This evening we commemorate St. Ambrose of Milan, a bishop of the Church in the late fourth century. You might say that Ambrose was a “high profile” figure, since Milan in his day was the capital of the Roman Empire. “Capital” may not be quite the right word: more like “headquarters,” for in those days the Empire was beset by foreign invasion, and the emperors had abandoned Rome and moved their residence further north, closer to the border in order to deal with the crisis.
Ambrose was a provincial governor when he became bishop, so he was already at the heart of political and religious crises in the Empire. As the story goes, he was chosen bishop in the middle of a riot, in the course of a brawl between two religious factions who were contesting the episcopal election. You might think he was the compromise candidate, but apparently not: Ambrose quickly established himself as a leader of the orthodox party in the Church, at loggerheads with the emperor Valentinian himself.
In a time of theological controversy, Ambrose stood for the Nicene Creed, while Valentinian (mindful of the war to the north) favored an inclusive compromise that would satisfy everybody and make his life a lot easier at home. That at least was the theory; in truth, Valentinian’s compromise brought no peace at all but just more controversy. The more things change the more they stay the same.
Ambrose carried his point with Valentinian, but soon was called upon to rebuke another emperor, Theodosius. Theodosius was one of his own, but here the issue was the emperor’s apparent endorsement of the army’s massacre of citizens in Greece. Ambrose would not admit Theodosius to communion until he had publicly repented of the crimes that had been committed. There were giants in those days, my friends: giants like Ambrose who could call upon an emperor to mend his ways.
For someone who ministered in a time of strife, Ambrose had an amazing reputation for equanimity, and calm in the face of controversy. His letters and theological works are so judicious and even in tone that it’s difficult to make it all add up. “Good-will expands in the body of the Church, by fellowship in faith, by the bond of baptism, by kinship through grace received, by communion in the mysteries” (De officiis, 170). That’s St. Ambrose, in a work on the duties of the clergy, writing magisterially about the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, and the expansion of good-will among the kinfolk of the Church: the same man who was chosen bishop in the middle of a riot, which is about as far from good-will as you can get. You might say that he typifies the meaning of “non-anxious” presence.
Ambrose took it poorly when the clergy called attention to themselves, even complaining about one priest’s shuffling gait. He had a great sense in himself of what was orderly and fitting, one that was theologically grounded. Here he is again, “We have that general seemliness; for God made the beauty of this world. We have it also in its parts; for when God made the light, and marked off the day from the night, when he made heaven, and separated land and seas, when he set the sun and moon and stars to shine on the earth, he approved of them all one by one. Therefore this comeliness, which shone forth in each single part of the world, was resplendent in the whole…” (De officiis, 233). You get here a sense of how ugly and unfitting the massacre in Greece must have been to a bishop who had such a conception of order and beauty.
In our Gospel reading this evening, Jesus tells the parable of the slaves who are waiting for the master to return. They do not know when he will return, and they need to be ready. “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge…?” (Lk. 12:42). Here, the words “faithful” and “prudent” are ones that describe Ambrose well, especially in the midst of crisis.
Pastoral ministry is a charge that is a given, a matter of management that comes to us from the Lord. The leadership roles that we are given in the Church (all of us) are a matter of stewardship: they are held for a time and then passed on to others. My prayer is that in our day we can hold them like St. Ambrose: calm in the midst of crisis, rooted and grounded in our firm faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord is coming and we have to be ready! May he find us faithful and prudent stewards of the gifts he has given us when he comes again in glory.