Next Friday. December fourteenth will be the Feast of St. John of the Cross, but misreading the calendar, I wrote a homily for John last Friday. In doing that I skipped last Friday’s saint who was St. Ambrose. If you don’t mind, I’d like to correct that mistake by now speaking about how St. Ambrose changed our way of taking part in the Mass.
St. Ambrose lived in northern Italy from 330 to 397 A. D. which was the time when new Germanic nations were overrunning the old Roman Empire. We think of those people as pagans, but in fact many of them had been converted into a copy of Christianity. They were reading a rough translation of the Gospels that presented Christ as a good man, but not the Son of God. We call those people Arians.
When the great Emperor Constantine died in 337 his oldest son, Constantius, an Arian, became emperor for the east in Constantinople, while a younger son, Constans, became emperor for the west, residing in Milan. In 350 that one’s mother had her way in naming an Arian named Auxentius as bishop of Milan. For twenty-four years he portrayed Jesus as just a good man.
When Auxentius died in 374 Milan’s true Christians begged the emperor residing in Milan to give them a true Christian bishop. That emperor, Valentinian, told the governor of Northern Italy to gather all faction for choosing a new bishop. The loud public debate came to a surprising end when a boy in the back called out, “Let the governor himself be bishop!”
That governor was Ambrose. He had a sister who was a nun, and he had had a thorough preparation for Baptism, but he had never been baptized. Still, he consented. He was baptized the next day, and took over as bishop the following week.
The problem facing Bishop Ambrose was that Milan’s Arian bishop had caused the people to lose respect for Christ. To correct that Ambrose hit on an unusual scheme. He demanded that the people give to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament all the honors they had to give to the emperor. From then on people had to kneel when Mass was going on, they had to bow at the name Jesus. The Mass had to be offered on fine linen, and all the vessels had to be of gold.
His scheme worked, people began treating the Eucharist like an emperor, but something was lost. Up to then people at Mass had closed their eyes, imagining they were on the floor with Jesus, John and Peter at the Last Supper. After the changes made by Ambrose when they closed their eyes they saw themselves in a royal audience hall for adoring their spiritual emperor.
They had lost sight of the part of the Last Supper and of the Mass that had been most important before the time of Ambrose. That part was the special table blessing offered by Jesus at the Last Supper.
That three-part blessing known as the Brakha was a key part of a formal Passover meal. In the first part Jesus asked the diners to join him in recalling the favors they had received from God. In the second part he asked God to fill them with his Spirit. In the third part Jesus asked the diners to join him in making themselves part of the pleasing gift to God. In Greek that pleasing gift was called the Eu-charist.
When the Apostles went out to spread Christianity they made a strong point of urging people to give themselves to God as part of Christ’s pleasing gift of himself.
Before the time of Ambrose people at Mass were mainly devoted to becoming worthy parts of the Eucharist. But after Ambrose turned Jesus in the Mass into an emperor, the big concern for people at Mass was that they adored Jesus. That was fine as long as our adoring Jesus didn’t take the place of our giving obedience to God as part of the Pleasing Gift.
The opening words of the Gospel last Thursday brought out what Jesus really wants of us. Thursday’s Gospel opened with Jesus saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
Jesus in the Eucharist is not asking to be adored. He is asking us to join him as part of the Eucharist.