St Ambrose reading a book without moving his lips

7 December

St Ambrose (above) accidentally became Bishop of Milan today in the year 373. He was already in high office as the Roman governor of Milan and its surrounding region, and only went to the election meeting for a new Bishop as he feared the crowd might riot. But when he spoke to calm the deeply divided audience, they unexpectedly acclaimed him as their Bishop. He was 33 years old and not yet baptised. Ambrose is famous as a theologian and Church leader, for encouraging the young St Augustine in his journey to faith, and for writing hymns which were included in the Latin Church’s oldest hymn book.

Look on us, Jesus, when we fall,
And with your look our souls recall:
If you but look, our sins are gone,
And with due tears our pardon’s won.
St Ambrose, Aeterne rerum conditor

At first light this morning in 1875, 173 people were rescued from the wreck of the SS Deutschland on the Kentish Knock, a sandbank in the estuary of the River Thames. The Deutschland, an emigrant steamship from Bremen in Germany bound for New York, had been wrecked in a snowstorm 24 hours earlier, and in the shameful time it took for rescue to arrive almost 60 people drowned. The dead included five Franciscan nuns – sisters Aurea, Barbara, Brigitta, Henrika and Norbeta – who had quit their convent in Prussia to escape oppression under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s anti-Catholic laws. Their drowning moved the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to write ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, a poem wrestling with the problem of suffering.

Loathed for a love men knew in them,
Banned by the land of their birth,
Rhine refused them, Thames would ruin them;
Surf, snow, river & earth
Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’

Noah and his family, plus all the animals, entered the Ark today in the year 2349 BCE, which was apparently a Sunday. So said Bishop James Ussher, who also calculated the precise date of Eve eating the apple (1 November 4004 BCE), in his chronology of the world, written in the 1650s. The Ark, said Ussher, touched down on top of Mt Ararat five months later, on 6 May, but Noah and company had to wait until 18 December that year before they could leave the Ark.

‘In the 600 year of the life of Noah, upon the 17 day of the second month, answering to the 7 of our December, upon a Sunday, when he with his children, and living creatures of all sorts, were entered into the Ark, God sent a rain upon the earth forty days, and forty nights; and the waters continued upon the earth 150 days.’ James Ussher, The Annals of the World, 1658

Today in 1965, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches attempted to mend their 900-year quarrel by withdrawing the anathemas they had laid on each other in 1054. Ever since, the two major branches of Christianity had been in schism, and although the declaration issued today in Rome and Istanbul did not end the argument, it was the equivalent of putting down your weapons.

‘They likewise regret and remove both from memory and from the midst of the Church the sentences of excommunication which followed these events, the memory of which has influenced actions up to our day and has hindered closer relations in charity; and they commit these excommunications to oblivion.’ Joint declaration of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I, 1965

Alonso de Sandoval, the Spanish Jesuit priest who worked among slaves in Cartagena de Indias, a major slave-trading port on the coast of what is now Colombia, was born today in 1576. He wrote an important early book, De Instauranda Æthiopum Salute (‘On Restoring Ethiopian Salvation’) about African culture and the conditions of the slave trade.

Photo by Jean Louis Mazieres / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Time-travel news is written by Steve Tomkins and Simon Jenkins

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