Friday, December 7, 2012

St Ambrose of Milan

2 Timothy 1:1-2, 8-18 / Luke 21:37-22:8

Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

It is not always easy to hold fast to the words we have heard from the pulpit, from our catechists, from our own reading of the Scriptures. It is not simply that we live in a secular age, one more overtly welcoming of public critiques of the Christian faith, although that surely has something to do with it. Nor can it be that the Scriptures themselves are not available. With our modern technology, it can be fair to say that Holy Writ has never before been as accessible to the faithful and unbeliever alike.

No, in the end the challenge posed to us by the Scriptures is making sense of it all. To be sure, sometimes the opacity of the Scriptures is rather exaggerated, and this exaggeration has undue force, especially over those who have not acquainted themselves directly with the Bible. Indeed, any plain reading of the Bible will, for the most part, provide a fairly coherent account of God's plan of salvation, how he has dealt with the human race and his people Israel, and how in these latter days he sent his Son into the world, and through his Son has given us a share in his eternal life through the power of the Spirit. This is not nothing, and all of this can be had by any curious reader.

All the same, there are some passages in Scripture which strike even the reasonably educated reader as obscure, or even perverse. It can be hard to see what others have to do with anything. Why, we may wonder, would God's inspired text include precise details, for every generation to the end of time, for the construction of the Tabernacle, when the time of Tabernacle passed centuries ago, many centuries already before the coming of Christ? Why, on the one hand, present direct narratives or easy-to-understand proverbs on the one hand, and then obscure details of ancient Israelite life, difficult prophecies, and even more difficult apocalyptic visions?

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, and, among the many great gifts which he provided the Latin-speaking Christians of the Empire, and through him all of Roman Christianity, perhaps the most enduring has been his bringing to the West of the riches in the Greek world for the interpretation of Scripture. The Scriptures, after all, although addressed to the whole people of faith for all time, are not, and are not meant to be, read as any other set of texts. They are not merely the best attempts of ancient peoples to record and put into words their experience of the Lord God. They are, without failing to be texts written by men, more fundamentally written by the Holy Spirit, and so as divine texts, we ought not to expect that they will speak to us with the same rules and limits of any other text we encounter.

What Ambrose taught the West, and what we have to learn from him, is that God did not simply give us a set of holy texts and leave us on our own. He left us a means of reading them, and a Church to watch over and guide that reading, so that, from age to age and from the rising of the sun to its setting, the truth God meant to communicate to the world might be faithfully passed on his the Scriptures.

As we approach the celebration of the Lord's birth, of the nativity of Jesus Christ, we would do well to come to know him better, to know him through those texts that not only speak about him, but through which he speaks to us. Let us pray that, by the intercession of St. Ambrose, we might find in Holy Writ not puzzles to confound and confuse, but a sure and certain witness to the saving will of our God, a God who has freed us from sin and death in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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