A HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF SAINT AMBROSE OF MILAN

 (Dec. 7/ 20)

 

About the Holiness of God’s Temple

 

       

Brothers and sisters!

 

        Yesterday we commemorated one of our Holy Church’s greatest hierarchs, the beloved Saint Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, and today we celebrate the memory of another, Saint Ambrose of Milan.  The wondrous Ambrose was the son of the Praetorian Prefect of Spain and Gaul (modern-day France), one of the highest-ranking officials in the Roman Empire.  After completing a splendid education, Ambrose was named governor of part of northern Italy, with his residence at Milan.  He did not, however, remain at this post for long, because soon the city’s Bishop, an Arian heretic, died.  Immediately, disorders broke out, with the Arians and the Orthodox each clamoring for the new Bishop to be chosen from someone of their faith.  Ambrose, as governor, went to the cathedral and addressed the people, urging them to be calm.  Hardly had he begun his speech when an infant still in his mother’s arms interrupted him, shouting, “Ambrose for bishop!  Ambrose for bishop!”  Astonished by the miracle, everyone, Orthodox and Arian, picked up the chant, “Ambrose for bishop!”

        Trained as a lawyer, not as a churchman, Ambrose refused the episcopacy for some time, but finally agreed to consecration, passing through all the clerical ranks quickly.  He began leading the ascetical life and donated all his considerable wealth to the Church and the poor.  Strict with himself, he was strict with others, no matter how highly placed they were.  He did not even hesitate to rebuke the Emperor, when this was necessary.  Listen to the most famous example of this:

        During those days, there was a rebellion in Thessalonica.  The mob murdered government officials, and the enraged Emperor Theodosius the Great decided to punish the insurgents harshly.  On a holiday, at the ruler’s orders, his troops unexpectedly attacked the citizens, killing 7,000 people and making no distinction between the guilty and the innocent.  After this Theodosius, oblivious to the enormity of his crime, entered the cathedral of Milan as usual.  Ambrose barred his way, telling him to his face, “Clearly, you do not understand how gravely you have sinned by committing murder.  With what eyes dare you look into our common Master’s temple?  How can you stretch forth in prayer hands that have shed innocent blood?  How will you receive in those hands the All-holy Body of the Lord?  How can you drink the precious Blood with lips which pronounced furious words that resulted in the shedding of so much innocent blood?  Leave at once, and take care not to multiply your sins by committing new ones!”

         The impetuous but devout ruler did not retaliate against Saint Ambrose, but took to heart what he said.  Chastened, he was filled with sorrow and retired to weep for his sin.  Only after an eight-month long period of repentance, and receiving absolution from the saint did the Emperor dare set foot in the church again.

        Brothers and sisters, from this famous story, you will understand how highly the early Christians esteemed the sanctity of the Lord’s temple:  so highly, that Saint Ambrose would not make an exception that would violate it, even for the Emperor himself.  This is because the temple is the house of God, a place holier than any other on earth.  The temple is the golden urn from which the Father of compassions pours out rivers of grace, and the dispensary where the saving gifts of God are distributed.  In the temple, we execute our common service to the Lord and offer our common prayers for mercy, the remission of sins, and salvation.  In the temple we are born again in the Mystery of Baptism, spiritually renewed in the Mystery of Confession, and sanctified by the Mystery of Holy Communion.  In the temple we hear the word of God and learn what it means to be true Christians.  From the temple we are sent on our way to the land of the living, to our resting place beyond the grave.  It is with such pure and holy thoughts in mind that Saint Ambrose barred the Emperor from the temple, and with such thoughts that we should always enter the temple.

        But how to instill in ourselves such thoughts, so that we remember them whenever we enter the house of God?

        Not so very long ago, in the second half of the nineteenth century, almost in living memory, there appeared a saint, one of the very greatest, who lived in the world and wrote a wonderful book on the spiritual life directly applicable, without any adaptation, to layfolk, clergy, and monks; to men and women; and to young and old alike.  This was Saint John, the mighty wonderworker of Krondstadt, and his book is the famous My Life in Christ.  One of the major themes of this book is the holiness and glory of the temple of God, which the revered archpriest so loved.  Here is one of the many passages in which Saint John records his reflections on the Lord’s house: 

        “In truth, the temple is an earthly heaven, for where the throne of God stands, there awesome mysteries are performed, there angels concelebrate with men, there the Almighty is ceaselessly glorified.  There is heaven and the heaven of heavens.  Wherefore, let us enter the temple of God (and especially the Holy of Holies) with the fear of God and a pure heart, laying aside the passions and every earthly care.  This way, we shall stand in the temple with faith and reverence; in an attentive, a wise fashion; and with love and peace in our hearts.  This way, we shall leave the temple renewed, as it were in a heavenly state, and shall live in a holy, celestial manner, not fettered by worldly distractions or attractions.”

