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Ambrose Had No Altar Ego

Saints Gervasius and Protasius were martyrs of the second century. Today, June 19, we mark their feast because it is the day that St. Ambrose moved their relics into the great basilica he had built in Milan. The events were attended by many miracles, which are recorded by eyewitnesses such as St. Augustine (in his Confessions) and St. Ambrose himself. The old Catholic Encyclopedia gives us the condensed version of the drama:

St. Ambrose, in 386, had built a magnificent basilica at Milan. Asked by the people to consecrate it in the same solemn manner as was done in Rome, he promised to do so if he could obtain the necessary relics. In a dream he was shown the place in which such could be found. He ordered excavations to be made in the cemetery church of Sts. Nabor and Felix, outside the city, and there found the relics of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius. He had them removed to the church of St. Fausta, and on the next day into the basilica, which later received the name San Ambrogio Maggiore.

St. Ambrose counted these events among the greatest blessings of his much-graced life. He had the martyrs’ remains transferred to the basilica with great ceremony, and he rested the bones in the place he had reserved for his own tomb — immediately under the main altar of the grand new church. The bishop wrote a breathless letter to his sister Marcellina telling the matter in great detail. The letter gives us a stunning example of the early Christian tendency to speak of martyrdom in eucharistic terms: “Let the triumphant victims enter the place where Christ is the Sacrifice. but He upon the altar, who suffered for all; they under the altar, who were redeemed by His passion. This place I had destined for myself. For it is meet that a priest should rest there, where he was wont to offer. But I yield up the right side to the holy victims, that place was due to martyrs.”

The acts of the two martyrs are of questionable historical value, but it’s rarely a good idea to dismiss these documents out of hand. They tell us that Gervasius and Protasius were twins from a noble family, children of martyrs. The sons are said to have been scourged and then beheaded.

They are the patrons of the city of Milan and of haymakers. So go make some hay, while the sun shines.