Friday, May 29, 2009

Unusual courage

Theodosius, the Byzantine emperor, made belief in Christianity a matter of imperial command:

"It is Our Will that all the peoples We rule shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. We shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity.

We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgment."

Theodosius became like a demigod confusing his own will with God's. Holding almost unassailable power, who now would confront the emperor? Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, that's who.

A Greek charioteer, a favourite of the multitudes, was accused of homosexual practices and was thrown into prison by the governor. With the chariot races about to begin the people rose in arms, killed the governor, and released their esteemed racer.

Thoeodosius was irate. He waited for another chariot race to exact his punishment. Waiting until the stadium was full, he stationed his soldiers at the exits and ensured nobody could leave. His soldiers fell upon the people and in three hours killed 7000 people.

Ambrose was the man who would confront this demigod despite the peril it put him in. Ambrose wrote to Theodosius:
"I cannot deny that you have zeal for the faith and that you fear God, but you have a naturally passionate spirit which becomes ungovernable when you are excited. I call on youto repent. You can only atone for your sins by tears, by penitence, by humbling your soul before God. You are a man, and as you have sinned as a man so you must repent. No angel, no archangel can forgive you. God alone can forgive you, and He forgives only those who repent."

Ambrose refused Theodosius communion until he confessed his sin. Theodosius eventually accepted Ambrose's terms and on several occasions appeared before a crowded congregation and repented until Ambrose finally gave him the sacrament.

In Bruce Shelley's words from his book Church History in Plain Language, "It required unusual courage to humiliate a Byzantine emperor." (112) Unusual courage indeed!

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