        If we were all to obtain a copy of Saint John’s wonderful book, keep it on our nightstand, and read even a single page every evening before falling asleep, not only would our spiritual life in general be transformed, but our reverence for God’s temple would vastly increase, and we would profit much more from the time we spend there.  Certainly, we would have a much livelier sense of the holiness of the Lord’s house, since in My Life in Christ, Saint John so often reminds us of it.

        However, because many of us are averse to spiritual reading, and especially to reading serious spiritual books, what else can we do to ensure that the time we spend in the temple is really to our spiritual benefit and not to our condemnation, as a result of our lack of respect for the holiness of the temple?  What else can we do to this end that would be far easier than reading an amazing, soul-saving book?

        If, dear Christians, either just before or just after entering God’s house, we do nothing more than pause for a moment and call to mind three simple thoughts, we will undoubtedly be much more heedful of the sanctity and supreme importance of the holy temple.

        The first thing to remember is simply that God’s temple is God’s house, the dwelling place of God; the visible heaven.  The Master of heaven and earth dwells in the temple in a mystical and ineffable manner, as the Lord Jesus Christ explained to His disciples:  Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.[1]  The temple is the special, the most sacred abode of the Almighty, in which God is present throughout the building, but especially in the divine Eucharist.  Furthermore, the animate temples of God -- the Most Holy Theotokos, the angels, and the saints -- are all mystically present in the inanimate temple, joining their prayers to ours.

        The second thing to remember is that God’s temple is the school of faith and piety.  In the temple, we continuously hear the word of God read and explained, and we also hear the sacred words of the hymns and prayers; we learn about the infinite God and His omnipresence, omnipotence, wisdom, goodness, justice, and so forth; and we are reminded time and again of these qualities of His.  In the temple, we hear the teachings of God Incarnate, the Lord Jesus, and He is repeatedly extolled as our Redeemer from sin and death.  We also participate in the grace of the Holy Spirit through the prayers and teaching, and through partaking of the divine Mysteries; and we learn from personal experience that, through these, God the Holy Spirit is the wondrous Sanctifier of the Church.  Furthermore, in the temple, the sacred icons and the hymns to the saints bring before our inner eyes and ears the struggles of the saints for piety, presenting the Lord’s favorites to us as examples for our own conduct.

        The third thing to remember is that God’s temple is a hospital, where our spiritual infirmities are attended to and healed.  If we are willing to submit our illnesses to treatment, then through the grace that follows upon sincere, heartfelt prayer; through accepting and carrying out the counsels of our spiritual father; and through worthy reception of the divine Mysteries, our souls are cured of the illnesses of the passions.  In the temple, the downcast receive encouragement, the offended and those who give offense learn to seek and grant forgiveness, the weak are strengthened, the proud are humbled, and the confused are set aright.  Whatever our spiritual need, it is satisfied in God’s holy temple.

        Therefore, brothers and sisters, when you are about to enter the house of the Lord or have just entered it, still your thoughts for a moment and meditate upon these three salutary points.  Remember where you are, Who it is that stands before you, and who they are that will join you when you pray, adding their entreaties to yours.  It is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ Who stands before you in His holy house, and since He is undivided from His Father and His Holy Spirit, both the Father and the Holy Spirit are present also.  The Lord’s immaculate Mother, His angels, and His saints, who are inseparable from Him, are mystically present as well.  The eyes of the Lord are wide open in His holy temple, and He is carefully examining the disposition of our souls.  He is scrutinizing all our thoughts and feelings.  He sees whether they are devout and reverent, or scattered, impious, and irreverent.  When He observes in us the spirit of faith, love, and prayer, He responds with compassion, mercy, and grace.

        Dear Christians, the richest of blessings are offered us when we enter the Lord’s holy house:  gracious communion of the soul with God, the light and saving power of the Holy Gospel, the very Body and Blood of Christ, the protection of angels, fellowship with the saints, and the overshadowing of our whole life by God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Unto the one God in Trinity be glory for all this forever!  Amen.

 

[1] Matt. 18:20