Home > Archives > 01 - 2010 > Ambrose and Theodosius. From emotion to penance to respect of public authorities
from issue no. 01 - 2010

Ambrose and Theodosius.
From emotion to penance to respect of public authorities

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

<I>Ambrose’s forgiveness of Theodosius</I>, Federico Barocci, Milan Cathedral

Ambrose’s forgiveness of Theodosius, Federico Barocci, Milan Cathedral

The exhibition “The power and the grace. The patron saints of Europe”, has chosen to celebrate St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, with a picture painted in 1619 by the young Anthony van Dyck, in which a determined Ambrose rises up in front of a pleading Theodosius, placed lower down, and drives him away from the Cathedral of Milan. That Ambrose barred the road to the Emperor Theodosius – information handed down by Paulinus, biographer of Ambrose, dramatized by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in his Ecclesiastical History, picked up among others by Gregory VII and the Golden Legend – is in fact legend. What is historically certain is the penance to which, at the invitation of St Ambrose, Theodosius submitted himself after the massacre of Thessalonica, which he rashly ordered in 390 in retaliation for the murder of an imperial officer.
The seventeenth-century painting by van Dyck thus takes up the legend, adumbrating the emblematic opposition of Church and State through the array of characters in ecclesiastical robes on the right, which stands against Theodosius and his military retinue on the left, fronted by a dog symbolizing the rejection of Christ (and perhaps representing the insult “you dog!” which Ambrose, according to legend, is alleged to have addressed Rufinus, the counselor of Theodosius).
The recent drama on Augustine broadcast by Italian television on 31 January and 1 February this year, albeit in rather balanced fashion, heightened the confrontation between Church and State.
It should be added that over the centuries, from the late medieval period on, the chief iconographic attribute of Ambrose – whether on horseback or on a throne – is more and more the scourge he holds in his hand. Look at the fifteenth-century altarpiece in Avignon, or the sixteenth century depiction by Figino in Sant’Eustorgio in Milan, and, again in Milan, the coeval Banner of the City in the Sforza Castle. The attribute refers to his intrepid defense of the Trinitarian faith against the Arians, but also to his marvelous “politico-religious” apparition barring the entry into Milan of the troops of the Emperor Louis of Bavaria in the first half of the 14th century.
Ambrose thus appears to the imagination as a kind of matamoros – scourge of the Saracens – (or rather mataalemanos – of the Germans – one should say, in his case ...) like St James, to whom the role was assigned in the Iberian peninsula from the time of the reconquest from medieval Islam.
And yet it would be a mistake to think of Ambrose as a relentless scourge and Ambrose’s relationship with Theodosius as that of a man standing against imperial authority. Ambrose came from the highest of public administrators and had as strong a sense of the State, as he felt the duty of mercy as a priest: “One need not always come down on those who have sinned; clemency often renders more; you acquire patience, and the sinner corrects himself” (In Lucam 7.27). Above all he was not a scourge of the authorities. Indeed he states that they should not be chastised except in very grievous cases. “Look, kings should not be recklessly attacked by God’s prophets and priests unless there are very serious sins they must be charged with; where there are such, then you should not forgive but correct with just reproaches” (Commentary on Psalm 37, 43).
Such was the case of the massacre of Thessalonica. But even then Ambrose did not change his attitude of clemency and respect. Let us re-read some passages from the letter he wrote to Theodosius in 390 to exhort him to repentance (Epistle 51 in the Maurists’ edition). “I write not to humiliate you, but so that the examples of rulers may make you erase this sin from your realm. You will erase it by humbling your soul before God”. It is not for the sake of some rhetorical device that Ambrose adopts this reversal of the subject agent after citing the penance that David – whose impetuosity reminded him of that of Theodosius – subjected himself to for his sin. His intention was not in fact to humiliate the emperor, but that the emperor humble himself before God. That in fact would not compromise his authority. Just as it is not a rhetorical device (or rather, not just a rhetorical device, because language has its rights in Ambrose) to say: “I have no reason for hostility towards you, I am afraid; I dare not offer the sacrifice were you to insist on being present”. Thereby saying that he does not want to hold back Theodosius, but rather that he feels held back from celebrating the Holy Sacrifice. Saying that meant in fact affirming the unavailability of the sacrament. A dream – already before Freud, the unconscious gave its warnings: from St Joseph to St Peter, from Constantine to Ambrose – confirmed the need to hold back: “Not by a man nor through a man, but directly to me this prohibition was addressed. For while I was worried, that same night in which I prepared to depart it seemed to me you came to church, but for me it was not possible to offer the sacrifice”. The defense at once of the holy sacrament of the altar, of the sinner and of repentance culminates in a reference to prayer as the most humble and pleasing of offerings: “Even simple prayer is a sacrifice: it generates pardon because it contains humility, the offering generates disdain because it contains contempt. In fact God says He prefers the observance of His commandments rather than the offer of sacrifice. So God proclaims, so Moses announced to the people, so Paul preaches to the Gentiles. Do what at the moment you see to be more welcome. ‘I prefer’, says God, ‘mercy to sacrifice.’ Are they not perhaps more Christian those who condemn their sin than those who believe they must justify it?”.
And if there are sins that cannot be washed with the tears of repentance – Ambrose writes on another occasion – “Mother Church will cry for you, who intervenes for everyone as a widowed mother for an only child. Indeed, she feels compassion by a kind of inherent spiritual pain, when she sees her children start out towards death through mortal vices”(In Lucam 5, 92).
One seems to be re-hearing Giussani when so frequently speaking in heartfelt fashion of the widowed mother in Luke’s Gospel. But also some moving pleas of Paul VI come to mind who, as archbishop of Milan, wonderfully portrayed Ambrose’s gift for tears (homily of 7 December 1959). And even more recent words on penance come to mind, traditional and original at once, from Pope Benedict in his speech to the Curia on 21 December last year.
Ambrose’s thinking, compassionate and respectful of both the sacrament and political authority, that confronted the Catholic emperor Theodosius with reasons proper to faith, applies mutatis mutandis to the emperors who backed Arianism.
<I>Saint Ambrose at the Battle of Milan</I>, the Master of the Sforza Altarpiece, Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon

