Ambrose of Milan (340-397) is one of those greats of the church who makes you long for days of steadfastness, intellect and purpose. He was a defender of the faith, who spent many years battling those who denied the full divinity of Christ. When made bishop, he lived a life of simplicity and gave his money to the poor. He would advise Emperors, and even excommunicated Theodosius I after a massacre in Macedonia. He also had the benefit of a Godly mother, and is only one in a long line of saints who shared that particular privilege.
In April 387, Ambrose baptised a newly converted St Augustine and was a great influence on the future bishop of Hippo. In his Confessions Augustine prays: “To Milan I came, to Ambrose the Bishop... To him was I quietly led by You, that by him I might knowingly be led to Thee. That man of God received me as a father... .I hung on his words attentively”.
But what has this to do with hymns? Well, Ambrose was one who realised the importance of hymns for teaching doctrine. We tend to remember things we sing, and these hymns were written to be sung regularly. The fact that in some monasteries his hymns are still in use is a testament to their enduring nature, and they were written not only for the seasons of the Christian church but also the daily routines of the day. Today’s hymn was one written for those who were heading to bed, and still forms part of the ancient evening service of Compline.
The hymn, which takes the form of a prayer, asks for God’s protection through the night - a protection of both body and soul - before finishing with a verse calling upon the Trinity. Only twelve lines, but they encompass the practicalities of the Christian life as well as a rich statement of doctrine. Not a bad thing to have in your mind as you head sinks into your pillow.
Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world, we pray
That with thy wonted favour thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now.
From all ill dreams defend our eyes,
From nightly fears and fantasies;
Tread under foot our ghostly foe,
That no pollution we may know.
O Father, that we ask be done,
Through Jesus Christ, thine only Son;
Who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
Doth live and reign eternally. Amen.