Monday, December 7, 2020

The Boldness of Saint Ambrose and the Piety of Emperor Theodosius the Great


By Theodoret
Ecclesiastical History, 5.17
 
Thessalonica is a large and very populous city, belonging to Macedonia, but the capital of Thessaly and Achaia, as well as of many other provinces which are governed by the prefect of Illyricum. Here arose a great sedition, and several of the magistrates were stoned and violently treated.

The emperor was fired with anger when he heard the news, and unable to endure the rush of his passion, did not even check its onset by the curb of reason, but allowed his rage to be the minister of his vengeance. When the imperial passion had received its authority, as though itself an independent prince, it broke the bonds and yoke of reason, unsheathed swords of injustice right and left without distinction, and slew innocent and guilty together. No trial preceded the sentence. No condemnation was passed on the perpetrators of the crimes. Multitudes were mowed down like ears of grain in harvest-tide. It is said that seven thousand perished.

News of this lamentable calamity reached Ambrose. The emperor on his arrival at Milan wished according to custom to enter the church. Ambrose met him outside the outer porch and forbade him to step over the sacred threshold. "You seem, sir, not to know," said he, "the magnitude of the bloody deed that has been done. Your rage has subsided, but your reason has not yet recognised the character of the deed. Peradventure your Imperial power prevents your recognising the sin, and power stands in the light of reason. We must however know how our nature passes away and is subject to death; we must know the ancestral dust from which we sprang, and to which we are swiftly returning. We must not because we are dazzled by the sheen of the purple fail to see the weakness of the body that it robes. You are a sovereign, Sir, of men of like nature with your own, and who are in truth your fellow slaves; for there is one Lord and Sovereign of mankind, Creator of the Universe. With what eyes then will you look on the temple of our common Lord — with what feet will you tread that holy threshold, how will you stretch forth your hands still dripping with the blood of unjust slaughter? How in such hands will you receive the all holy Body of the Lord? How will you who in your rage unrighteously poured forth so much blood lift to your lips the precious Blood? Begone. Attempt not to add another crime to that which you have committed. Submit to the restriction to which the God the Lord of all agrees that you be sentenced. He will be your physician, He will give you health."

Educated as he had been in the sacred oracles, Theodosius knew clearly what belonged to priests and what to emperors. He therefore bowed to the rebuke of Ambrose, and retired sighing and weeping to the palace. After a considerable time, when eight months had passed away, the festival of our Saviour's birth came round and the emperor sat in his palace shedding a storm of tears.

Now Rufinus, at that time controller of the household, and, from his familiarity with his imperial master, able to use great freedom of speech, approached and asked him why he wept. With a bitter groan and yet more abundant weeping "You are trifling, Rufinus," said the emperor, "because you do not feel my troubles. I am groaning and lamenting at the thought of my own calamity; for menials and for beggars the way into the church lies open; they can go in without fear, and put up their petitions to their own Lord. I dare not set my foot there, and besides this for me the door of heaven is shut, for I remember the voice of the Lord which plainly says, 'Whatsoever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven.'"

Rufinus replied "With your permission I will hasten to the bishop, and by my entreaties induce him to remit your penalty." "He will not yield" said the emperor. "I know the justice of the sentence passed by Ambrose, nor will he ever be moved by respect for my imperial power to transgress the law of God."

Rufinus urged his suit again and again, promising to win over Ambrose; and at last the emperor commanded him to go with all dispatch. Then, the victim of false hopes, Theodosius, in reliance on the promises of Rufinus, followed in person, himself. No sooner did the divine Ambrose perceive Rufinus than he exclaimed, "Rufinus, your impudence matches a dog's, for you were the adviser of this terrible slaughter; you have wiped shame from your brow, and guilty as you are of this mad outrage on the image of God you stand here fearless, without a blush." Then Rufinus began to beg and pray, and announced the speedy approach of the emperor. Fired with divine zeal the holy Ambrose exclaimed "Rufinus, I tell you beforehand; I shall prevent him from crossing the sacred threshold. If he is for changing his sovereign power into that of a tyrant I too will gladly submit to a violent death." On this Rufinus sent a messenger to inform the emperor in what mind the archbishop was, and exhorted him to remain within the palace. Theodosius had already reached the middle of the forum when he received the message. "I will go," said he, "and accept the disgrace I deserve." He advanced to the sacred precincts but did not enter the holy building. The archbishop was seated in the house of salutation and there the emperor approached him and besought that his bonds might be loosed.

