Day Thirty-five: St. Ambrose of Milan: Concerning the Mysteries: 1-4
Who: Bishop of Milan from 374 to 397; born probably 340, at Trier, Arles, or Lyons; died 4 April, 397. He was one of the most illustrious Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
What: The treatise was composed for use during the latter part of Lent, for the benefit of those about to be baptised, the rites and meaning of that Sacrament, as well as of Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. For all these matters were treated with the greatest reserve in the Early Church, for fear of being misused by unbelievers.
Why: Ambrose states that after the explanations he has already given of holy living (in previous texts not included here), he will now explain the Mysteries. Then after giving his reasons for not having done so before, he explains the mystery of the opening of the ears, and shows how this was of old done by Christ Himself.
When: About 387 AD
You can find today’s reading on page 167 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf
This is another similar lecture to the catechisms we read over the last few days from Cyril of Jerusalem, except these are by the Bishop of Milan: Ambrose. Taught during this season of Lent, the latter part of the 40 days is when the mysteries were explained. It was only after baptism that it was considered the acceptable time to teach these things though, otherwise it was considered to have “betrayed than to have portrayed the Mysteries”.
Open, then, your ears, inhale the good savour of eternal life which has been breathed upon you by the grace of the sacraments
After the deacons have said the above, the following words were then declared over the catechumens: “Epphatha, which is, Be opened” (Mark 7:34).
Similar to what Cyril taught, the new converts renounced the devil by facing West, and then turning East towards Christ, as though face to face, they declared their acceptance of Him. The bishop gives a message or blessing to the convert, who is instructed to acknowledge him as though he were an angel of the Lord, and to not pay attention to his outward appearance as a man, but to respect the Office he holds as an authority.
God’s presence in baptism
“What did you see?”, Ambrose rhetorically asks about the baptism. Water, of course, but not only that: apart from the bishop and deacons ministering during this time, God is also present in the waters. Quoting Paul from 2 Corinthians 4:18, he makes the point that there are “things which are not seen” along with the “the invisible things of God” (Rom 1:20) at work here, and if they should accept and believe the working of the Spirit during baptism, then why not the presence also, for one always precedes the other, Ambrose says.
Using the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5), amongst others from the Old Testament, Ambrose makes a comparison to show how baptism was prefigured in various places throughout the Scriptures. On visiting the prophet and being told to dip in the river to cure his leprosy, Naaman refused at first until eventually he went ahead with and did it; and on coming up out of the waters cleansed and healed, he “understood that it is not of the waters but of grace that a man is cleansed”, Ambrose points out. And so it is with baptism; it is not the water that is anything special or “magical”, but it is purely by the grace of God alone by which we are cleansed of our sins through baptism, and given a clean conscience, as Peter wrote (1 Peter 3:21).
“For except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) – Ambrose uses this to make the point that without water, the “Sacrament of Regeneration” is of no effect, so he urges the catechumen's to believe “that these waters are not void of power”!
Encouraging words, we'll see the conclusion of this treatise tomorrow.
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