St. Ambrose: Homilist and Hymnwriter
Have you ever found yourself humming a hymn on the way home from church? Maybe it was the closing hymn that day. Maybe it was one of your all-time favorites, and it just got stuck in your head and wouldn’t let loose? That’s good!
But have you ever found yourself humming a sermon on the way home from church? Of course, you can’t really do that, even though the pastor surely gave you something good to take home with you. You can’t really hum a sermon, but the fact that we so often find ourselves humming hymns on the way home from church tells us something about how hymns work—about how their music carries the Word of God into our ears and so into our hearts.
St. Ambrose knew something about that. You can see his mug shot in this posting. (And this mural is from the period in which he lived—the only such actual image of an early church father to survive). Ambrose was born in the fourth century and was raised in a prominent Roman family. Like his father, he studied law and went into government, and at age thirty-five, he found himself caught up in governmental gridlock in the city of Milan. The bishop there had just died, and the two main parties in the church were fighting with each other over who would be the next bishop. As the governor of the region, Ambrose found himself arbitrating their disagreement. That went on for some time until, both parties suddenly declared that Ambrose should be next bishop. Now Ambrose was no pastor. He hadn’t even been baptized! He put them off for awhile, but finally he gave in, and on this day, December 7—1,636 years ago—Ambrose of Milan was baptized a Christian, ordained a priest, and consecrated a bishop . . . all on the same day.
We may shake our heads today in incredulity, but God had the last laugh. You see, Ambrose became a powerful preacher of the Gospel. His sermons affected many—including the younger, hedonistic Augustine, who was eventually converted and later baptized by Ambrose. Ambrose became a great preacher, but they say that one comes closest to knowing the real Ambrose by studying not his sermons, but his hymns.
Take a look at Ambrose’s great Advent/Christmas hymn, “Savior of the Nations, Come.” In stanza six:
For You are the Father’s Son
Who in flesh the vic’try won.
By Your mighty pow’r make whole
All our ills of flesh and soul. (LSB 332:6)
Could any preacher preach the Gospel more powerfully or more profoundly than St. Ambrose has done here . . . and for over sixteen centuries?
So I guess you can hum a sermon . . . in fact, a sermon that will stick with you from cradle to grave. As pastors, we see it again and again, visiting the elderly in the congregation, some of whom have lost everything—their health, their appearance, their dignity, their memory. They’ve lost everything—well, almost everything. Because even though you could preach the greatest sermon in the world to them there, it wouldn’t get through. But when you start singing to them—when you start singing one of those “little sermons,” one of those hymns that they learned long ago, right in God’s house—they brighten up, sometimes they start singing with you. And then it’s clear—abundantly clear—that they haven’t lost the “one thing needful”: Christ Jesus, and him crucified.
“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matt. 26:30). You see, our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed . . . sang a hymn, on his way to Calvary. And after he had been arrested, beaten and crucified, he sang another: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matt. 27:46).
All of the suffering of hell that you and I deserve because of our sins, Christ took upon himself, in our place. With his holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death, he took care of it all, for you.
Jesus did it all—for you—and the hymns that we sing today sing of all that he did for you, too. They are the songs that accompany you from cradle to grave, through sorrow and suffering, to joy and exaltation.
Savior of the Nations, Come
Lutheran Service Book 332
Savior of the nations, come,
Virgin’s Son, make here Your home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.
Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh—
Woman’s offspring, pure and fresh.
Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.
Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began.
God the Father was His source,
Back to God He ran His course.
Into hell His road went down,
Back then to His throne and crown.
For You are the Father’s Son
Who in flesh the vict’ry won.
By Your mighty pow’r make whole
All our ills of flesh and soul.
From the manger newborn light
Shines in glory through the night.
Darkness there no more resides;
In this light faith now abides.
Glory to the Father sing,
Glory to the Son, our king,
Glory to the Spirit be
Now and through eternity.
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