This latest installment in my series of paraphrases by the early church fathers comes from St. Ambrose of Milan.
Ambrose (Ambrosius) was born around A.D. 340 to an old Roman family which also had ancient ties to Christianity. His father (also named Ambrosius) held the prefecture of Gallia, and Ambrose was set to follow in his footsteps, studying law and rhetoric. After the death of his father, the family moved to Rome where he continued his studies. In 372 Ambrose was appointed the consular prefect of Liguia and Emilia, which had administrative facilities in Milan.
Ambrose’s sister Marcellina eventually took her vows to chastity in Rome, receiving the veil from Pope Liberius. She continued to live at home under her mother’s care. Marcellina’s purity of life was to have a significant impact on Ambrose, as he would later cultivate a love for virginity from her example.
In 374 the Arian bishop of Milan died, which left a vacancy in the bishopric. At the time tensions were high in Milan, as the recently deceased bishop had exerted a sort of tyranny over the spiritual life of the city. The previous bishop Dionysius had been led away in chains to exile, and Auxentius (who had assumed the office through intrigue) had persecuted the orthodox Christians within Milan. The neighboring bishops pleaded with the Emperor Valentinian (who had appointed Ambrose to consular prefect) to appoint a successor to prevent widespread rioting in the city, but he providentially refused.
As Ambrose was consular prefect, it was his responsibility to maintain order. He began a conciliatory discourse, but was interrupted by a single voice shouting “Ambrose, Bishop!” The cry was spontaneously taken up by the entire assembly, much to his dismay, and he was elected by popular acclaim.
At the time Ambrose had not yet been baptized, and felt himself incapable of performing the office. Reports are sketchy concerning his response, but it seems that he resorted to concealing himself with a friend to avoid being appointed. Valentinian eagerly confirmed the appointment and went so far as to provide penalties against any who might conspire to conceal him. At this point Ambrose submitted to the appointment, was baptized and ordained and began his episcopate.
Ambrose continued his studies through his time as bishop, and was one of the few Westerners who was capable in both Greek and Hebrew. This allowed him to have a profitable friendship with St. Basil, which helped to strengthen the ties between West and East. He never felt himself to be a capable theologian, but nevertheless his eagerness to study gave him great depth of knowledge and insight. Ambrose also brought his previous training to bear upon his position and was known as an extremely able administrator.
St. Ambrose was also instrumental in the conversion, discipleship and formation of his perhaps more illustrious student St. Augustine. Ambrose died in A.D. 397, and together with St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom and St. Athanasius is acclaimed as one of the four original Doctors of the Church.
This selection comes from St. Ambrose’s work On the Death of Satyrus, which was originally delivered as a eulogy of sorts upon the death of his brother Satyrus. Ambrose is contemplating the nature of death in relation to the death of those who die in God’s friendship.
Foremost, it is important to note that the whole of Ambrose’s thought in this regard is wrapped up in the understanding that Christ’s taking of death upon himself changes the whole meaning of death, both as it is now and in its advent in humanity. Death, while not a part of God’s intention for humanity, is nevertheless not something that has some kind of shadowy existence outside of God’s will, power or plans. Rather, Ambrose perceives sin as it is- the descent into non-being, something consumes relentlessly without satiation. Were humanity allowed to continue in its sin, it would be devoured in totality.
Death becomes a limit to sin. Evil is not free to proliferate out of control, but has a boundary set to it. The death of the body is not the death of being, but becomes the death of evil. God can and will raise the dead, and when that occurs, sin will be at an end and will have no more dominion. Jesus’ taking of death upon himself becomes the conduit through which death is the remedy for sin, for his death is the path to life for us all.
What words could be found to describe the death of Christ? His death is the divine archetype which leaves no room for doubt- death uncovers the veil of immortality, and purchases its own release.
Tears may be saved for greater evils, for death conducts salvation to all. The cold-shoulder treatment must end as well, for even the Son of God did not presume himself above association with it nor turn away from its embrace. After all, death plays no favorites, and all men must take their turn in this dance.
Death is a stranger to nature, but has made himself quite at home. In the beginning death was not a part of the plan, but God applied him to the healing of our wounds. It is quite easy to imagine the inverse; after all, if death belongs to the ‘good,’ why do the Scriptures say “God made not death, but by the malice of men death entered into the world”?”
It is true that death was not integral to God’s plan, for he gave our first parents a never-ending stream of Good. But when they turned from the Good their life became wretched, weighed down by the burden of sin, so that life was a curse rather than a blessing. It seemed the sighing would go on forever, that sin would proliferate out of control and without limit, but God deemed it better to place an end to evil, that death would be the conduit through which life would be restored.
After all, death can only touch the body, but not the being. Death’s keenest sting is saved for evil, upon whom it unleashes the fatal blow. The human frame will rise to its life again, but this time unyoked from its slavery to sin, basking in the light of a life without guilt or shame. Sin cannot undo what God has made, and the same person that dies is the same person that is raised again, to receive the recompense of his evil or the retribution of his good.