Today is the Feast of Ambrose: A Model of Christian Political Engagement

Today is the traditional feast day of Aurelius “Ambrose” Ambrosius, an ancient church father and bishop of Milan who is recognized as a saint by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, and some Lutheran denominations. As Ambrose is also one of my personal heroes, I thought I would take a few minutes to give an overview of his life.

Although Ambrose is best known today as the mentor of Augustine, who helped shape the early church, he was also a force to be reckoned with in his own right. In fact, Ambrose’s life is an object lesson in what can happen when the universal church boldly and pastorally engages with the political sphere. 

In 390 AD, during the Christian era of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Theodosius—at the time a lukewarm Christian—responded to an uprising in Thessalonica by rashly ordering a massacre of the population. “Multitudes were mowed down like ears of grain in harvest-tide,” wrote the historian Theodoret; “It is said that seven thousand perished.”

When the massacre occurred, Ambrose was perhaps the empire’s most prominent Christian leader. When Theodosius went to the cathedral at Milan to receive communion, Ambrose protested the massacre by personally blocking the emperor from entering—an event that has been powerfully illustrated by painter Anthony van Dyck.

Ambrose’s actions were driven by his belief in both the sovereignty of God and the dependence and fallenness of all human beings. Though Theodosius was wearing purple robes, Ambrose reasoned, his clothes adorned a body made of dust. “You are a sovereign, Sir, of men of like nature with your own, and who are in truth your fellow slaves,” argued Ambrose, “for there is one Lord and Sovereign of mankind, Creator of the Universe.”

At Christmas, Theodosius again attempted to enter the cathedral—this time at the urging of his chief of staff, Rufinus. In response, Ambrose denounced both men to their faces, telling Rufinus that “your impudence matches a dog’s” and calling Theodosius a “tyrant.” “You are raging against God,” he told Theodosius openly: “you are trampling on his laws.”

In order to gain admittance, Theodosius was forced to declare a suspension of capital punishment for thirty days and to prostrate himself on the ground. Using the words of King David, Theodosius then prayed “[m]y soul cleaves unto the dust, quicken thou me according to your word.”

The paradox behind the Emperor’s prayer—that a man might rule the world and yet be a penitent vassal—was a notion which, not long before, had been unparalleled in imperial history. It must have been wondrous to behold an Emperor bowed by the mere spiritual authority of a bishop—a man who cannot have been armed with anything more than a crosier and a choir. Even so, Ambrose wrote of the incident that “I have preferred to be somewhat wanting in duty rather than in humility”—suggesting that, if he had been a more dutiful Christian, he would have been even more zealous in his defiance of the state.

This otherworldly fury and force is exactly what we would expect to see in history if Christianity is true: a suggestion that, in the church, God had ignited a singular fire in the midst of human affairs.

Ambrose explained his controversial actions in a letter. Having heard of the massacre, he could not “close [his] ears with wax.” “Should I keep silence?” Ambrose asked. “But then my conscience would be bound, my utterance taken away, which would be the most wretched condition of all.” Ambrose then cited Ezekiel 3:18, which reads “If I [God] say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning . . . that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.”

Bust of Theodosius I

As it happens, Ambrose’s admonition yielded great fruit in Theodosius’ life. In fact, if it were not for Theodosius, Christianity would likely not be a major world religion today.

During Ambrose’s lifetime, the Roman Empire was deeply culturally divided between its Eastern and Western halves. While the Eastern half was heavily Christian, much of the Western aristocracy—based in Rome—was still pagan.  

In 394 AD, four years after the Thessalonica controversy, the Roman politician Eugenius sought to marshal the support of the Western aristocracy and usurp Theodosius. To that end, he restored the pagan Altar of Victory in Rome and financed the reopening of pagan temples. Theodosius, now a much more serious Christian and under the mentorship of Ambrose, marched against him.

Although Eugenius seemed primed to win the battle, Theodosius prayed fervently for victory. His prayers were answered at the Frigidus, in modern-day Slovenia, when a ferocious wind bore down on the Western troops throughout the battle. The Christian victory at the Frigidus—achieved through the active co-participation of Christians in God’s plan—decisively snuffed out the pagan imperium and put the church on a secure footing for the next thousand years. In a sermon on the battle, Ambrose praised Theodosius as an “innocent prince who trusted in the Lord.”

Ambrose’s career is a powerful refutation of the modern idea that the church’s only role in worldly affairs is to watch meekly and pray. In fact, Ambrose’s model of political engagement served the church well for much of the next millennium. For most of the Middle Ages, the church followed Ambrose by maintaining its autonomy from the secular state while simultaneously acting as a negating restraint upon the state’s power.

In 1075, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV resisted a push to end government control of internal church appointments. Pope Gregory VII responded by excommunicating the emperor, leading to the famous “Road to Canossa” incident of 1076. In defending the excommunication, Gregory cited Ezekiel 3:18—the same verse cited by Ambrose almost 700 years earlier. 

Last year, a successful campaign by a large group of New Hampshire pastors to pass the Religious Liberty Act proved that the example of Ambrose may once again be alive and well. On December 14, the Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to vote on the even more important Civil Liberties Defense Act. If you have not already, please take time to honor Ambrose’s feast day by contacting the Senate Judiciary Committee and asking them to vote “Ought to Pass” on the bill. In doing so, you will be protecting religious liberty and—like Ambrose at Milan—safeguarding the fundamental rights of all of our fellow citizens. 

Image: Saint Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, A. van Dyck, 1619–1620

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