Ambrose of Milan: Letter 22: The Finding of SS. Gervasius and Protasius
St. Ambrose in a letter to his sister gives an account of the finding of the bodies
of SS. Gervasius and Protasius, and of his addresses to the people on that occasion.
Preaching from Psalm xix., he allegorically expounded the "heavens" to represent
the martyrs and apostles, and the "day" he takes to be their confession. They
were humbled by God, and then raised again. He then gives an account of the state in which
their bodies were found, and of their translation to the basilica. In another address he
speaks of the joy of the Catholics and the malice of the Arians who denied the miracles
that were being wrought, as the Jews used to do, and points out that their faith is quite
different from that of the martyrs, and that since the devils acknowledge the Trinity, and
they do not, they are worse than the very devils themselves.
To the lady, his sister, dearer to him than his eyes and life, Ambrose Bishop.
1. As I do not wish anything which takes place here in your absence to escape the
knowledge of your holiness, you must know that we have found some bodies of holy martyrs.
For after I had dedicated the basilica,1 many, as
it were, with one mouth began to address me, and said: Consecrate this as you did the
Roman basilica. And I answered: "Certainly I will if I find any relics of
martyrs." And at once a kind of prophetic ardour seemed to enter my heart.
2. Why should I use many words? God favoured us, for even the clergy were afraid who
were bidden to clear away the earth from the spot before the chancel screen of SS. Felix
and Nabor. I found the fitting signs, and on bringing in some on whom hands were to be
laid,2 the power of the holy martyrs became so
manifest, that even whilst I was still silent, one3 was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial-place. We found two men of marvellous
stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect, and there was much
blood. During the whole of those two days there was an enormous concourse of people.
Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on transferred them
to the basilica of Fausta,4 where watch was kept
during the night, and some received the laying on of hands. On the following day we
translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian. During the translation a blind man
was healed.5 I addressed the people then as
3. When I considered the immense and unprecedented numbers of you who are here gathered
together, and the gifts of divine grace which have shone forth in the holy. martyrs, I
must confess that I felt myself unequal to this task, and that I could not express in
words what we can scarcely conceive in our minds or take in with our eyes. But when the
course of holy Scripture began to be read, the Holy Spirit Who spake in the prophets
granted me to utter something worthy of so great a gathering, of your expectations, and of
the merits of the holy martyrs.
4. "The heavens," it is said, "declare the glory of God."6 When this Psalm is read, it occurs to one that not so
much the material elements as the heavenly merits seem to offer praise worthy of God. And
by the chance of this day's lessons it is made clear what "heavens" declare the
glory of God. Look at the holy relics at my right hand and at my left, see men of heavenly
conversation, behold the trophies of a heavenly mind. These are the heavens which declare
the glory of God, these are His handiwork which the firmament proclaims. For not worldly
enticements, but the grace of the divine working, raised them to the firmament of the most
sacred Passion, and long before by the testimony of their character and virtues bore
witness of them, that they continued steadfast against the dangers of this world.
5. Paul was a heaven, when he said: "Our conversation is in heaven."7 James and John were heavens, and then were called
"sons of thunder";8 and John, being as
it were a heaven, saw the Word with God.9 The Lord
Jesus Himself was a heaven of perpetual light, when He was declaring the glory of God,
that glory which no man had seen before. And therefore He said: "No man hath seen God
at any time, except the only-begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath
declared Him."10 If you seek for the
handiwork of God, listen to Job when he says: "The Spirit of God Who hath made
me."11 And so strengthened against the
temptations of the devil, he kept his footsteps constantly without offence. But let us go
on to what follows.
6. "Day," it is said, "unto day uttereth speech."12 Behold the true days, where no darkness of night
intervenes. Behold the days full of life and eternal brightness, which uttered the word of
God, not in speech which passes away, but in their inmost heart, by constancy in
confession, and perseverance in their witness.
