When a monarch's power is unchecked by his people, there is only One to whom he believes himself accountable; and if he have forgotten the dagger of Damocles, or if he be too high-spirited to regard it, then that Higher One alone can restrain his actions. And there have been times when princes have so broken the bounds of right, that no hope remains of recalling them to their duty save by the voice of the ministers of God upon Earth. But as these ministers bear no charmed life, and are subjects themselves of the prince, such rebukes have been given at the utmost risk of liberty and life.
Thus it was that though Nathan, unharmed, showed David his sin, and Elijah, the wondrous prophet of Gilead, was protected from Jezebel's fury, when he denounced her and her husband Ahab for the idolatry of Baal and the murder of Naboth; yet no Divine hand interposed to shield Zachariah, the son of Jehoiada, the high priest, when he rebuked the apostasy of his cousin, Jehoash, King of Judah, and was stoned to death by the ungrateful king's command in that very temple court where Jehoiada and his armed Levites had encountered the savage usurping Athaliah, and won back the kingdom for the child Jehoash. And when 'in the spirit and power of Elijah', St. John the Baptist denounced the sin of Herod Antipas in marrying his brother Philip's wife, he bore the consequences to the utmost, when thrown into prison and then beheaded to gratify the rage of the vindictive woman.
Since Scripture Saints in the age of miracles were not always shielded from the wrath of kings, Christian bishops could expect no special interposition in their favor, when they stood forth to stop the way of the sovereign's passions, and to proclaim that the cause of mercy, purity, and truth is the cause of God.
The first of these Christian bishops was Ambrose, the sainted prelate of Milan. It was indeed a Christian Emperor whom he opposed, no other than the great Theodosius, but it was a new and unheard-of thing for any voice to rebuke an Emperor of Rome, and Theodosius had proved himself a man of violent passions.
The fourth century was a time when races and all sorts of shows were the fashion, nay, literally the rage; for furious quarrels used to arise among the spectators who took the part of one or other of the competitors, and would call themselves after their colours, the Blues or the Greens. A favorite chariot driver, who had excelled in these races at Thessalonica, was thrown into prison for some misdemeanor by Botheric, the Governor of Illyria, and his absence so enraged the Thessalonican mob, that they rose in tumult, and demanded his restoration. On being refused, they threw such a hail of stones that the governor himself and some of his officers were slain.
Theodosius might well be displeased, but his rage passed all bounds. He was at Milan at the time, and at first Ambrose so worked on his feelings as to make him promise to temper justice with mercy; but afterwards fresh accounts of the murder, together with the representations of his courtier Rufinus, made him resolve not to relent, and he sent off messengers commanding that there should be a general slaughter of all the race-going Thessalonicans, since all were equally guilty of Botheric's death. He took care that his horrible command should be kept a secret from Ambrose, and the first that the Bishop heard of it was the tidings that 7,000 persons had been killed in the theatre, in a massacre lasting three hours!
There was no saving these lives, but Ambrose felt it his duty to make the Emperor feel his sin, in hopes of saving others. Besides, it was not consistent with the honor of God to receive at his altar a man reeking with innocent blood. The Bishop, however, took time to consider; he went into the country for a few days, and thence wrote a letter to the Emperor, telling him that thus stained with crime, he could not be admitted to the Holy Communion, nor received into church. Still the Emperor does not seem to have believed he could be really withstood by any subject, and on Ambrose's return, he found the imperial procession, lictors, guards, and all, escorting the Emperor as usual to the Basilica or Justice Hall, that had been turned into a church. Then to the door came the Bishop and stood in the way, forbidding the entrance, and announcing that there, at least, sacrilege should not be added to murder.
'Nay,' said the Emperor, 'did not holy King David commit both murder and adultery, yet was he not received again?'
'If you have sinned like him, repent like him,' answered Ambrose.
Theodosius turned away, troubled. He was great enough not to turn his anger against the Bishop; he felt that he had sinned, and that the chastisement was merited, and he went back to his palace weeping, and there spent eight months, attending to his duties of state, but too proud to go through the tokens of penitence that the discipline of the Church had prescribed before a great sinner could be received back into the congregation of the faithful. Easter was the usual time for reconciling penitents, and Ambrose was not inclined to show any respect of persons, or to excuse the Emperor from a penance he would have imposed on any offender. However, Rufinus could not believe in such disregard, and thought all would give way to the Emperor's will. Christmas had come, but for one man at Milan there were no hymns, no shouts of 'glad tidings!' no midnight festival, no rejoicing that 'to us a Child is born; to us a Son is given'. The Basilica was thronged with worshippers and rang with their Amens, resounding like thunder, and their echoing song--the Te Deum--then their newest hymn of praise. But the lord of all those multitudes was alone in his palace. He had not shown good will to man; he had not learnt mercy and peace from the Prince of Peace; and the door was shut upon him. He was a resolute Spanish Roman, a well-tried soldier, a man advancing in years, but he wept, and wept bitterly. Rufinus found him thus weeping. It must have been strange to the courtier that his master did not send his lictors to carry the offending bishop to a dungeon, and give all his court favor to the heretics, like the last empress who had reigned at Milan. Nay, he might even, like Julian the Apostate, have altogether renounced that Christian faith which could humble an emperor below the poorest of his subjects.
