An Ancient Bishop Rebukes His Emperor for Crimes Against Life: A Story of St. Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius

On this feast of St Ambrose we do well to reflect on a story from his life. It is a story that should inspire bishops and priests. It is the story of a remarkable event that took place between the Emperor Theodosius and St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. What makes it remarkable is that it shows an ancient bishop (Ambrose) and a politician (Theodosius) interacting over the dignity of human life. The Emperor Theodosius had the power of life and death over Ambrose the Bishop. St. Ambrose knew he had to correct the Emperor but also knew that this might endanger his freedom or even his life. Nevertheless, he did it and wrote a personal letter of rebuke to the Emperor.

Let’s look at this remarkable incident of a courageous bishop.

 The Offending Incident – Theodosius (Roman Emperor from 378 to 392) was in many ways an extraordinary emperor. He had successfully dealt with the Goths and other tribes and brought greater unity to the troubled Roman Empire in the West. But he was also known to have a very bad temper. In 390 A.D. in Thessalonica, a terrible riot broke out, which resulted in the death of Botheric, the captain of the Roman garrison there. It seems that a certain charioteer  had become very popular with the crowds. Now this charioteer also lived a rather debauched life. This offended Botheric, a Goth, and also a very upright and disciplined man. He had the charioteer arrested for debauchery. The crowds rioted, rising up in favor of the charioteer. In addition to the arrest there may also have been ethnic jealously involved on both sides since the Roman Garrison was comprised largely of Goths and the town was largely Greek. In the riot Botheric, the Captain was killed.

When Theodosius  heard of this, he was incensed. He ordered  the Roman army to round up the entire town and place them in the stadium  to be slaughtered.  7000 were killed that day!  The day after issuing the order, when his temper had cooled, Theodosius regretted his decision and sent another messenger to try to stop the massacre, but it was too late.

Theodosius  was mortified. He went to Milan to seek solace from St. Ambrose. But Ambrose, fearing the Church was  just being used as a political prop or fig leaf, left the city before Theodosius  arrived, in effect refusing to meet with the emperor.  This surely endangered Ambrose, for it risked inflaming the emperor’s infamous temper once more.

Ambrose then wrote the emperor a private letter (now known as Letter 51). You can read the whole letter here:  http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/340951.htm. The letter was a respectful but clear call to public repentance by the emperor and a refusal to admit him to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or to celebrate it in his presence until such public repentance had occurred. Here are some excerpts:

 The memory of your old friendship is pleasant to me, and I gratefully call to mind the kindnesses which, in reply to my frequent intercessions, you have most graciously conferred on others. Whence it may be inferred that I did not from any ungrateful feeling avoid meeting you on your arrival, which I had always before earnestly desired. And I will now briefly set forth the reason for my acting as I did …

 Listen, august Emperor, I cannot deny that you have a zeal for the faith; I do confess that you have the fear of God. But you have a natural vehemence [i.e., temper] , which … if any one stirs it up, you rouse it so much more that you can scarcely restrain it … Would that … no one may inflame it! … restrain yourself, and overcome your natural vehemence by the love of piety …

  This vehemence of yours I preferred to commend privately to your own consideration, rather than possibly raise it by any action of mine in public …

 There was that done in the city of the Thessalonians of which no similar record exists, which I was not able to prevent happening; which, indeed, I had before said would be most atrocious when I so often petitioned against it, and that which you yourself show by revoking it too late you consider to be grave, this I could not extenuate [i.e., minimize]  when done. When it was first heard of … there was not one who did not lament it, not one who thought lightly of it; your being in fellowship with Ambrose was no excuse for your deed …

 Are you ashamed, O Emperor, to do that which the royal prophet David, the forefather of Christ, according to the flesh, did? … he said: I have sinned against the Lord. Bear it, then, without impatience, O Emperor, if it be said to you: You have done that which was spoken of … say: I have sinned against the Lord. If you repeat those words of the royal prophet: O come let us worship and fall down before Him, and mourn before the Lord our God, Who made us. [I]t shall be said to you also: Since you repent, the Lord puts away your sin, and you shall not die.

