This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Plough Quarterly.

In AD 390, the citizens of Thessalonica in Greece rioted, killing a Roman military commander; in outrage, the emperor, Theodosius I, ordered troops into the city to retaliate. Some seven thousand Thessalonians were massacred. Ambrose was bishop of Milan, where the emperor was living at the time, and was thus his pastor. He refused to allow the emperor to partake of communion until he did penance.

Should i keep silence? But then my conscience would be bound, my utterance taken away, which would be the most wretched condition of all.… If the priest speaks not to him that errs, he who errs shall die in his sin, and the priest shall be liable to the penalty because he warned not the erring (Ezek. 3:18).…

Are you ashamed, O Emperor, to do that which the royal prophet David … did? To him it was told how the rich man who had many flocks seized and killed the poor man’s one lamb, and recognizing that he himself was being condemned in the tale, for that he himself had done it, he said: I have sinned against the Lord.

Bear it, then, without impatience, O Emperor, if it be said to you: You have done that which was spoken of to King David by the prophet. For if you listen obediently to this, and say: I have sinned against the Lord, if you repeat those words of the royal prophet: O come let us worship and fall down before Him, and mourn before the Lord our God, Who made us, it shall be said to you also: Since you repent, the Lord puts away your sin, and you shall not die.

The devil envied that which was your most excellent possession. Conquer him while you still possess that wherewith you may conquer.

I have written this, not in order to confound you, but that the examples of these kings may stir you up to put away this sin from your kingdom, for you will do it away by humbling your soul before God. You are a man, and it has come upon you; conquer it. Sin is not done away but by tears and penitence. Neither angel can do it, nor archangel. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say, “I am with you” (Matt. 28:20) if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent.

Anthony van Dyck, Saint Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral, oil on canvas, ca. 1619

I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me, that you who were an example of unusual piety, who were conspicuous for clemency, who would not suffer single offenders to be put in peril, should not mourn that so many have perished. The devil envied that which was your most excellent possession. Conquer him while you still possess that wherewith you may conquer. Do not add another sin to your sin by a course of action which has injured many.

I dare not offer the sacrifice [of the Mass] if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.… I have been warned … plainly by God himself that this is forbidden me.…

The Word of God Himself tells us that He prefers the performance of His commandments to the offering of sacrifice. God proclaims this, Moses declares it to the people, Paul preaches it to the Gentiles. I prefer mercy, it is said, rather than sacrifice. (Matt. 9:13) Are they not, then, rather Christians in truth who condemn their own sin, than they who think to defend it?

I follow you with my love, my affection, and my prayers. If you believe me, be guided by me; if you believe me not, pardon that which I do, in that I set God before you. May you, most august Emperor, with your holy offspring, enjoy perpetual peace with perfect happiness and prosperity.

Source: Trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin and H. T. F. Duckworth. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Christian Literature, 1896), as revised by Kevin Knight.