"Your coming" said Ambrose "is the coming of a tyrant. You are raging against God; you are trampling on his laws." "No," said Theodosius, "I do not attack laws laid down, I do not seek wrongfully to cross the sacred threshold; but I ask you to loose my bond, to take into account the mercy of our common Lord, and not to shut against me a door which our master has opened for all them that repent." The archbishop replied "What repentance have you shown since your tremendous crime? You have inflicted wounds right hard to heal; what salve have you applied?" "Yours" said the emperor "is the duty alike of pointing out and of mixing the salve. It is for me to receive what is given me." Then said the divine Ambrose "You let your passion minister justice, your passion not your reason gives judgment. Put forth therefore an edict which shall make the sentence of your passion null and void; let the sentences which have been published inflicting death or confiscation be suspended for thirty days awaiting the judgment of reason. When the days shall have elapsed let them that wrote the sentences exhibit their orders, and then, and not till then, when passion has calmed down, reason acting as sole judge shall examine the sentences and will see whether they be right or wrong. If it find them wrong it will cancel the deeds; if they be righteous it will confirm them, and the interval of time will inflict no wrong on them that have been rightly condemned."

This suggestion the emperor accepted and thought it admirable. He ordered the edict to be put out immediately and gave it the authority of his sign manual. On this the divine Ambrose loosed the bond.

Now the very faithful emperor came boldly within the holy temple but did not pray to his Lord standing, or even on his knees, but lying prone upon the ground he uttered David's cry "My soul cleaves unto the dust, quicken thou me according to your word."

He plucked out his hair; he smote his head; he besprinkled the ground with drops of tears and prayed for pardon. When the time came for him to bring his oblations to the holy table, weeping all the while he stood up and approached the sanctuary.

After making his offering, as he was wont, he remained within at the rail, but once more the great Ambrose kept not silence and taught him the distinction of places. First he asked him if he wanted anything; and when the emperor said that he was waiting for participation in the divine mysteries, Ambrose sent word to him by the chief deacon and said, "The inner place, sir, is open only to priests; to all the rest it is inaccessible; go out and stand where others stand; purple can make emperors, but not priests." This instruction too the faithful emperor most gladly received, and intimated in reply that it was not from any audacity that he had remained within the rails, but because he had understood that this was the custom at Constantinople. "I owe thanks," he added, "for being cured too of this error."

So both the archbishop and the emperor showed a mighty shining light of virtue. Both to me are admirable; the former for his brave words, the latter for his docility; the archbishop for the warmth of his zeal, and the prince for the purity of his faith.

On his return to Constantinople Theodosius kept within the bounds of piety which he had learned from the great archbishop. For when the occasion of a feast brought him once again into the divine temple, after bringing his gifts to the holy table he straightway went out. The bishop at that time was Nectarius, and on his asking the emperor what could possibly be the reason of his not remaining within, Theodosius answered with a sigh "I have learned after great difficulty the differences between an emperor and a priest. It is not easy to find a man capable of teaching me the truth. Ambrose alone deserves the title of bishop."

So great is the gain of conviction when brought home by a man of bright and shining goodness.

