Continuing my amateur Patristics commentary on St. Ambrose’s De Virginibus, here is the first chapter of book III. De Virginibus, or in English “On Virgins,” is one of St. Ambrose’s several works addressing the value and practice of consecrated virginity. It was written while St. Ambrose was bishop of Milan, in the year 377 AD.
St. Ambrose wrote De Virginibus in the form of a letter to his sister, St. Marcellina, who herself was a consecrated virgin. (For an interesting article on St. Marcellina, see this post from the archives of the blog, “What Does the Prayer Really Say?”)
In this particular chapter, St. Ambrose reflects on his sister’s solemn consecration to a life of virginity, which she received in Rome at the hands of Pope Liberius (who reigned in the years 352-366).
One thing which makes this chapter especially interesting to me is that it gives us clear evidence that a liturgical ritual for the consecration of virgins existed at least as early as the fourth century. This is significant, because our oldest written copies of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity are found in the Leonine and Gelasian Sacramentaries. And even while these are two of our oldest written liturgical sources, they only date back to the sixth and seventh centuries, respectively.
Also, you’ll notice that this section of De Virginibus is focused more on Pope Liberius’ homily for St. Marcellina’s consecration than it is on St. Ambrose’s commentary. This could be considered an example of what is called a “fragment”—i.e., when discussing ancient authors, often those authors’ complete, original works have been lost to us. But, sometimes we can still have an idea of what those lost works contained, based on surviving quotations (the “fragments”) in works by other authors. So here, although we don’t have a treatise written by Pope Liberius on consecrated virginity, we still have a record of some of his thoughts on the matter.
You can read De Virginibus in its entirety here, on NewAdvent.org. For more of this blog’s discussion on De Virginibus, see my previous posts on the writings of St. Ambrose. Emphases, in bold, and commentary, in red, are mine.
St. Ambrose now goes back to the address of Liberius when he gave the veil to Marcellina. Touching on the crowds pressing to the bridal feast of that Spouse Who feeds them all, he passes on to the fitness of her profession on the day on which Christ was born of a Virgin, and concludes with a fervent exhortation to love Him.
1. Inasmuch as I have digressed in what I have said in the two former books, it is now time, holy sister, to reconsider those precepts of Liberius of blessed memory which you used to talk over with me, as the holier the man the more pleasing is his discourse. For he, when on the Nativity of the Savior in the Church of St. Peter you signified your profession of virginity by your change of attire (and what day could be better than that on which the Virgin received her child?) (This, and some other passages in the Church Fathers’ writings, seem to indicate that in at least some places and time periods during the Patristic era, consecrated virgins did wear distinctive clothing. It’s also interesting to me that St. Marcellina was consecrated on Christmas—the modern Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity indicates that it’s appropriate to celebrate a consecration on a feast celebrating the Incarnation, so apparently this reflects a very ancient tradition.) while many virgins were standing round and vying with each other for your companionship. (I’m wondering if this isn’t a reference to the ancient Rite of Consecration’s equivalent of the two women who accompany a virgin to the sanctuary at her consecration.) You, said he, my daughter, have desired a good espousal. You see how great a crowd has come together for the birthday of your Spouse, and none has gone away without food. This is He, Who, when invited to the marriage feast, changed water into wine. (John 2:9) He, too, will confer the pure sacrament of virginity on you who before were subject to the vile elements of material nature. (The consecration of virgins is not a “sacrament” in the same way as the Seven sacraments—which, incidentally, were not numbered in St. Ambrose’s time. The Latin word “sacramentum” here probably refers more generally to the Rite of Consecration as a being a “sign” or sacred “mystery.”) This is He Who fed four thousand in the wilderness with five loaves and two fishes. (Luke 9:13) He could have fed more; if more had been there to be fed, they would have been. And now He has called many to your espousal, but it is not now barley bread, but the Body from heaven which is supplied.
2. Today, indeed, He was born after the manner of men, of a Virgin, but was begotten of the Father before all things, resembling His mother in body, His Father in power. Only-begotten on earth, and Only-begotten in heaven. God of God, born of a Virgin, Righteousness from the Father, Power from the Mighty One, Light of Light, not unequal to His Father; nor separated in power, not confused by extension of the Word or enlargement as though mingled with the Father, but distinguished from the Father by virtue of His generation. He is your Brother, (Song of Songs 5:1) without Whom neither things in heaven, nor things in the sea, nor things on earth consist. The good Word of the Father, Which was, it is said, in the beginning, (John 1:1) here you have His eternity. And, it is said, the Word was with God. (John 1:1) Here you have His power, undivided and inseparable from the Father. And the Word was God. (John 1:1) Here you have His unbegotten Godhead, for your faith is to be drawn from the mutual relationship. (The above discourse seems like a reference to, or a reiteration of, one of the Creeds. It’s not surprising to me that this discussion of Christ’s nature should be included here, since the forth century was “prime time” for Christological heresies, which virtually all of the Church Fathers labored to refute. N.b., Pope Liberius ascended to the papacy at the height of the Arian controversy (which called into question the divinity of Christ), and was one of the few bishops who refused to sign a letter in condemnation of St. Athanasius.)
3. Love him, my daughter, for He is good. For, none is good save God only. (Luke 18:19) For if there is no doubt that the Son is God, and that God is good, there is certainly no doubt that God the Son is good. Love Him I say. He it is Whom the Father begat before the morning star, as being eternal, He brought Him forth from the womb as the Son; He uttered him from His heart, as the Word. He it is in Whom the Father is well pleased; (Matthew 17:5) He is the Arm of the Father, for He is Creator of all, and the Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30) of the Father, for He proceeded from the mouth of God; (Wisdom 24:3) the Power of the Father, because the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Him bodily. (Colossians 2:9) And the Father so loved Him, as to bear Him in His bosom, and place Him at His right hand, that you may learn His wisdom, and know His power.
4. If, then, Christ is the Power of God, was God ever without power? Was the Father ever without the Son? If the Father of a certainty always was, of a certainty the Son always was. So He is the perfect Son of a perfect Father. For he who derogates from the power, derogates from Him Whose is the power. The Perfection of the Godhead does not admit of inequality. Love, then, Him Whom the Father loves, honor Him Whom the Father honors, for he that honors not the Son, honors not the Father, (John 5:23) and who so denies the Son, has not the Father. (1 John 2:23) So much as to the faith.
—St. Ambrose, De Virginibus; Book III, chapter 1