Saint Ambrose at the Battle of Milan, the Master of the Sforza Altarpiece, Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon

In the bitter contest some years earlier (between 385 and 386) for the basilicas of Milan, some of which the empress Justina claimed for the Arians, Ambrose, even though he declared himself willing to shed his own blood to prevent that of others being spilt, showed the same respect for established authority, did not put on the airs of a rebel. “I cannot respond with force. Against weapons, against soldiers, even against the Goths, tears are my weapons: these are the defenses of a priest; I cannot nor must I offer resistance otherwise.” So he says etter – an imperial officer arrives to accuse him of tyrannis, that is of wanting to usurp the emperor (the most menacing of charges). In fact, “Christ fled to avoid becoming king”, Ambrose replies. Ambrose is not a Donatist subversive nor to be thought of in terms of the extremist dogmatism of the Luciferians who boasted of having only Christ as “emperor” (see H. Rahner, Church and state in early Christianity).
Yet Ambrose claims to cultivate his own form of tyranny: “The tyranny of the priest is weakness. ‘When I am weak,’ says Paul, ‘then I am powerful’”. Paradoxical as it may be, this weakness is really powerful. In fact children “in their games”, Ambrose continues in the same letter to his sister, “while for us all that day had passed in anguish, had torn the curtains”, that is the equipment provided in the basilica for the imperial presence, and hence its occupation by the Arians. Indeed, that carefree gesture was prophetic. Or perhaps, along with the prayers and the spontaneous pressure of the faithful, it was something more. It really led the emperor to rethinking. The following day, in fact, on Holy Thursday 386, “the day when the Lord gave himself up for us”, comes the order ending the military siege of the basilicas. To the delight first of all of the soldiers themselves, who “competed to report the news and ran to the altars to kiss them in token of peace”. This had been Ambrose’s hope against hope during the agonizing siege when commenting on the opening verse of Psalm 78: “Venerunt gentes in hereditatem tuam” (pagans have entered, O God, into your inheritance). “Those who had come in to take possession of the inheritance, became heirs of God. I have as defenders those whom I believed opponents, I have as allies those whom I believed enemies. What the prophet David prophesied of the Lord Jesus has come about: ‘His dwelling is in peace’ and ‘He broke the strength of arms, shield, sword, war’. Whose is this gift, whose is this work if not yours, Lord Jesus? Death stood before my eyes, but that no act of madness be committed You placed Yourself between, Lord, and of two have made only one thing... May You therefore be given thanks, O Christ. Not an ambassador, not a messenger but You, Lord, You saved Your people, ‘You have rent the sack and have girded me with joy’”.
One may read in other letters without any undue emphasis, in the columns “Letters from the convents, the seminaries and the missions” in our magazine, the current and unexpected confirmation of these words.
Ex ore infantium et lactentium perfecisti laudem propter inimicos tuos, ut destruas inimicum et ultorem.

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