Greatness of virtue

Daily Reading for December 7 • Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 397

He here announced greatness, not of body but of soul. Greatness of soul before the Lord is greatness of virtue, and smallness of soul is childhood of virtue. . . . Thus John would be great—not through bodily virtue but through magnanimity. He did not enlarge the boundaries of an empire. He did not prefer triumphs of military contests to honors. Rather, what is more, he disparaged human pleasures and lewdness of body, preaching in the desert with great virtue of spirit. He was a child in worldliness, but great in spirit. He was not captivated by the allurements of life, nor did he change his steadfastness of purpose through a desire to live. . . .

There is no doubt that this promise of the angel came true. Before he was born—still in his mother’s womb—St. John depicted the grace of the receipt of the Spirit. Although neither his father nor his mother had performed any miracles previously, he, leaping in his mother’s womb, proclaimed the coming of the Lord. When the mother of the Lord came to Elizabeth, the latter said, “For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.” She did not yet have the spirit of life, but the Spirit of grace. We find in another place that the grace of sanctification precedes that of the substance of living, where the Lord says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” For the spirit of this life is one, and the Spirit of grace is another.

From Exposition of the Gospel of Luke by Ambrose of Milan, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament III, Luke, edited by Arthur A. Just, Jr. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

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