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A History Of The Church In Five Books by Theodoret

AMBROSE, of whom we have so often spoken, when apprised of this deplorable catastrophe, went out to meet the emperor, who, on his return to Milan, desired to enter as usual the holy church; but Ambrose prohibited his entrance, saying, “You do not reflect it seems, O emperor, on the guilt you have incurred by the great massacre which has taken place; but now that your fury is appeased, do you not perceive the enormity of the crime? It may be that the greatness of your empire prevents your discerning the sins which you have committed, and that absolute power obscures the light of reason. It is, however, necessary to reflect on our nature which is subject to death and to decay; for we are made of dust, and unto dust we must return. You must not be dazzled by the splendour of the purple in which you are clothed, and be led to forget the weakness of the body which it enrobes. Your subjects, O emperor, are of the same nature as yourself, and not only so, but they are likewise your fellow-servants. For there is one Lord and Ruler of all, and He is the Maker of all creatures whether princes or people. How would you look upon the temple of the one Lord of all? How would you walk upon such holy ground? How could you lift up in prayer hands steeped in the blood of unjust massacre? How could you with such hands presume to receive the most sacred body of our Lord? How could you carry his precious blood to a mouth, whence the word of fury issued, commanding the wanton effusion of innocent blood? Depart, then, and do not by a second crime augment the guilt of the first. Submit to the wholesome bonds which God the Lord of all has ordained; for such bonds possess healing virtue and power to restore you to health.”

The emperor, who had been brought up in the knowledge of the sacred Scriptures, and who well knew the distinction between the ecclesiastical and the temporal power, submitted to this rebuke; and with many groans and tears returned to his palace. More than eight months after, the festival of our Saviour’s birth occurred. The emperor shut himself up in his palace, mourned bitterly, and shed floods of tears. This was observed by Rufin, the controller of the palace, and he took the liberty of enquiring the cause of his tears. The emperor, sighing yet more piteously, and weeping still more bitterly, replied, “You, O Rufin, may be at ease, and may be able to divert yourself, for you do not feel the evils under which I groan. I weep and sigh when I reflect on the calamity in which I am involved; the church of God is open to servants and to mendicants, and they can freely enter and pray to the Lord. But to me the church is closed, and so are the doors of heaven. The following words of our Lord dwell upon my memory: ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.’ ” “If you will permit me,” said Rufin, “I will run to the bishop, and beseech him to unloose your bonds.” “You will not be able to persuade him,” said the emperor. “I see the justice of the sentence which he has pronounced against me, and I know that respect for imperial power will never lead him to transgress the divine law.”

Rufin, however, persisted in declaring that he could obtain some promise from Ambrose. The emperor, therefore, commanded him to go immediately, while he himself, animated by the hope that Rufin would obtain some concession, followed very shortly after.

As soon as St. Ambrose saw Rufin, he thus addressed him: “You imitate, O Rufin, the impudence of dogs. You were the adviser of this cruel massacre, and now you have divested yourself of every feeling of shame, and neither blush nor tremble at having given vent to your fury against the image of God.” Rufin addressed him in a supplicatory tone, and told him that the emperor was coming to him. Ambrose, inspired by divine zeal, replied, “I declare to you, O Rufin, that I forbid him from entering the gates of the holy church. If he change his empire into tyranny, I will gladly receive death.”

On hearing this determination, Rufin sent to the emperor to inform him of what the bishop had said, and to advise him to remain within the palace. But the emperor, having received this message when he had reached the middle of the market-place, exclaimed, “I will go and receive the rebukes which I so justly deserve.” When he arrived at the entrance of the church, he did not go into the sacred edifice, but went to the bishop who was sitting in his own house, and besought him to unloose his bonds. Ambrose accused him of having acted in a tyrannical manner, of having risen in opposition against God, and of having trampled upon his laws. Theodosius replied, “I do not oppose the laws which have been laid down, neither do I intend to enter within the sacred doors contrary to your injunctions; but I beseech you, in consideration of the mercy of our common Lord, to unloose me from these bonds, and not to shut against me the door which is opened by the Lord to all who truly repent.” “What repentance,” asked the bishop, “have you then manifested for so great a crime? What remedy have you applied to so severe a wound?” The emperor replied, “It is your office to point out the remedy, and mine to receive and to comply with it.” “As you acted by the impulse of passion,” said the holy Ambrose, “and enacted the sentence according to the dictates of resentment rather than of reason, let a law be drawn up to cancel henceforth all decrees passed in haste and fury; and to decree that when sentence of death or of proscription has been signed against any one, thirty days are to elapse before the sentence is carried into execution, and that on the expiration of this period the case is to be brought before you; for your resentment will then be calmed, and will leave your reason and judgment at liberty to examine the facts, and to decide whether the sentence be just or unjust. If it be proved to be unjust it ought to be revoked, but if just it ought to be confirmed. The delay of this number of days will not injure the cause of justice.”

The emperor listened to this advice; and, deeming it to be excellent, he immediately ordered the law to be committed to writing, and he signed the document with his own hand. St. Ambrose then unloosed his bonds. The emperor, who was full of faith, took courage to enter the holy church; he prayed neither in a standing nor a kneeling posture, but throwing himself on the ground, he said, with David, “My soul cleaveth unto the dust, quicken thou me according to thy word” (Ps. 119:25). He tore his hair, struck his forehead, and shed torrents of tears as he implored forgiveness of God. When the time came to present offerings on the communion-table, he went up weeping no less than before, to present his gift; and, as usual, remained afterwards within the inclosed space. The great Ambrose, however, did not suffer this in silence, but acquainted him with the distinction between different places in the church. He first asked him what he wanted; and, on his replying that he remained for the purpose of partaking of the holy mysteries, he directed his deacon to address him in the following words: “The priests alone, O emperor, are permitted to enter within the palisades of the altar, all others must not approach it. Retire, then, and remain with the rest of the laity. A purple robe makes emperors but not priests.”

The faithful emperor gladly listened to this representation, and sent word back to Ambrose, that it was not from arrogance that he had remained within the palisades of the altar, but because such was the custom at Constantinople, and that he owed him thanks for his advice on the occasion. Such were the virtues which adorned the emperor and the bishop. I greatly admire the boldness and fervent zeal of the one, and the submission and pure faith of the other. When Theodosius returned to Constantinople, he observed the pious regulation which had been explained to him by the great bishop. When a festival occurred he repaired to the church, and after having presented his gift at the altar, immediately retired. Nectarius, the bishop of the church, asked him why he did not remain within the precincts of the altar: he sighed and said, “I have learnt, after great difficulty, the difference 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.” Such were the valuable results of the rebukes of a man of eminent virtue.








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