+ + +

By Sozomen
Ecclesiastical History, 7.25

After the death of Eugenius, the emperor went to Milan, and repaired towards the church to pray within its walls. When he drew near the gates of the edifice, he was met by Ambrose, the bishop of the city, who took hold of him by his purple robe, and said to him, in the presence of the multitude, "Stand back! A man defiled by sin, and with hands imbrued in blood unjustly shed, is not worthy, without repentance, to enter within these sacred precincts, or partake of the holy mysteries." The emperor, struck with admiration at the boldness of the bishop, began to reflect on his own conduct, and, with much contrition, retraced his steps. The occasion of the sin was as follows. When Buthericus was general of the troops in Illyria, a charioteer saw him shamefully exposed at a tavern, and attempted an outrage; he was apprehended and put in custody. Some time after, some magnificent races were to be held at the hippodrome, and the populace of Thessalonica demanded the release of the prisoner, considering him necessary to the celebration of the contest. As their request was not attended to, they rose up in sedition and finally slew Buthericus. On hearing of this deed, the wrath of the emperor was excited immediately, and he commanded that a certain number of the citizens should be put to death. The city was filled with the blood of many unjustly shed; for strangers, who had but just arrived there on their journey to other lands, were sacrificed with the others. There were many cases of suffering well worthy of commiseration, of which the following is an instance. A merchant offered himself to be slain as a substitute for his two sons who had both been selected as victims, and promised the soldiers to give them all the gold he possessed, on condition of their effecting the exchange. They could not but compassionate his misfortune, and consented to take him as a substitute for one of his sons, but declared that they did not dare to let off both the young men, as that would render the appointed number of the slain incomplete. The father gazed on his sons, groaning and weeping; he could not save either from death, but he continued hesitating until they had been put to death, being overcome by an equal love for each. I have also been informed, that a faithful slave voluntarily offered to die instead of his master, who was being led to the place of execution. It appears that it was for these and other acts of cruelty that Ambrose rebuked the emperor, forbade him to enter the church, and excommunicated him. Theodosius publicly confessed his sin in the church, and during the time set apart for penance, refrained from wearing his imperial ornaments, according to the usage of mourners. He also enacted a law prohibiting the officers entrusted with the execution of the imperial mandates, from inflicting the punishment of death till thirty days after the mandate had been issued, in order that the wrath of the emperor might have time to be appeased, and that room might be made for the exercise of mercy and repentance.

Ambrose, no doubt, performed many other actions worthy of his priestly office, which are known, as is likely, only to the inhabitants of the country. Among the illustrious deeds that are attributed to him, I have been made acquainted with the following. It was the custom of the emperor to take a seat in assemblies of the church within the palisades of the altar, so that he sat apart from the rest of the people. Ambrose, considering that this custom had originated either from subserviency or from want of discipline, caused the emperor to be seated without the trellis work of the altar, so that he sat in front of the people, and behind the priests. The emperor Theodosius approved of this best tradition, as did likewise his successors; and we are told that it has been ever since scrupulously observed.

I think it necessary to make a record of another action worthy of mention performed by this bishop. A pagan of distinction insulted Gratian, affirming that he was unworthy of his father; and he was in consequence condemned to death. As he was being led out to execution, Ambrose went to the palace to implore a pardon. Gratian was then engaged in witnessing a private exhibition of the hunt, such as the emperors were wont to celebrate for their private pleasure, and not for the public pastime. On finding this to be the case, the bishop went to the gate where they led in the beasts; he hid himself, and entered with the hunters who took charge of the animals, and did not intermit, although Gratian and his attendants resisted, till he had obtained an immediate and saving consent of the emperor, which released the man who was to be led out to death. Ambrose was very diligent in the observance of the laws of the Church, and in maintaining discipline among his clergy. I have selected the above two incidents from among the records of his numerous magnanimous deeds, in order to show with what intrepidity he addressed those in power when the service of God was in question.
 
 
 

Become a Patreon supporter:

To read more about supporting the ministry of the Mystagogy Resource Center, either as a monthly supporter or an annual supporter, please visit the DONATE page.

Thank you!

Please Visit Our Sponsors

BannerFans.com