In the winter of 390AD, Emperor Theosodius was traveling on Empire business in Milan. News came across the wires (or paved Roman roads) of a popular riot in Thessalonica after a crackdown on ancient boy-racers who raced horses through the streets. The rioters had broken the defences of the Roman HQ and killed the imperial governor and his assistants. The Emperor, blazing a trail for the Empires we know today, responded in kind by brutally ordering reprisals.
Seven thousand inhabitants of Thessalonica were massacred in the city’s hippodrome.
The Emperor regretted the excess of blood spilled. But when he went to church, specifically to the cathedral where Ambrose was Bishop (Ambrose who converted Augustine) he got a surprise. Ambrose refused the Emperor’s private professions of guilt. He demanded that the Emperor of Rome would publicly repent before he would be allowed step foot inside the cathedral again, never mind take part in the Eucharist.
Theodosius submitted to Ambrose’s demands. He, “approached the church in plain attire, openly confessed his guilt, and implored God for absolution”. (David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p. 195) This was perhaps the first time in the history of Rome that a religious authority was considered higher than that of the Emperor. The supreme power in the world surrendered to the higher power of the church and a dramatic enactment of the transcendence of the divine over human law was put on for all the citizens of Milan to see.
I think the world changed that day. The State, any state, can never claim the unquestioned divine backing or legitimacy that it had before these early Christians emerged with their strange ideas of sin and forgiveness, compassion and image-bearing. In some sense, the history of the western democracies and our striving for transparency and accountability begins right there. The revolution could not be televised.
The Church changed too of course. This was the end of the beginning. On that cold winter’s day the steps of the cathedral saw a glimpse of the Kingdom of God; where every knee will bow at the sin they commit against their fellow man and against their God. Within a few short years, the process Theodosius had begun to extend Catholic orthodoxy across the whole Empire would be complete and the church would fall back into the pattern of a religion, a mere state cult, there to support and reify the government.
This was a moment in time, when the church managed to desacralize the State. And the State revenged itself by de-politicising the church.
And we should welcome the end of Christendom with hymns and thanksgiving because it frees us to once again speak with prophetic authority; claiming no power for ourselves, dis-entangling ourselves from wealth and politics and yet speaking truth so clearly that even Emperors are driven to their knees in repentance.
Your Correspondent, He’s got a plastic Jesus sitting on the dashboard of his car