I understand that “dew”, the moisture we find on the grass each morning, a long treasured figure used for the Holy Spirit’s gentle action in our lives, is apparently so difficult to grasp that some bishops today won’t even try to explain it to the flock.
Someone who has the most basic knowledge of the Old Testament will remember how in the wilderness dew is associated with the manna the Chosen People ate, a foreshadowing of the Eucharist to come.
Dew is mentioned in the Latin texts for Holy Mass, as a matter of fact. I am sure you know that by now. It is just too hard, I guess. And we are so stupid that if it were explained, we just wouldn’t get it.
Not so in the ancient Church, however. St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) wrote quite a few fascinating exegetical works, often employing an allegorical approach to the Scriptures he explained. For Ambrose, teaching his flock the meaning of the sacred mysteries of the liturgy was both a duty and a pleasure. It was an important dimension of his role as a bishop. In his work On the Holy Spirit Ambrose explores what “dew” is all about. Maybe he wasn’t a sophisticated modern Scripture scholar, and maybe he didn’t have the Jerome Biblical Commetary close to hand, but the poor guy did his best. (St. Jerome was not a fan of Ambrose, by the way.)
Let’s read an extended piece by the great Bishop of Milan involving dew. This is just ONE approach to dew and Scripture has many references. While not sophisticated and modern, Ambrose was nevertheless able to impress the young official imperial orator from North Africa, Augustine, so much that he began to overcome his aversion to the ugly style of Christian writings and the concept of an immaterial God.
In what follows, Ambrose speaks of “figures” and “types” and “mysteries” and “references”. These are to be understood as “foreshadowings” and “symbols in advance” of the greater realities that would follow in the history of our salvation. God prepared for future revelations and events by causing foreshadows of things to come. If you really want to do this right, get out your Bible and first read the Book of Judges chapters 6-8.
Thus, let us listen to Ambrose teaching us about dew (emphasis mine)….
1. When Jerubbaal (= GIDEON, a great Judge, c. 1250 BC), as we read, was beating out wheat under an oak, he received a message from God in order that he might bring the people of God from the power of strangers into liberty. Nor is it a matter of wonder if he was chosen for grace, seeing that even then, being appointed under the shadow of the holy cross and of the adorable Wisdom in the predestined mystery of the future Incarnation, he was bringing forth the visible grains of the fruitful corn from their hiding places, and was [mystically] separating the elect of the saints from the refuse of the empty chaff. For these elect, as though trained with the rod of truth, laying aside the superfluities of the old man together with his deeds, are gathered in the Church as in a winepress. For the Church is the winepress of the eternal fountain, since from her wells forth the juice of the heavenly Vine.
(NB: Gorgeous image, isn’t it?)
2. And Gideon, moved by that message, when he heard that, though thousands of the people failed, God would deliver His own from their enemies by means of one man, offered a kid, and according to the word of the Angel, laid its flesh and the unleavened cakes upon the rock, and poured the broth upon them. And as soon as the Angel touched them with the end of the staff which he bore, fire burst forth out of the rock, and so the sacrifice which he was offering was consumed. By which it seems clear that that rock was a figure of the Body of Christ, for it is written: "They drank of that rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ." Which certainly refers not to His Godhead, but to His Flesh, which watered the hearts of the thirsting people with the perpetual stream of His Blood.
3. Even at that time was it declared in a mystery that the Lord Jesus in His Flesh would, when crucified, do away the sins of the whole world, and not only the deeds of the body, but the desires of the soul. For the flesh of the kid refers to sins of deed, the broth to the enticements of desire as it is written: "For the people lusted an evil lust, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?" That the Angel then stretched forth his staff, and touched the rock, from which fire went out, shows that the Flesh of the Lord, being filled with the Divine Spirit, would burn away all the sins of human frailty. Wherefore, also, the Lord says: "I am come to send fire upon the earth."
4. Then the man, instructed and fore-knowing what was to be, observes the heavenly mysteries, and therefore, according to the warning, slew the bullock destined by his father to idols, and himself offered to God another bullock seven years old. By doing which he most plainly showed that after the coming of the Lord all Gentile sacrifices should be done away, and that only the sacrifice of the Lord’s passion should be offered for the redemption of the people. For that bullock was, in a type, Christ, in Whom, as Esaias said, dwelt the fullness of the seven gifts of the Spirit. This bullock Abraham also offered when he saw the day of the Lord and was glad. He it is Who was offered at one time in the type of a kid, at another in that of a sheep, at another in that of a bullock. Of a kid, because He is a sacrifice for sin; of a sheep, because He is an unresisting victim; of a bullock, because He is a victim without blemish.
