Feast Day: December 7th
Last week, we were able to recount the dramatic shift that happened in the life of Theodosius and Ambrose when, between the years of 374 AD and 381 AD, they both went from being young, popular Roman civil servants to becoming Emperor and Bishop respectively. But climbing the social ladder-of-power was not the most substantial change that occurred in their lives during those years. Nor was the political promotion they each received the shift that would have the greatest consequences for later history. The most impactful event in either of their lives during those years was that they each were baptized. They were set free from original sin; they were made sons of God; and they were given the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love.
This month we are investigating the topic of the virtues, and so we look to these men as examples of how the theological virtues can operate in someone’s life. (We will save the other virtues, specifically the cardinal ones, for next week). Both Ambrose and Theodosius, in an age that was debating whether Jesus was God, and with all the pressures of the world on their shoulders, chose to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and with that interior transformation complete, they then began to practice in their actions and demeaner the exterior transformation that befits a Christian.
I don’t mean to argue that both of them suddenly were perfect, and yet in the months after receiving this first sacrament, what do we see them doing: upholding the fullness of the faith and responding to the horrors of their day with an exceptional amount of vision, patience, even mercy. (Theodosius convenes the council of Constantinople, and promulgates the Codex Theodosianus, calling for faith in the Trinity. Ambrose convokes the synod of Aquileia, and writes De Fide defending the orthodox faith). In the moment, neither man could have quantified how much grace had changed them, and yet their actions – in retrospect – depict individuals who had allowed themselves to be redirected by those theological virtues. The question would be whether they stayed true to those virtues in times of testing that would come.
In 383, Gratian (the emperor of the West) was killed by Magnus Maximus, placing Gratian’s 12 year old heir, Valentinian II, on the throne. The boy, and his mother (who acted as his regent), were Arian, and within two years were attempting to takeover Catholic Churches for the use of the Arians. (She, Justina, still hated Ambrose for his helping to appoint an orthodox bishop to Sirmium, whom they had clashed with years before, and couldn’t stand his strident defense of Jesus’ divinity and all the corollaries from that). Ambrose stubbornly barricaded himself inside the Church, and sent this scathing reply to the Emperor who had soldiers at his door:
“If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.”
Valentinian backed down and Ambrose continued to teach his congregation the simple songs that upheld the full-faith he had so boldly defended. The political situation being what it was, Valentinian and Justina’s schemes were derailed further by Maximus coming for them with an army. They fled, and were only rescued by the happily orthodox Theodosius sweeping in from the East. This year, 388, seems to also be the time when our two characters first meet in person! It was not the last.
In 390, after a riot took place in Thessalonica (in which, it seems one of his military leaders was killed), Theodosius sent in troops to punish the city, and they brutally murdered thousands of the Thessalonians as they were gathered in their town circus. This, just as much as Valentinian’s heresy, was contrary to the Catholic faith, and so we now find Theodosius outside Ambrose’s Cathedral, not with an army threatening to storm the altar, but humble and contrite for his sins. Ambrose forced the Emperor to wait 6 months before accepting his contrition as forthright and allowing him to return to Holy Communion.
Theodosius would eventually become the last single person to rule the entire Roman Empire, dying in 395, in Milan, repentant and faithful to the end. Ambrose would die 2 years later, still archbishop of that same city, where so many of the crises and characters of the previous decades had crossed. Both men were sorely tried in the virtues of their baptism, we should expect the same for ourselves. Regardless of the trials we face, God will provide the courage, and clemency, we need to remain faithful.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin’s favorite songs are Advent hymns. There is something so gentle and powerful in their heralding the coming of Christ. Ambrose composed one of the greatest of these hymns, Veni Redemptor Gentium. Here are the final 3 stanzas (translated into English). The divinity of the Christ child has not been forgotten here!
5. From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds;
His course He runs to death and hell,
Returning on God’s throne to dwell.
6. O equal to the Father, Thou!
Gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.
7. Thy cradle here shall glitter bright
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.