Written by St. Ambrose of Milan (translated by Theodora Tomkinson)
(Center for Traditionalist Studies, 1998)
Reviewed by Colin Kerr
We rely on both Matthew’s Gospel and on Luke’s for our knowledge of the Nativity. Matthew’s records the birth, the events with the Wise Men, the flight and return from Egypt. Luke’s has the Annunciation, the Visitation, birth, the shepherds, and the Presentation. Luke’s has those famous words we hear every year, “In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (2:1)
The four Gospels bring out different things. When one compares Matthew’s and Luke’s stories of the birth of the Lord it is possible to evince something of their individual perspectives, something of the messages these authors – and ultimately, God – wished to convey. In his Infancy Narratives, the third volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, we see Pope Benedict XVI standing in a long line of Scripture scholars who have noticed the ‘priestly’ theme of Luke’s Gospel and the kingly theme of Matthew’s. Their genealogies reflect these different perspective. Each perspective has a message: Jesus is the High Priest of God, says Luke; Jesus is the King of Israel, says Matthew.
The first printed edition of the Catholic Review of Books will have much more to say about Pope Benedict’s commentary on the Gospels. For now I wanted to draw attention to another book worth reading at this time of year – St. Ambrose’s Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke. Those who know just a few things about this author (c. 340-97), know that this is the bishop who baptized St. Augustine in the year 387, and know that this was the bishop who boldly defied the order of the Emperor, Valentinian II, to sign over one of his churches to the heretical Arians. But Ambrose is also one of the four, original, select, ‘Doctors of the Latin Church’ (with Sts. Augustine, Gregory the Great and Jerome). Ambrose’s writings are not as well-known as those of the other three these days, and that is too bad. He offers many gems. He wasn’t as original a theologian as Augustine, as mystical as Gregory, or as scholarly as Jerome, but we can see how he combined bits of all of these things in his many writings that have survived. One of the best is this commentary on Luke. Very few commentaries on this Gospel have survived the Ancient World – another important one being Origen’s (c. 184-254), who influenced Ambrose heavily. Ambrose was influenced by Origen’s spiritual type of interpretation – we know that, because that was what so impressed Augustine when he went to hear him preach. But Ambrose was an eminently practical man too, and that is why this gospel, the Gospel of Luke – the ‘Gospel of the poor’ – drew his attention. Characteristically, while considering the Visitation, he writes, “Do ye also, holy women, learn zeal which ye must use towards your pregnant sisters.” (p. 43)
Ambrose has a great deal to offer Catholic readers today. He looks at the Gospel more deeply than you will likely hear on Sundays. He is a spiritual writer and a moralist – and he blends them in way that reminds me of Pope Francis. Yet this translation is getting a little difficult to find. The binding is okay – though not great – and the use of antiquated terms like ‘ye’ and ‘whither’ are a little annoying, but the value of the work is so great as to justify putting up with these little vexations. But whatever you read over these next few weeks, I pray it expands your mind and consoles and uplifts your heart.