks very highly of St. Ambrose, whose feast is celebrated on Dec. 7. Parts of his treatises or letters are included 26 times in the Office of Readings.

That’s a tie with St. Leo the Great, and surpassed only by those of St. Augustine, who was converted to Christianity partly by Ambrose’s sermons. Ambrose baptized Augustine.

Ambrose lived from about 340 to 397. He was the bishop of Milan, elected a bishop by the Christians of that city while he was still a catechumen and ruling the city as a Roman governor. He is known for confronting the Roman emperor and empress as well as for his writings.

His writings in the Office of Readings include explanations of psalms, treatises on Christian mysteries, and praises of virginity.

However, since this is the Advent season, here is a paraphrase of what he had to say about Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth after the archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus:

In order to win her trust, the angel told Mary that Elizabeth, an old and barren woman, was six months pregnant. On hearing this, Mary set out to visit Elizabeth, feeling no uncertainty or doubt about what Gabriel told her. She made the long trip from Galilee to the hill country of Judea to help her relative during the last stages of her pregnancy.

The blessings of her coming and the Lord’s presence are made clear, Ambrose wrote. When she arrived and greeted Elizabeth, Luke’s Gospel says, “Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41).

Notice the contrast and the choice of words that Ambrose wrote: “Elizabeth is the first to hear Mary’s voice, but John is the first to be aware of grace. She hears with the ears of the body, but he leaps for joy at the meaning of the mystery. She is aware of Mary’s presence, but he is aware of the Lord’s: a woman aware of a woman’s presence, the forerunner aware of the pledge of our salvation.”

It is John, inside his mother’s womb, who is first filled with the Holy Spirit, Ambrose wrote. Thus, some theologians teach that John was cleansed of original sin before his birth. Then, once John has been filled with the Holy Spirit, he fills his mother with the same Spirit then the spirit of Mary rejoices in her turn.

Ambrose continued: “When John leaps for joy, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit [and cleansed of original sin], but we know that though Mary’s spirit rejoices she does not need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Her son, who is beyond our understanding, is active in his mother in a way beyond our understanding. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit after conceiving John, while Mary is filled with the Holy Spirit before conceiving the Lord.”

Thus, did Ambrose teach, in the fourth century, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the feast that the Church celebrates the day after his feast. †

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