5. Holy Gideon then saw the mystery beforehand. Next he chose out three hundred for the battle, so as to show that the world should be freed from the incursion of worse enemies, not by the multitude of their number, but by the mystery of the cross. And yet, though he was brave and faithful, he asked of the Lord yet fuller proofs of future victory, saying: "If Thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, O Lord, as Thou hast said, behold I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor, and if there shall be dew on the fleece and dryness on all the ground, I shall know that Thou wilt deliver the people by my hand according to Thy promise. And it was so." Afterwards he asked in addition that dew should descend on all the earth and dryness be on the fleece.
6. Some one perhaps will enquire whether he does not seem to have been wanting in faith, seeing that after being instructed by many signs he asked still more. But how can he seem to have asked as if doubting or wanting in faith, who was speaking in mysteries? He was not then doubtful, but careful that we should not doubt. For how could he be doubtful whose prayer was effectual? And how could he have begun the battle without fear, unless he had understood the message of God? For the dew on the fleece signified the faith among the Jews, because the words of God come down like the dew.
7. So when the whole world was parched with the drought of Gentile superstition, then came that dew of the heavenly visits on the fleece. But after that the lost sheep of the house of Israel (whom I think that the figure of the Jewish fleece shadowed forth), after that those sheep, I say, "had refused the fountain of living water," the dew of moistening faith dried up in the breasts of the Jews, and that divine Fountain turned away its course to the hearts of the Gentiles. Whence it has come to pass that now the whole world is moistened with the dew of faith, but the Jews have lost their prophets and counselors.
(NB: I find this phrase of Ambrose particularly ironinc, given our present context, but let’s return to the lesson…)
8. Nor is it strange that they should suffer the drought of unbelief, whom the Lord deprived of the fertilizing of the shower of prophecy (=DEW), saying: "I will command My clouds that they rain not upon that vineyard." For there is a health-giving shower of salutary grace, as David also said: "He came down like rain upon a fleece, and like drops that drop upon the earth." The divine Scriptures promised us this rain upon the whole earth, to water the world with the dew of the Divine Spirit at the coming of the Savior. The Lord, then, has now come, and the rain has come; the Lord has come bringing the heavenly drops with Him, and so now we drink, who before were thirsty, and with an interior draught drink in that Divine Spirit.
9. Holy Gideon, then, foresaw this, that the nations of the Gentiles also would drink by the reception of faith, and therefore he enquired more diligently, for the caution of the saints is necessary. Insomuch that also Joshua the son of Nun, when he saw the captain of the heavenly host, enquired: "Art thou for us, or for our adversaries?" lest, perchance, he might be deceived by some stratagem of the adversary.
10. Nor was it without a reason that he put the fleece neither in a field nor in a meadow, but in a threshing-floor, where is the harvest of the wheat: "For the harvest is plenteous, but the laborers are few;" because that, through faith in the Lord, there was about to be a harvest fruitful in virtues.
11. Nor, again, was it without a reason that he dried the fleece of the Jews, and put the dew from it into a basin, so that it was filled with water, yet he did not himself wash his feet in that dew. The prerogative of so great a mystery was to be given to another. He was being waited for Who alone could wash away the filth of all. Gideon was not great enough to claim this mystery for himself, but "the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister." Let us, then, recognize in Whom these mysteries are seen to be accomplished. Not in holy Gideon, for they were still at their commencement. Therefore the Gentiles were surpassed, for dryness was still upon the Gentiles, and therefore did Israel surpass them, for then did the dew remain on the fleece.
(NB: Ambrose now starts to draw together the connections between what Gideon, the type or figure of Christ, did and the deed of the fulfillment of the type, Christ, in the Gospels.)
12. Let us come now to the Gospel of God. I find the Lord stripping Himself of His garments, and girding Himself with a towel, pouring water into a basin, and washing the disciples’ feet. That heavenly dew was this water, this was foretold, namely, that the Lord Jesus Christ would wash the feet of His disciples in that heavenly dew. And now let the feet of our minds be stretched out. The Lord Jesus wills also to wash our feet, for He says, not to Peter alone, but to each of the faithful: "If I wash not thy feet thou wilt have no part with Me."
(NB: Ambrose the pastor, the shepherd who loves his flock then prays as he instructs people the importance of understanding what the dew is. He very often makes extensive use of the Song of Songs in his exegesis.)
13. Come, then, Lord Jesus, put off Thy garments, which Thou didst put on for my sake; be Thou stripped that Thou mayest clothe us with Thy mercy. Gird Thyself for our sakes with a towel, that Thou mayest gird us with Thy gift of immortality. Pour water into the basin, wash not only our feet but also the head, and not only of the body, but also the footsteps of the soul. I wish to put off all the filth of our frailty, so that I also may say: "By night I have put off my coat, how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them?"
