St. Ambrose and the White Robed Army

Today the Church observes the feast of St. Ambrose of Milan.  In a letter (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 10, pg 438) written to his sister, the future saint speaks of the discovery and reposition of the remains of two martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius.  We read:

Let these triumphant victims be brought to the place where Christ is the victim. But He upon the altar, Who suffered for all; they beneath the altar, who were redeemed by His Passion. I had destined this place for myself, for it is fitting that the priest should rest there where he has been wont to offer, but I yield the right hand portion to the sacred victims; that place was due to the martyrs. Let us, then, deposit the sacred relics, and lay them up in a worthy resting-place, and let us celebrate the whole day with faithful devotion.

The esteem given to martyr witnesses is apparent.  As was the Church in general, St. Ambrose was well aware of chapter 6, verse 9 from the Book of Revelation.  “When he broke open the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God.  They cried out in a loud voice, “How long will it be, holy and true master, before you sit in judgment and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”  Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to be patient a little while longer until the number was filled of their fellow servants and brothers who were going to be killed as they had been.”

St. Ambrose received his wish, as his remains to this day rest underneath the main altar of the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan.  And at his side rest the remains of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius – they in red, he in white.

A priest prays Mass at the tomb of Sts. Ambrose Gervasius and Protasius.  Ambrose is laid out in the center (wearing white) with the two saint martyrs at either side.
A priest prays Mass at the tomb of Sts. Ambrose, Gervasius, and Protasius. Ambrose is laid out in the center (wearing white) with the two saint martyrs at either side.
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9 comments

  1. This is a beautiful church, both inside and out, lovingly and tastefully restored. The virtual tour doesn’t really do it justice, although you can get the sense of the altar as this gleaming center point, which draws all light to itself. If anyone who is reading this intends to go to Milan, it’s well worth a trip to see this church.

    When I was there, what surprised me was how small of stature St. Ambrose appears to be. I know modern people are taller, but it surprised me nonetheless. Perhaps it is because, measured in words and courage and wisdom, he is such a giant.

  2. I have to admit, the passage from Revelation, although it does shed light on the subject of why saints relics are buried under altars, is disquieting because of the martyrs’ explicit desire for vengeance.

    The revelation in Christ, who from the cross forgave those who crucified him, seems much at odds with this image of “wait a little longer and God will avenge you.” But then, so much apocalyptic literature is hard to understand; perhaps there is a different interpretation that makes better sense than this surface reading.

    Any ideas Fr. Michael?

    I recently saw online a billboard from some sort of fundamentalist church, with Christ coming down off the cross — with big muscles — the logo said he was coming to get back at those who put him to death, or something similar. Frankly, I was incredulous, and had to have it proved to me that this wasn’t photo-shopped. I have no hesitation in saying it was a complete distortion of Christian teaching. Yet the text from Revelation now reminds me of it.

    What to make of this view of martyrs and martyrdom, divine retribution and justice, and eschatological hope?

    1. Rita,

      Just thinking out loud here, with no answer in mind: is there a difference between vengeance and vindication? And what place might redemption play in the latter that it doesn’t in the former? I think of Job 19:25, which can be translated as “I know that my redeemer lives” or “my vindicator”.

      I’ll let you know if my pondering on this bears any fruit.

      1. Yes, Cody! That’s right. Vindication, not vengeance. Rev. 6:10 says “avenge” in both NAB and NRSV, though. It would be nice if this were another translation issue…

    2. +JMJ+

      What is the issue here, God’s justice resulting in punishment (“vengeance”) for some, or that saints request such justice?

      “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord.

  3. This is an interesting conversation. Two passages come to mind.

    The first – “When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village” (Lk 9:54-56).

    The second – “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth” (Lk 18:7-8)?

    The cry of the martyrs echos the cries of the widow, the orphan, the child suffering with cholera in Haiti. Jesus rebuked one approach – that of retribution and condoned another approach – one of redeeming justice. It seems to me.

  4. Thank you for sharing these further thoughts, with which I fully concur. I think that perhaps the expression found in Revelation must be qualified by being placed in relationship to the greater picture — in which “redeeming justice” does indeed differ from retribution.

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