But Rufinus contented himself with urging the Emperor not to remain at home lamenting, but to endeavor again to obtain admission into the church, assuring him that the Bishop would give way. Theodosius replied that he did not expect it, but yielded to the persuasions, and Rufinus hastened on before to warn the Bishop of his coming, and represented how inexpedient it was to offend him.
'I warn you,' replied Ambrose, 'that I shall oppose his entrance, but if he chooses to turn his power into tyranny, I shall willingly let him slay me.'
The Emperor did not try to enter the church, but sought Ambrose in an adjoining building, where he entreated to be absolved from his sin.
'Beware,' returned the Bishop, 'of trampling on the laws of God.' 'I respect them,' said the Emperor, 'therefore I have not set foot in the church, but I pray thee to deliver me from these bonds, and not to close against me the door that the Lord hath opened to all who truly repent.'
'What repentance have you shown for such a sin?' asked Ambrose.
'Appoint my penance,' said the Emperor, entirely subdued.
And Ambrose caused him at once to sign a decree that thirty days should always elapse between a sentence of death and its execution. After this, Theodosius was allowed to come into the church, but only to the corner he had shunned all these eight months, till the 'dull hard stone within him' had 'melted', to the spot appointed for the penitents. There, without his crown, his purple robe, and buskins, worked with golden eagles, all laid aside, he lay prostrate on the stones, repeating the verse, 'My soul cleaveth unto the dust; quicken me, O Lord, according to thy word.' This was the place that penitents always occupied, and there fasts and other discipline were also appointed. When the due course had been gone through, probably at the next Easter, Ambrose, in his Master's name, pronounced the forgiveness of Theodosius, and received him back to the full privileges of a Christian. When we look at the course of many another emperor, and see how easily, where the power was irresponsible, justice became severity, and severity, bloodthirstiness, we see what Ambrose dared to meet, and from what he spared Theodosius and all the civilized world under his sway. Who can tell how many innocent lives have been saved by that thirty days' respite?
Pass over nearly 700 years, and again we find a church door barred against a monarch. This time it is not under the bright Italian sky, but under the grey fogs of the Baltic sea. It is not the stately marble gateway of the Milanese Basilica, but the low-arched, rough stone portal of the newly built cathedral of Roskilde, in Zealand, where, if a zigzag surrounds the arch, it is a great effort of genius. The Danish king Swend, the nephew of the well-known Knut, stands before it; a stern and powerful man, fierce and passionate, and with many a Danish axe at his command. Nay, only lately for a few rude jests, he caused some of his chief jarls to be slain without a trial. Half the country is still pagan, and though the king himself is baptized, there is no certainty that, if the Christian faith do not suit his taste, he may not join the heathen party and return to the worship of Thor and Tyr, where deeds of blood would be not blameworthy, but a passport to the rude joys of Valhall. Nevertheless there is a pastoral staff across the doorway, barring the way of the king, and that staff is held against him by an Englishman, William, Bishop of Roskilde, the missionary who had converted a great part of Zealand, but who will not accept Christians who have not laid aside their sins.
He confronts the king who has never been opposed before. 'Go back,' he says, 'nor dare approach the alter of God--thou who art not a king but a murderer.'
Some of the jarls seized their swords and axes, and were about to strike the bishop away from the threshold, but he, without removing his staff, bent his head, and bade them strike, saying he was ready to die in the cause of God. But the king came to a better frame of mind, he called the jarls away, and returning humbly to his palace, took off his royal robes, and came again barefoot and in sackcloth to the church door, where Bishop William met him, took him by the hand, gave him the kiss of peace, and led him to the penitents' place. After three days he was absolved, and for the rest of his life, the bishop and the king lived in the closest friendship, so much so that William always prayed that even in death he might not be divided from his friend. The prayer was granted. The two died almost at the same time, and were buried together in the cathedral at Roskilde, where the one had taught and other learnt the great lesson of mercy.
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