7. Another Psalm which was read says: "Who is like unto the Lord our God, Who
dwelleth on high, and regardeth lowly things in heaven and in the earth?"13 The Lord regarded indeed lowly things when He revealed
to His Church the relics of the holy martyrs lying hidden under the unnoted turf, whose
souls were in heaven, their bodies in the earth: "raising the poor out of the dust,
and lifting the needy from the mire,"14 an d
you see how He hath "set them with the princes of His people."15 Whom are we to esteem as the princes of the people but
the holy martyrs? amongst whose number Protasius and Gervasius long unknown are now
enrolled, who have caused the Church of Milan, barren of martyrs hitherto, now as the
mother of many children, to rejoice in the distinctions and instances of her own
8. Nor let this seem at variance with the true faith: "Day unto day uttereth the
word;" soul unto soul, life unto life, resurrection unto resurrection; "and
night unto night showeth knowledge;"16 that
is, flesh unto flesh, they, that is, whose passion has shown to all the true knowledge of
the faith. Good are these nights, bright nights, not without stars: "For as star
differeth from star in brightness, so too is the resurrection of the dead."17
9. For not without reason do many call this the resurrection of the martyrs. I do not
say whether they have risen for themselves, for us certainly the martyrs have risen. You
know-nay, you have yourselves seen-that many are cleansed from evil spirits, that very
many also, having touched with their hands the robe of the saints, are freed from those
ailments which oppressed them; you see that the miracles of old time are renewed, when
through the coming of the Lord Jesus grace was more largely shed forth upon the earth, and
that many bodies are healed as it were by the shadow of the holy bodies. How many napkins
are passed about! how many garments, laid upon the holy relics and endowed with healing
power, are claimed! All are glad to touch even the outside thread, and whosoever touches
will be made whole.
10. Thanks be to Thee, Lord Jesus, that at this time Thou hast stirred up for us the
spirits of the holy martyrs, when Thy Church needs greater protection.18 Let all know what sort of champions I desire, who are
able to defend, but desire not to attack. These have I gained for you, O holy people, such
as may help all and injure none. Such defenders do I desire, such are the soldiers I have,
that is, not soldiers of this world, but soldiers of Christ. I fear no ill-will on account
of them, the more powerful their patronage is the greater safety is there in it. And I
wish for their protection for those very persons who grudge them to me. Let them come,
then, and see my attendants. I do not deny that I am surrounded by such arms: "Some
trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will boast in the Name of the Lord our
11. The course of divine Scripture relates that Elisha, when surrounded by the army of
the Syrians, told his servant, who was afraid, not to fear; "for," said he,
"they that be for us are more than those against us;"20 and in order to prove this, he prayed that the eyes of
Gehazi might be opened, and when they were opened, he saw that numberless hosts of angels
were present. And we, though we cannot see them, yet feel their presence. Our eyes were
shut, so long as the bodies of the saints lay hidden. The Lord opened our eyes, and we saw
the aids wherewith we have been often protected. We used not to see them, but yet we had
them. And so, as though the Lord had said to us when trembling, "See what great
martyrs I have given you," so we with opened eyes behold the glory of the Lord, which
is passed in the passion of the martyrs, and present in their working. We have escaped,
brethren, no slight lead of shame; we had patrons and knew it not. We have found this one
thing, in which we seem to excel those who have gone before us. That knowledge of the
martyrs, which they lost, we have regained.
12. The glorious relics are taken out of an ignoble burying-place, the trophies are
displayed under heaven. The tomb is wet with blood. The marks of the bloody triumph are
present, the relics are found undisturbed in their order, the head separated from the
body. Old men now repeat that they once heard the names of these martyrs and read their
titles. The city which had carried off the martyrs of other places had lost her own.
Though this be the gift of God, yet I cannot deny the favour which the Lord Jesus has
granted to the time of my priesthood, and since I myself am not worthy to be a martyr, I
have obtained these matryrs for you.
13. 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
14. The people called out and demanded that the deposition of the martyrs should be
postponed until the Lord's day, but at length it was agreed that it should take place the
following day. On the following day again I preached to the people on this sort.
15. Yesterday I handled the verse, "Day unto day uttereth speech,"21 as my ability enabled me; to-day holy Scripture seems
to me not only to have prophesied in former times, but even at the present. For when I
behold your holy celebration continued day and night, the oracles of the prophet's song
have declared that these days, yesterday and to-day, are the days of which it is most
opportunely said: "Day unto day uttereth speech;" and these the nights of which
it is most fittingly said that "Night unto night showeth knowledge." For what
else but the Word of God have you during these two days uttered with inmost affection, and
have proved yourselves to have the knowledge of the faith.
