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Posted February 9, 2012

Book: Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism
Author: Garry Wills
Oxford University Press. New York. 2012. pp. 184

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

No two men were more influential in the early Church than Ambrose, the powerful Bishop of Milan, and Augustine, the philosopher from provincial Africa who would write The Confessions and The City of God. Different in background, the were also extraordinarily different in personality. In Font of Life, Garry Wills explores the remarkable moment when their lives intersected at one of the most important, yet rarely visited, sites in the Christian world. Hidden under the piazza of the Duomo in Milan lies part of the foundation of a fourth-century cathedral where, at dawn on Easter of 387, Augustine and a group of people seeking baptism gathered after an all-night vigil. Ambrose himself performed the sacrament and the catechumens were greeted by their fellows in the faith, which included Augustine’s mother Monica. Though the occasion had deep significance for the participants, this little cluster of devotees was unaware that they were creating the future of the Western church. Ambrose would go on to forge new liturgies, new forms of church music, and new chains of churches; Augustine would return to Africa to become Bishop of Hippo and one of the most influential writers of Christianity. Garry Wills uses the ancient baptistery to chronicle a pivotal chapter in the history of the Church, highlighting the often uncomfortable relationship between the two church fathers and exploring the mystery and meanings of the sacrament of baptism. In addition, he brings long overdue attention to an unjustly neglected landmark of early Christianity.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Ambrose’s Town

Milan bears the mark of Ambrose, even sixteen centuries after his death. He was Milan’s bishop from 374 to 397 CE, and the ring of churches he created or took over continues to exist in some form. Many things associated with Milan still bear his name --- Ambrosian chant, Ambrosian hymns, the Ambrosian Rite, the Ambrosian School, Ambrosian singers, the Ambrosian Choir, the Ambrosian Library, the Ambrosian Bank, the Ambrosian Picture Gallery, Ambrosian this and Ambrosian that. Down through the centuries streets and shops and little boys were named for Ambrose --- the sixteenth-century Milanese artist Ambrogio Bergognome and Ambrogio Figina both painted their namesake. Local tortellini are called Raviolata d’Ambrogio. The city’s famous opera house, La Scala, begins its season every year on Ambrose’s feast day, December 7, and dedicates its performance to his memory, followed by a banquet paid for by the city, where prizes are awarded in the form of coins incised with a “little Ambrose in gold” (ambrogino d’oro).

. . .But Ambrosian memories in the later history of Milan are nothing compared to the hold he had on the place in his lifetime. He clashed with three Roman emperors --- Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius --- who often lived across town from him; and he prevailed in all three conflicts. As the distinguished historian of late antiquity J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz writes: “In the whole of Roman history, few if any individuals confronted emperors in the way Ambrose did repeatedly . . .whenever we think of the causes he took up, nobody can question that he always displayed exemplary courage both moral and physical.” Even the acerbically secular Edward Gibbons saluted Ambrose, as it were, across a theological barricaded:

The palm of Episcopal vigor and ability was justly claimed by the intrepid Ambrose. . . . He condescended, for the good of the church, to direct the conscience of the emperors and to control the administration of the empire . . .He exercised, with equal firmness and dexterity, the power of his spiritual and political characters.

Table of Contents:

Milan Ambrose’s Town

Ambrosian discipline

Ambrose fights for his churches

Augustine on the way to Milan

Augustine in Milan

The Baptism Augustine approaches the font

Augustine at the font

After the font

Hippo Baptism in Africa

The ritual

Augustine needs Ambrose