  Holy Job, himself also powerful in this world, says: I hid not my sin, but declared it before all the people …

 I have written this, not in order to confound you, but that the examples of these kings may stir you up to put away this sin from your kingdom, for you will do it away by humbling your soul before God. You are a man, and it has come upon you, conquer it. Sin is not done away but by tears and penitence. Neither angel can do it, nor archangel. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say, I am with you, Matthew 28:20 if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent …

  I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me, that you who were an example of unusual piety, who were conspicuous for clemency … The devil envied that which was your most excellent possession. Conquer him while you still possess that wherewith you may conquer. Do not add another sin to your sin by a course of action which has injured many.

 I, indeed, though a debtor to your kindness, for which I cannot be ungrateful, that kindness which has surpassed that of many emperors … but have cause for fear; I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.

 Lastly, I am writing with my own hand that which you alone may read … Our God gives warnings in many ways, by heavenly signs, by the precepts of the prophets; by the visions even of sinners He wills that we should understand, that we should entreat Him to take away all disturbances, to preserve peace for you emperors, that the faith and peace of the Church, whose advantage it is that emperors should be Christians and devout, may continue.

 You certainly desire to be approved by God. To everything there is a time, Ecclesiastes 3:1 as it is written: It is time for You, Lord, to work. It is an acceptable time, O Lord. You shall then make your offering when you have received permission to sacrifice, when your offering shall be acceptable to God. Would it not delight me to enjoy the favor of the Emperor, to act according to your wish, if the case allowed it….when the oblation would bring offense, for the one is a sign of humility, the other of contempt.  For the Word of God Himself tells us that He prefers the performance of His commandments to the offering of sacrifice. God proclaims this, Moses declares it to the people, Paul preaches it to the Gentiles. … Are they not, then, rather Christians in truth who condemn their own sin, than they who think to defend it? The just is an accuser of himself in the beginning of his words. He who accuses himself when he has sinned is just, not he who praises himself.

… But thanks be to the Lord, Who wills to chastise His servants, that He may not lose them. This I have in common with the prophets, and you shall have it in common with the saints … If you believe me, be guided by me … acknowledge what I say; if you believe me not, pardon that which I do, in that I set God before you. May you, most august Emperor, with your holy offspring, enjoy perpetual peace with perfect happiness and prosperity.

Assessment – So here is a bishop speaking the truth to the emperor and calling him to repentance. Remember there were no laws protecting Ambrose from execution or exile for doing this. An emperor could act with impunity doing either. Yet St. Ambrose speaks a rebuke meant to provoke sincere repentance. Neither would Ambrose allow the Church to be used as a prop for some false and flattering acclamation. What was needed was sincere and public repentance. He rebukes both with the emperor’s salvation in mind as well as the good of the faithful. He used the Shepherd’s staff (which is a weapon used to defend the Sheep) to defend the flock from damnation, error, and discouragement. He insisted on truth when it could have gotten him killed by the wolf.

So what did Emperor Theodosius do? He went to the Cathedral of Milan and brought his whole entourage. Ambrose agreed to meet him there. The emperor walked into the door of the cathedral, shed his royal robes and insignia, and bowed down in public penance. One year later, in 391, he personally went to Thessalonica and asked for forgiveness. Theodosius died in 395 at the age of 48 and likely saved his soul by listening to Ambrose and placing his faith higher than his civil authority.

This is a remarkable story of the power of the gospel to transform the hearts of all. It is a remarkable story showing what risking to speak the truth can do. May God be praised.

So, here is an epic story. While every bishop must make prudential judgments in each situation based on the common good prudence looks to the essential goal of the salvation of souls. Some have judged to speak forth as did Ambrose. Others pursue quieter measures or judge that public rebukes would only make heroes of those being rebuked.  The faithful do well to encourage their bishops and priests and pray for them to make good judgments.

Priests, too, face challenges in speaking forthrightly to their congregations. They need courage to announce that which may not always be popular or may be out-of-season. In this clip, the famous preacher Vernon Johns (who preceded Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham) seeks to rouse a sleepy congregation to realize its own role in perpetuating injustice. Even as bishops and priests are called to speak up, so, too, are the laity. This clip is a remarkable glimpse of what a prophet must sound like. My favorite moment is the classic line, “Are you worthy of Jesus or are you just worthy of the State of Alabama?”

Courage, fellow clergy and people of God, courage!

 

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