16. And they who usually do so have a grudge against this solemnity of yours; and since
because of their envious disposition they cannot endure this solemnity, they hate the
cause of it, and go so far in their madness as to deny the merits of the martyrs, whose
deeds even the evil spirits confess. But this is not to be wondered at since such is the
faithlessness of unbelievers that the confession of the devil is often more easy to
endure. For the devil said: "Jesus, Son of the living God, why art Thou come to
torment us before the time?"22 And the Jews
hearing this, even themselves denied Him to be the Son of God. And at this time you have
heard the devils crying out, and confessing to the martys that they cannot bear their
sufferings, and saying, "Why are ye come to torment us so severely?" And the
Arians say: "These are not martys, and they cannot torment the devil, nor deliver any
one, while the torments of the devils are proved by their own words, and the benefits of
the martyrs are declared by the restoring of the healed, and the proof of those that are
17. They deny that the blind man received sight, but he denies not that he is healed.
He says: I who could not see now see. He says: I ceased to be blind, and proves it by the
fact. They deny the benefit, who are unable to deny the fact.23 The man is known: so long as he was well he was employed in the public service; his name
is Severus, a butcher by trade. He had given up his occupation when this hindrance betel
him. He calls for evidence those persons by whose kindness he was supported; he adduces
those as able to affirm the truth of his visitation whom he had as witnesses of his
blindness. He declares that when he touched the hem of the robe of the martyrs, wherewith
the sacred relics were covered, his sight was restored.
18. Is not this like that which we read in the Gospel? For we praise the power of the
same Author in each case, nor does it be a work or a gift, since He confers a gift in His
works, and works in His gift. For that which He gave to others to be done, this His Name
effects in the work of others. So we read in the Gospel, that the Jews, when they saw the
gift of healing in the blind man, called for the testimony of his parents, and asked:
"How doth your son see?" when he said: "Whereas I was blind, now I
see."24 And in this case the man says,
"I was blind and now I see." Ask others if you do not believe me; ask strangers
if you think his parents are in collusion with me. The obstinacy of these men is more
hateful than that of the Jews, for the latter, when they doubted, at least asked his
parents; the others enquire in secret and deny in public, incredulous not as to the work,
but as to its Author.
19. But I ask what it is that they do not believe; is it whether any one can be aided
by the martyrs? This is the same thing as not to believe Christ, for He Himself said:
"Ye shall do greater things than these."25 How? By those martyrs whose merits have been long efficacious, whose bodies were long
since found? Here I ask, do they bear a grudge against me, or against the holy martyrs? If
against me, are any miracles wrought by me? by my means or in my name? Why, then, grudge
me what is not mine? If it be against the martyrs (for if they bear no grudge against me,
it can only be against them), they show that the martyrs were of another faith than that
which they believe. For otherwise they would not have any feeling against their works, did
they not judge that they have not the faith which was in them, that faith established by
the tradition of our forefathers, which the devils themselves cannot deny, but the Arians
21. We have to-day heard those on whom hands were laid say, that no one can be saved
unless he believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; that he is dead and buried
who denies the Holy Spirit, and believes not the almighty power of the Trinity. The devil
confesses this, but the Arians refuse to do so. The devil says: Let him who denies the
Godhead of the Holy Spirit be so tormented as himself was tormented by the martyrs.
22. I do not accept the devil's testimony but his confession. The devil spoke
unwillingly, being compelled and tormented. That which wickedness suppresses, torture
extracts. The devil yields to blows, and the Arians have not yet learned to yield. How
great have been their sufferings, and yet. like Pharaoh, they are hardened by their
calamities! The devil said, as we find it written: "I know Thee Who Thou art, Thou
art the Son of the living God."26 And the
Jews said: "We know not whence He is."27 The evil spirits said to-day, yesterday, and during the night, We know that ye are
martyrs. And the Arians say, We know not, we will not understand, we will not believe. The
evil spirits say to the martyrs, Ye are come to destroy us. The Arians say, The torments
of the devils are not real but fictitious and made-up tales. I have heard of many things
being made up, but no one has ever been able to feign that he was an evil spirit. What is
the meaning of the torment we see in those on whom hands are laid? What room is there here
for fraud? what suspicion of pretence?
23. But I will not make use of the voice of evil spirits in support of the martyrs.
Their holy sufferings are proved by the benefits they confer. These have persons to judge
of them, namely, those who are cleansed, and witnesses, namely, those who are set free.
