Feast Day: December 7th
The year was 374 AD, and our story begins with two eminent men who have recently received minor positions of authority in the Roman Empire. Flavius Theodosius, just now turning 37 years old, recently received his own independent command in the Roman army, stepping out from under the shadow of his father, Theodosius the Elder, a high-ranking general in the western Roman Empire. He quickly wins victories over the Sarmatians (East of Rome, in modern day Serbia; not to be confused with the Samaritans, the remnant of Jews left behind after the Exile who did not worship in Jerusalem and instead settled 25 miles north of Jerusalem on Mt. Gerizim). Higher up in the empire chaos reigns as various men grapple for command, clearing out opponents (including the Elder Theodosius by 375), though shortly thereafter Gratian comes out on top and becomes Emperor of the Western Empire and the Theodosian family again falls under imperial favor. It is at this same junction that, north of Rome, the 35 year old Aurelius Ambrosius, also a popular, well-educated young man, is entering into his second year as governor of the province of Aemilia-Liguria. His headquarters is the city of Milan, just 9 decades prior chosen as the capital of the Western Roman Empire by Diocletian.
But God had different plans for these two up and coming Roman civil servants.
Let’s stay with Ambrose for the next stage in our story. Later in 374, the bishop of Milan (an Arian, he preached that Jesus was not Divine!) died, holding onto his See until the bitter end, and throwing the city into tumult as the Christian factions fought over who would become their shepherd. Governor Ambrose steps into the fray to calm the crowds and somewhere above the din two words were heard: “Ambrose, bishop!” The upright civil servant blanched at the thought – his family was Christian, but he had not even been baptized – and yet, despite his attempt to avoid the crowd’s acclaim, all were convinced he would make a good successor to the apostles and within a week he was baptized, ordained, and consecrated the next bishop of Milan. We can presume that the holy water and oils upon the new Bishop Ambrose had dried somewhat by the time 379 came around, for that was the year that another death sent ripples through history. This time it was Valens, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, and uncle of Gratian, who was still emperor in the West. Valens, even more than the heretical Archbishop Auxentius, died surrounded by enemies. His army was overwhelmed in battle with the Goths and his body was lost amidst the carnage. Theodosius, a popular and proven general, was named joint-emperor with Gratian, and sent to the Eastern Empire to hold back the Visigoth hordes. One twist to his story, which is now eerily similar to Ambrose: Theodosius falls deathly ill shortly thereafter and chooses to be baptized a Christian.
And so we come to the 380s. Theodosius is slowly brokering peace with the Goths, winning them over by his justice and generosity and incorporating many of their tribes within the empire rather than decimating the roman legions to try and defeat them. He, along with Gratian (and Gratian’s second-in-command, Valentinian II) issue in 380 the Edict of Thessalonica professing and protecting Nicene Catholic Christianity, against the various heresies which were bubbling up around the Empire alongside of Arianism, and so the Roman empire receives this text from their emperor(s), who many still consider as part of the pagan pantheon:
It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our Clemency and Moderation, should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the PontiffDamasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. [Gratian, Valentinian, and Theodosius, Codex Theodosianus, XVI.1.2, 380AD]
If the emperors could be faulted for heavy-handedly enforcing Christian doctrine by imperial decree over the coming years, perhaps our parallel character this week, Ambrose, offers us the Church’s reaction to this changing scene. There, in Milan, the good bishop is patiently preaching the Arians back into the fullness of the Christian faith, convicting them by his humility, charity, and piety (and, sidenote: he also introduces popular musical :
Let us likewise deal kindly, let us persuade our adversaries of that which is to their profit, “let us worship and lament before the Lord our Maker.” For we would not overthrow, but rather heal; we lay no ambush for them, but warn them as in duty bound. Kindliness often bends those whom neither force nor argument will avail to overcome. [Ambrose, De Fide, II.XI.89, 380AD)
Notice that both men, after following a secular career for years, chose baptism and to offer for God’s purposes their energy and skill. Notice too that the gift they received of faith, hope, and love, does not automatically transform them into saints. The years to come will give them chance to follow the path of Christ, or not. We will return to their story next week!
– Fr. Dominic Rankin bit off more than he could chew this week. Even just sticking with history and the theological virtues, we ran out of space. Still, Ambrose remains our saint and friend, and won’t mind if more of his story waits until the next time!