As Easter approached 386, the mother of the Emperor Valentinian, a convinced Arian, sought to lose Ambrose (339-397), bishop of Milan. She demands that he give her a basilica. Faced with her refusal, she sends her soldiers to seize the basilica. But it was without counting on the help of the faithful.
Italy, 386. It’s Palm Sunday in Milan. Christians return home after Mass and rejoice as Holy Week approaches. They are so joyful that few of them notice their bishop’s worried expression. Ambroise has been very distracted since this morning. He can’t help but think about the missive the Emperor printed for him.
Admittedly, this Valentinian I was still only a child. But he is under the guardianship of his mother, Justine. This one is faithful to the Arian heresy. This doctrine claims to be Christian but above all it denies the divinity of Christ and rejects the sacred bond of the Father and the Son. Now that her son is on the throne, the Empress intends to use her influence to support heresy. Hence the ominous message she had sent to Ambroise.
A trap to lose the bishop
As bishop of Milan, Ambrose has three basilicas. Two inside the city and one outside. In her letter, the Empress demanded that Ambrose give her the basilica extra muros, Portienne, so that the Homeans, that is to say the supporters of historical Arianism, could manifest Easter there. This request is not just an ultimatum. It is above all a trap to bring down Ambrose and restore power to Arianism.
There is no right answer to this question. If Ambrose yields to this infamous request, he loses credit for winning the heresy, which would greatly weaken Orthodoxy. And if he refuses, then he would become a traitor to power, and present himself as an enemy of the emperor.
Despite this, Ambrose already knows the answer. He brings her to the Empress without waiting. There is no question of yielding anything to heresy! Neither the Portian Basilica nor any other. Seeing this letter, the bishop knows that he is risking a lot. A death sentence is almost certain. But he has no regrets about choosing Christ and his true divinity. No ruler on this earth can make him blaspheme!
Reading Ambrose’s response, the Empress smiled victoriously. Now that Ambrose has publicly opposed the Emperor, she can also act unscrupulously. A few days later, a hundred Roman soldiers were sent to Portienne to seize the basilica.
But they are not surprised when he discovers on arriving that the Nicene Christians have barricaded themselves inside. Indeed, within days, the rumors spread like wildfire among the Nicene faithful, the supporters of orthodoxy. Learning of the movement of the Roman troops and the danger that their bishop would run, they did not hesitate to go to the basilica to occupy it before the arrival of the soldiers.
On Holy Wednesday, the Neuve and Vieille basilicas are also occupied by the faithful. Even Ambroise got stuck in the Old Basilica. Besieged, he and his followers spent the night there and the bishop led the hymns and psalms.
“If my destiny is to be a martyr, so be it,” said Ambrose to the Lord. But spare your children who defend Your holy Church.
Faced with the will of the faithful, the inflexibility of Ambrose and the presence of many Nicene Christians among the soldiers, Justine ended up giving up the basilica and withdrew her troops. If the Emperor Valentinian will not forget this affront, this day marks a certain victory for Orthodoxy.