That voice is better than that of devils, which the soundness of those utters who came
infirm; better is the voice which blood sends forth, for blood has a loud voice reaching
from earth to heaven. You have read how God said: "Thy brother's blood crieth unto
Me."28 This blood cries by its colour, the
blood cries by the voice of its effects, the blood cries by the triumph of its passion. We
have acceded to your request, and have postponed till to-day the deposition of the relics
which was to have taken place yesterday.
51 Phil. ii. 7, Phil. ii. 8.
52 Rom. v. 19.
53 Ps. lxiv. [lxiii.] 7.
54 S. Luke xx. 4.
55 Isa. ix. 6.
56 Eph. iv. 5.
1 This was probably the church now known as
Sant Ambrogio, at Milan, where St. Ambrose and his brother, together with SS. Gervasius
and Protasius, now rest. Of course the church has been rebuilt, though in ancient times.
The church of SS. Nabor and Felix is that now called San Francisco.
2 This laying on of hands was not confirmation,
but for the exorcising of those possessed of evil spirits, the energameni. See Dict.
Chr. Ant. s.v. "Exorcism."
3 [Urna.] But it would seem, though all
ms. authority supports this reading, as though una, "a woman," must be
the true one. For from the context it would seem plain that one of those brought in was
thrown prostrate, and there is no connection in which an "urn" could be brought
into the narrative. See Fleury, XVIII. 47.
4 Now SS. Vitalis and Agricola.
5 This statement is corroborated by St.
Augustine, Conf. IX. 7; De Civ. Dei. XXII. 8, 2; and Sermo de Diversis, CCLXXVI. 5.
6 Ps. xix. [xviii.] 1.
7 Phil. iii. 20.
8 S. Mark iii. 17.
9 S. John i. 1.
10 S. John i. 17, John i. 18.
11 Job xxxiii. 4.
12 Ps. xix. [xviii.] 2.
13 Ps. cxiii. [cxii.] 5, Ps. cxiii. [cxii.] 6.
14 Ps. cxiii. [cxiii.] 7.
15 Ps. cxiii. [cxii.] 8.
16 Ps. xix. [xviii.] 2.
17 1 Cor. xv. 41.
18 3 This would seem to refer to the
persecution stirred up by Justina, in order to gain one of the churches for Arian use. The
following sentence: "Tales ego ambio defensores," was inscribed by St.
Charles Borromeo on a banner of SS. Gervasius and Protasius, which he caused to be made
and carried in procession through Milan at the time of the great plague.
19 Ps. xx. [xix.] 8.
20 2  Kings vi. 16.
21 Ps. xix. [xviii.] 2.
22 S. Matt. viii. 29.
23 The truth of this miracle, of which, unless
it took place, St. Ambrose could not have spoken in a public address, is also supported by
St. Augustine, who was at this time in Milan, and if not himself on the spot, as he may
well have been, would at least know whether such an event had taken place. See St.
Augustine, De Civ. Dei. XXII. 8, and specially, Sermo in natali Martyrum
Gervasii et Protasii.
24 S. John ix. 25.
25 S. John xiv. 12.
26 S. Mark i. 24.
27 S. John ix. 30.
28 Gen. iv. 10.
1 Ps. cxix. [cxviii.] 46.
2 Ezek. iii. 17, Ezek. iii. 20, Ezek. iii. 21.
3 2 Tim. iv. 2.
4 S. Matt. x. 19, Matt. 20.
5 Rom. x. 2
6 S. Matt. xviii. 15 ff.
7 Proevaricator, in a civil case, one
who acts collusively with the defendant, and betrays the other side. Hence in
ecclesiastical Latin the word came to mean Apostate.
8 A Canon  of the Council of Elvira, a.d.
305 or 6, lays down that if any one is killed for breaking idols, he is not to be reckoned
as a martyr, but perhaps St. Ambrose here considers the burning of the synagogue as a
retaliation for the destruction of churches.
9 The miracles of this nature which prevented
the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple are mentioned by the usual ecclesiastical historians,
and confirmed by the heathen Ammianus Marcellinus, XXIII. I.
10 Jer. vii. 14.
Early Church Fathers
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. X
@ Christian Classics Ethereal
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