By Robert L. Wilken
Antiphon Vol.8: 3 (2003)
Introduction: During Easter week in the early 390s Saint Ambrose preached a series of sermons to the newly baptized. Known by the title On the Mysteries, these sermons have often been studied for what one can learn about early Christian worship and sacramental theology. But the first paragraph sets one’s thoughts off in a different direction. “Each day, after the reading of the deeds of the patriarchs or the precepts of the book of Proverbs, I preached a sermon using these readings to instruct you on the virtuous life. For I wished you to be formed by them and to grow accustomed to walking in the ways of our forebears, to follow their path and to obey the divine oracles. In this way, once renewed by baptism, you would hold fast to a life befitting those who have been washed clean.”
Baptism was a moral as well as a spiritual experience, and the aim of Ambrose’s homilies was not only to instruct the newly baptized in the meaning of what they had undergone but to redirect their lives. In the early Church, formation in the Christian life took place in different ways: in the home, in the mutual edification among members of the Christian community, by example, in the one-to-one relation between a sage and disciple (in monastic circles, for example), and through the Church’s worship. Although Ambrose’s homilies On the Mysteries, and another work entitled On the Sacraments, were delivered during Easter week, they belong to that genre of writings that is known as “catechetical homilies,” that is, addresses delivered by the bishop to men and women who were to be baptized at the great liturgy of Easter.