14. How great is that excellence! As a servant, Thou dost wash the feet of Thy disciples; as God, Thou sendest dew from heaven. Nor dost Thou wash the feet only, but also invitest us to sit down with Thee, and by the example of Thy dignity dost exhort us, saying: "Ye call Me Master and Lord, and ye do well, for so I am. If, then, I the Lord and Master have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet."
(NB: The reception of dew is not only for our own interior benefit, but also – once turned outward – for the benefit of others whom we are called to love according to the Lord’s two-cold command.)
15. I, then, wish also myself to wash the feet of my brethren, I wish to fulfill the commandment of my Lord, I will not be ashamed in myself, nor disdain what He Himself did first. Good is the mystery of humility, because while washing the pollutions of others I wash away my own. But all were not able to exhaust this mystery. Abraham was, indeed, willing to wash feet, but because of a feeling of hospitality. Gideon, too, was willing to wash the feet of the Angel of the Lord who appeared to him, but his willingness was confined to one; he was willing as one who would do a service, not as one who would confer fellowship with himself. This is a great mystery which no one knew. Lastly, the Lord said to Peter: "What I do thou knowest not now, but shalt know hereafter." This, I say, is a divine mystery which even they who wash will enquire into. It is not, then, the simple water of the heavenly mystery whereby we attain to be found worthy of having part with Christ.
(NB: Contact with holy things prompts in us a strong desire to know more! We cannot remain ignorant or merely be content with the surface meanings of things. We must go deeper! Above, there is a also connection between the washing by the dew and the lifting of ignorance. Ambrose speaks of his own ministry: he is teaching people what this all means and he celebrates for them the saving mysteries in the liturgy of Mass. He baptizes, gives them the Eucharist – daily in Milan! – and instructs in an on going way. His own act of “washing” the feet of the brethren is bound up with explaining things like dew.)
16. There is also a certain water which we put into the basin of our soul, water from the fleece and from the Book of Judges; water, too, from the Book of Psalms. It is the water of the message from heaven. (NB: Here comes more prayer!) Let, then, this water, O Lord Jesus, come into my soul, into my flesh, that through the moisture of this rain the valleys of our minds and the fields of our hearts may grow green. May the drops from Thee come upon me, shedding forth grace and immortality. Wash the steps of my mind that I may not sin again. Wash the heel of my soul, that I may be able to efface the curse, that I feel not the serpent’s bite on the foot of my soul, but, as Thou Thyself hast bidden those who follow Thee, may tread on serpents and scorpions with uninjured foot. Thou hast redeemed the world, redeem the soul of a single sinner.
17. This is the special excellence of Thy loving-kindness, wherewith Thou hast redeemed the whole world one by one. Elijah was sent to one widow; Elisha cleansed one; Thou, O Lord Jesus, hast at this day cleansed a thousand. How many in the city of Rome, how many at Alexandria, how many at Antioch, how many also at Constantinople! For even Constantinople has received the word of God, and has received evident proofs of Thy judgment. For so long as she cherished the Arians’ poison in her bosom, disquieted by neighboring wars, she echoed with hostile arms around. But so soon as she rejected those who were alien from the faith she received as a suppliant the enemy himself, the judge of kings, whom she had always been wont to fear, she buried him when dead, and retains him entombed. How many, then, hast Thou cleansed at Constantinople, how many, lastly, at this day in the whole world!
(NB: Remember that Ambrose had a real war going with the Arians in Milan. At the time Augustine was there, the Justina the Arian mother of the Emperor, put huge pressure on Ambrose to turn over two churches for the use of the Arians. Ambrose refused. The Catholics actually barred themselves within for a siege and the situation almost became deadly. Ambrose eventually stared the Arians down and won. He really didn’t like Arians and that conflict flavored all of his works thereafter.)
18. Damasus cleansed not, Peter cleansed not, Ambrose cleansed not, Gregory cleansed not; for ours is the ministry, but the sacraments are Thine. For it is not in man’s power to confer what is divine, but it is, O Lord, Thy gift and that of the Father, as Thou hast spoken by the prophets, saying: "I will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh, and their sons and their daughters shall prophesy." This is that typical dew from heaven, this is that gracious rain, as we read: "A gracious rain, dividing for His inheritance." For the Holy Spirit is not subject to any foreign power or law, but is the Arbiter of this own freedom, dividing all things according to the decision of His own will, to each, as we read, severally as He wills.