At Morning Prayer here at St Alban's, we use Robert Canon Wright's, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church. The readings for yesterday, today, and tomorrow are selections from the treatise On the Mysteries by St Ambrose of Milan, which are just delightful. Here are some excerpts from his words about the "mystery" (sacramentum) of Holy Baptism:
St Ambrose baptizing St Augustine in the cathedral of Milan.
"We must now speak of the mysteries, setting forth the meaning of the sacraments. If we had thought it fit to teach these things to those not yet initiated through baptism, we should be considered traitors rather than teachers. Then too, the light of the mysteries is of itself more effective where people do not know what to expect than where some instruction has been given beforehand.
Open your ears. Enjoy the fragrance of eternal life, breathed on you by means of the sacraments. We explained this to you as we celebrated the mystery of 'the opening' when we said: 'Effatha, that is, be opened.' . . .
After this, the holy of holies was opened up for you; you entered into the sacred place of regeneration. Recall what you were asked; remember what you answered. You renounced the devil and all Satan's works, the world and its dissipation and sensuality. . . .
You entered to confront your enemy, for you intended to renounce Satan to his face. You then turned toward the east, for one who renounces the devil turns toward Christ and fixes his gaze directly on him. . . .
Listen to how the ancient mystery is prefigured in . . . another testimony. All flesh had become corrupt because of its sins. God said: "My Spirit will not remain in human beings, for they are flesh.' God thus shows that spiritual grace is repelled by uncleanness of the flesh and by the stain of more serious sin. So God resolved to restore the gift he had given. Hes sent the flood and ordered Noah, the righteous one, into the ark. When the flood began to subside Noah sent first a raven, then a dove, which, as we read, came back with an olive branch. You see water, you see wood, you look on a dove, and you hesitate to believe the mystery?
The water is that in which the flesh is dipped, to wash away all its sin. In it all wickedness is buried. The wood is that to which the Lord Jesus was fastened when he suffered for us. The dove is the one in whose likeness the Holy Spirit descended, as you have learned from the New Testament: the Spirit who breathes into you peace of soul, tranquility of mind. . . .
Marah was a spring of bitter water. When Moses through wood into it, its water became sweet. Water, you see, is of no avail for future salvation without the proclamation of the Lord's cross. But when it has been consecrated through the saving mystery of the cross, it is then ready for use in the laver of the Spirit and in the cup of salvation. Therefore, as Moses in his role as prophet threw wood into the spring of Marah, so also the priest sends out into the fountain of baptism the proclamation of the Lord's cross, and the water becomes sweet, ready for the giving of grace."
The excavated fourth century baptistry in Milan.