Be alert! To which kids often add… “the world needs more lerts.” The world does need more of us ready to respond to the image of God around us, to the inbreaking of God’s reign, to the neighbor in need of love in concrete forms. That word alert comes from Italian, and it means “to the heights, or to the lookout tower.” It’s come to mean being on watch, as the occupants of those raised up towers or erte are supposed to be. Being alert is what Advent is all about – watchful waiting, and readiness for response.
The saint we’re celebrating today, Ambrose, was born around 340 CE into wealth and power in Trier – near the border between present day Germany and France. His father was the Roman governor in Gaul. After his father died, Ambrose’s mother took her children back to Rome. Ambrose grew up there and became a very powerful lawyer and eventually the governor of northern Italy, based in Milan. This was a time of immense controversy in the church, with the Arian heresy in full flower. Arians insisted that Jesus was created by God and not the full equal of God the Father. Trinitarian theology was emerging but not yet fully dominant in the church.
When the bishop of Milan died in 374, Ambrose understood that his job as governor was to keep the civic peace during the election for the next bishop. He knew the Arians and Trinitarians were likely to have a major struggle over the election.
Yet, instead of overseeing that process of election, Ambrose found his own name called. Apparently a child cried out, ‘Ambrose, bishop!’ and others took up the cry. Ambrose was a catechumen, learning about Jesus and the Christian tradition, and hadn’t yet been baptized. He hid, he tried to run away, and finally he asked the emperor to let him off the hook. It didn’t work. Even his friends conspired against him. He was baptized, ordained deacon and priest, and a week later on this day ordained the bishop of Milan. He may not have been ready when first called, but he worked hard at becoming ready.
His first response was to give away his wealth. He began serious study of scripture and the early church theologians. And he began to persuade people away from Arianism. He wasn’t brutal about it, but he studied and preached and convinced. He was, after all, a senior politician even at the ripe old age of 34.
Those skills of willing readiness to engage the opposition came in handy. The emperor’s mother was an Arian, and soon demanded that one of the big churches in Milan be turned over to the Arians. Ambrose refused, and went there to pray and celebrate Eucharist. The emperor sent soldiers, who surrounded the place. Ambrose started preaching, and kept on for days, including this long-remembered line, “the emperor is in the church, not over it.” The soldiers were soon withdrawn.
Ambrose is remembered for his bold preaching and for cleaning up the church. He was a strong ascetic – someone who trains in spiritual readiness, much like an athlete. He avoided banquets, lived frugally, simply, and consciously. Apparently he was such an effective preacher about monasticism that some charged him with trying to depopulate the empire. Mothers were said to keep their daughters away from his sermons, lest they take up vows of celibacy. His retort? “Wars and not maidens are the destroyers of the human race.”
Ambrose tackled the timeless issue of change in society and the church by saying that ‘the whole process of nature encouraged innovations, and that all nations had permitted them even in religion.’ He understood the need for ongoing change, and the need to tell the good news in ways that could be understood in changing contexts. His advocacy for the emerging Trinitarian doctrine and his reforms were prime examples. He encouraged daily celebration of the Eucharist, almost unheard of at the time.
Ambrose is also remembered for his musical gifts – he wrote hymns, some of which we still sing. He is said to have written the Te Deum (you are God, we praise you – last canticle in Morning Prayer) when he baptized Augustine of Hippo, who was a catechumen under Ambrose.
Ambrose learned alertness in the Christian life. His practice, or askesis, helped him learn to be ready – to apply his skills to new challenges, respond to the needs of the people around him, and discover where the spirit was leading.
The issues Ambrose faced are pretty much the same today. Who owns the church, and what is it for? How do we engage those who hold different opinions? How do we respond to threats and violence? And how do we respond to the urgent need of our neighbors? There is still something important about continuing to climb the hill to the watchtower – getting a broader view almost always helps. Asceticism, or training like an athlete, is vital to being ready. We have to practice to stay in training – that’s what the baptismal promises are about, and that’s why we come together week by week to meet our sisters and brothers in Christ in word and sacrament. We can’t love our neighbors if we are only focused on ourselves – and we can’t love ourselves if we never pay attention to God’s love for us.
Ambrose’s example of conscious living, which is what askesis really amounts to – is training for love.
Advent waiting is an opportunity to practice, to get in shape, to hone our readiness for discovering love incarnate in our midst. Are you ready? Jesus says be alert, and tells of ministers (another word for servants) watching and waiting in readiness for the host to come home from the banquet. Those ministers may literally be public servants or they may simply be any who take the wellbeing of others seriously.
Surprise, be alert, you don’t know when he’s coming! Surprise, you may not realize that he is likely to do something unexpected! Surprise, you may not recognize him in an unfamiliar face!
Readiness means encountering unanticipated joy, and the invitation to a banquet given for those who are awake to receive it.
God is always doing something new. Mary was evidently ready. Like Ambrose, she was younger than expected, and invited into a very surprising vocation.
The invitation is coming, but we don’t know when or how or from whom. Practice helps – open minds and open hearts are readier to receive that invitation. Be alert – God needs more of them – and us!