Born c. 340 AD, Saint Ambrose came from a high ranking Roman patrician family. He received a classical education, and then engaged upon the civil career his father had planned for him. He enjoyed great success, rapidly rising through the ranks and becoming the Prefect of Milan, one of the most important posts in the Western Empire at that time. Despite a pious mother and sister, Ambrose himself was only a catechumen during the first 33 years of his life.
When Auxentius, an Arian who had usurped the See of Milan for 20 years finally died in 374, the choice of a new bishop was hotly contested by the Catholic and Arian factions in the city. Fearing a tumult, the Prefect Ambrose went to the Cathedral and delivered a great speech urging the people to keep peace and practice moderation. While the prefect was yet speaking, a small boy in the crowd pointed to the great man and cried: “Ambrose, bishop!” The cry was taken up by all present, much to Ambrose’s dismay. He tried to avoid the episcopacy, but the people and clergy of Milan were convinced that it was God’s will that Ambrose should be their next bishop. After a futile attempt to run away, Ambrose himself came to recognise his vocation, and was Baptised, Confirmed, and Ordained within the space of a week.
One of his first acts as bishop was to divest himself of his personal wealth by giving it away to the Church and to the poor. Then, recognising that he had not been trained as priest, let alone a bishop, he dedicated several hours a day to theological studies under the guidance of the wisest priest of his diocese, Saint Simplicius, who would eventually succeed him as bishop of Milan.
Ambrose taught his flock through his example and his preaching. So well did he teach the Truth that within ten years, there was hardly an Arian left in the city who had not returned to the True Faith. He also loved to preach on religious vocations. His sermons on virginity were so compelling that mothers desirous of making good matches for their children would forbid their daughters to go and hear him! In addition to preaching, he wrote several important treatises on Consecrated Virginity. When his enemies accused him of depopulating the empire by so highly praising virginity, he simply asked if any of the young men were having difficulty finding wives?
Despite his busy schedule as a bishop (and his door was always open), Saint Ambrose found time to write extensively. Indeed, it is especially by his writings that he became one of the greatest Doctors of the Church. As an author, he is always clear, sober and practical. His Roman heritage and training are put to good use in urging his readers to some definite course of action. His sermons and commentaries on Sacred Scripture, for example, focus on the spiritual and moral sense of the Bible. That is to say, he focuses on how the Word of God provides practical instruction for each Christian in his daily life. Besides treatises and homilies of moral instruction, St. Ambrose was also a poet. The hymns he wrote show his clear mastery of the Latin language, and many of them were later adopted by the Church in her Divine Office.
Ambrose is known for the firm stand he took against any sort of abuse by secular authorities. He did not hesitate to reprimand and even excommunicate the Emperor, Theodosius the Great, after his majesty had caused a terrible massacre in Thessalonica. Eventually, Theodosius humbly did public penance in sackcloth and ashes. Only then did the saintly bishop allow him to enter the church and receive the sacraments. This experience prompted the great Emperor to exclaim: “I know no bishop worthy of the name, except Ambrose!”
Saint Ambrose succumbed to his final illness in 397. In response to those who were begging him to beseech God to let him live a little longer on this earth he replied: “I have not so lived amongst you, that I need be ashamed to live; nor do I fear to die, for we have a good Lord.” He died on Good Friday, 4 April of that year after receiving Viaticum. The Church in both east and west, however, celebrate his feast on 7 December, the date of his Episcopal Consecration.
In art, Saint Ambrose is usually depicted wearing liturgical vestments along with his episcopal mitre and crosier. Artists like to portray him either barring Theodosius’ entry to the church, or the later scene of Ambrose granting the emperor absolution. The symbols commonly attributed to him are: bees, a whip, book, and an ox. The book of course refers to his many writings. The ox refers to his Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, as the ox is the biblical symbol of that Evangelist. The whip symbolises this saint’s firmness in the face of error and heresy. Some artists, such as Giovani di Paulo, for example, even give the whip three cords in honour of the Trinity. This is appropriate as the most dangerous heresy he had to combat was Arianism which denied the divinity of our Lord. The bees, or sometimes a beehive, refer to a legend that is told about his childhood. According to the Legenda Aurea, one day his parents noticed a swarm of bees buzzing around the infant Ambrose’s cradle, some of which were even flying in and out of the sleeping saint’s open mouth. His parents took this strange event as a good omen, and his father predicted that he would grow up to be a great and eloquent man.