Saint Ambrose of Milan: Christmas and the Beginning of the Church

The beginning of the Church is something that has been identified with different points in salvation history – it is, and has been, traditionally celebrated at Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit is given in its fullness to the Apostles and those with them, but many have pointed to the Calling of the Twelve, the bestowal of the Spirit upon the Eleven when Christ visits them after His Resurrection, the giving of the Keys to Saint Peter (with the powers of binding and loosing to him and the other Apostles), the entrusting of Saint John and Our Lady to one another at the Crucifixion, the Institution of the Eucharist and others. All of these reference points can indeed be claimed in part to represent significant moments in the bringing to birth of the Church, being as they are points at which authority or charism is given.

Saint Ambrose of Milan (340 – 397), in a short homily given on Christmas Day, employs a method of scriptural interpretation which, though widely commended and used in the early centuries of Christianity and, with some adjustments, still broadly used up until fairly recently, sadly no longer enjoys the same amount of favour as it once did. Because of the commitment to Sacred Scripture’s divine authorship, the Church has long held that there exists a profound unity which connects the various books of the Bible to one another, and indeed to the wider context of Sacred Tradition. Basing his exegesis on this, Saint Ambrose was thereby able to see prefigurements of those bestowals of charism and authority mentioned above in the story of the Nativity itself, and therefore was able to root the nativity of the Church more fundamentally in that event as well.

Thus the shepherds gathering together their flocks and protecting them from the wild beasts all around, act as a type of the Apostles and their successors, as well as the priests commissioned by them. The shepherds’ capacity to receive readily what they had seen, and to pass it on to others without guile, is also seen by Saint Ambrose as a figure of the way in which the Church must faithfully guard and transmit the message she has received (as well as a reminder of the essential simplicity of that message, and that God gives precedence to the pure of heart, who are better able to receive it). Finally, the holy Doctor links the Church to the faith of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who allowed her wisdom to be augmented by the shepherds, and faithfully meditated on what she had heard from them, as we must humbly and faithfully listen to the voice of the Church, not making ourselves to be an authority over it.

In this way, Saint Ambrose weaves together the different points of contact from whence the Church receives her identity, showing that the very reason the institutional means of teaching and of grace are so important is because they are rooted in the profound simplicity of the Nativity itself – the bishops and priests of the Church, like the Apostles before them, receive their authority from their humble submission to the Truth. They are in this sense themselves always subordinate to the spiritual authority of Our Blessed Mother, whose faith, hope and love are the most perfect and luminous examples of the soil in which the Church planted its roots that day in Bethlehem:

Behold the beginning of the Church now appearing. Christ is born, and the Shepherds begin their watch: they who will gather the flocks of the Gentiles, before living as untended beasts, into the Fold of the Lord, lest through the thick dark of the night they remain exposed to the ravages of reasoning wild beasts. And well do those Shepherds watch, whom the Good Shepherd teaches. The people then are the flock, the world is the night, and the priests are the Shepherds. Perhaps he also is a Shepherd to whom it was said: Be watchful and strengthen (Apoc. iii. 2); because for the defence of His flock the Lord has not alone appointed Bishops, but also appointed angels to this office.

And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them. See in what manner the divine solicitude prepares the way of faith. An angel teaches Mary, an angel teaches Joseph, and an angel guides the shepherds; for in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall stand. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will. Well is that army of the angels named who followed the Lord of Hosts. To whom do they give their praise save to their Lord, as it is written: Praise ye the Lord from the heavens: praise ye Him in the high places; praise ye Him all His angels (Ps. cxlviii. 1).

Fulfilled now is the prophecy. The Lord is praised from the heavens, and He is seen on earth. Of Him the Holy Mark says: And He was with beasts, and the angels ministered to Him (Mk. i. 13). As in one is a sign of mercy, in the other you behold a witness of divine power. It was because of men He suffered the beasts; it was because of Himself He is proclaimed by the angels.

Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see the word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath showed to us. And they came with haste. See the Shepherds come with haste; none come seeking Christ in sloth. See how the Shepherds believe the angels; so must thou believe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in the angels, prophets and apostles. See how carefully the Scripture weighs the meaning of each single word: They hasten, it says, to see this word. For the Word, that is, the Son is seen, when the Body of the Lord is seen. Because the Shepherds are persons of humble state, do not esteem lightly the testimony of their faith. For the more humble the testimony appears to human wisdom, the more precious is it to the eyes of faith. For the Lord did not seek out the schools of learning, filled with the wise, but the simple people, who would not know how to twist, to colour, what they learned; for he sought not ambition, it was simplicity He looked for.

Neither must you lightly regard the words of the shepherds, as being those of ignorant men. For from the shepherds also Mary added to her faith; by the shepherds were the people joined together unto the praise of God; for they wondered at those things that were taught them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. Let us learn from this of the chaste manner in all things of the Holy Virgin, who no less guarded in word, than modest in person, pondered in her heart upon these proofs of her faith.

If Mary learns from the shepherds, why do you turn from the teaching of the priests? If Mary was silent before the Apostles had taught, why do you wish, now that the Apostles have spoken, to teach rather than learn? And learn that sinfulness belongs to the person, not to the sex; for sex is sacred. Lastly, Mary received no precept, but she has given an example to the world. Amen.

taken from The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: 1. From the First Sunday of Advent to Quinquagesima (1960), pp.117-118, Longmans.

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