SAINT IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH BISHOP, MARTYR C. 117
Feast: February 1[October 17]
Ignatius of Antioch, surnamed Theophorus, which in Greek means "God-Bearer," was probably a convert and disciple of St. John the Evangelist. We know nothing of his early life. The fourth-century Church historian, Eusebius, says that the Apostles Peter and Paul, who planted the faith in Antioch, left directions that Ignatius should succeed Evodius as bishop of that city; he states further that Ignatius retained the office for forty years, proving himself in every way an exemplary pastor. During the persecution of the emperor Domitian, whose reign covered the period of 81 to 96, Ignatius kept up the courage of his flock by daily preaching, by prayer and fasting. After Domitian's death there was a cessation of the persecutions during the fifteen months of Nerva's reign, then in Trajan's reign we have records of a number of martyrs, though no general persecution. In an interesting letter to the younger Pliny, then governor of the Black Sea province of Bithynia, Trajan laid down the principle that Christians should be put to death if formally reported, but not otherwise sought out for punishment. The Emperor was a humane man, yet the gratitude which he felt he owed to his own pagan gods for his victories over the Dacians and the Scythians later led him to authorize the death penalty for those Christians who refused to acknowledge these divinities publicly.
There is a legend that the emperor Trajan himself, who wintered in Antioch in the year 115, examined the aged Bishop Ignatius in the year 115, with questions such as these:
"Who are you, spirit of evil, who dare disobey my orders and goad others on to their destruction?"
"No one calls Theophorus a spirit of evil," the bishop replied.
"Who is Theophorus?"
"He who bears Christ within him."
"And do we not bear within ourselves the gods who help us against our enemies?"
"You are mistaken when you call gods those who are no better than devils. There is but one God, who created heaven and earth and all that in them is; and one Jesus, made Christ, into whose kingdom I earnestly desire to be admitted."
"Do you mean Him who was crucified under Pontius Pilate?"
"Yes, the same, who by His death has crucified both sin and its author, and who has proclaimed that every malice of the devil shall be trodden underfoot by those who bear Him in their hearts."
"Do you then," asked the Emperor, "bear Christ within you?" "Yes," said Ignatius, "for it is written, 'I will dwell in them and will walk with them.’"
According to the legend, Trajan ruled that Ignatius should die. He was bound and conveyed to Rome, to be devoured by wild beasts in the Colosseum. From this point on, we are on firm ground, historically speaking, with Ignatius' own letters, seven of which are still extant, to tell us the story. At the seaport of Seleucia they boarded a ship that made many stops along the shores of Asia Minor, instead of proceeding directly to Rome. Some of Ignatius' friends took the direct route west and, reaching Rome before him, awaited his arrival. For a great part of the journey he had as companions a deacon, Philo, and a friend, Agathopus, supposedly the authors of an account of his martyrdom. On shipboard Ignatius was guarded by ten soldiers so brutal that he speaks of them as "ten leopards," and adds that they only grew worse when kindly treated.
Wherever the ship put in, the local Christians sent bishops and priests to meet the venerable bishop, and crowds gathered to receive the benediction of one who was already revered as a martyr.
At Smyrna he met his former fellow disciple, Bishop Polycarp, and delegations came from Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, three ancient cities of Asia Minor which had Christian colonies. Ignatius wrote letters to be carried back to these various churches, exhorting the members to keep in harmony with their bishops and other clergy, to assemble often in prayer, to be meek and humble, and to suffer injuries without protest. He praises them for their zeal against heresy and particularly warns them against the Docetic teaching.
One of his seven extant letters was addressed to the Christians of Rome, whom he passionately entreats to do nothing to prevent his martyrdom. At this time Christianity had a number of influential converts, and some of these highly-placed persons might well have tried to have his sentence mitigated. The contemporary pagan satirist Lucian, who almost certainly was familiar with the life and letters of Ignatius, bears witness in his dialogue, "The Death of Peregrinus," to the devotion of Christians one for another. This work of his is an interesting illustration of the attitude of a learned and skeptical Greek towards the new religion.
The guards were anxious to reach Rome with their prisoner before the great public games were over, for victims of venerable appearance were always an attraction. At Troas, where the boat stopped, Ignatius wrote letters to the Philadelphians, to the Smyrneans, and to Polycarp. From Troas the ship sailed on to the Macedonian port of Neapolis, thence, we are told, to Philippi. The little party crossed Macedonia and Epirus on foot, and took ship for the trip around Italy. These details, along with the account of the arrival at Rome, are found in the <Acts of the Martyrs>, but are not altogether reliable. We are told that as the saint approached Rome, the faithful came out to meet him, rejoicing in his presence, but grieving that they were to lose him so soon. He prevented them from taking steps to obtain his release. According to tradition, he reached Rome on December 20, the last day of the games, and was brought at once before the prefect, to whom the Emperor's letter was delivered. At the prefect's command, the prisoner was hurried off to the Colosseum, where, we are told, two fierce lions were let out and Ignatius was at once killed. Thus his prayer for a martyr's death was answered.
There is evidence that some fragments of the martyr's remains were taken to Antioch and venerated. St. Jerome, visiting Antioch nearly three hundred years later, tells us that these remains had been placed "in a cemetery outside the Daphne gate." It is believed that they were brought back to Rome in 637 to rest in the church of San Clemente. From the ancient Syrian martyrology we learn that the martyr's feast was kept in the East on October 17. St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, preached a famous panegyric on Ignatius, but even then legend was beginning to play its part; he supposes that Ignatius was appointed to the see of Antioch by the Apostle Peter himself. Later a whole correspondence was fabricated, including letters purporting to have passed between Ignatius and the Blessed Virgin Mary, while she still dwelt on earth, after the Ascension of Jesus.
In contrast to these legendary and fictitious elements, the seven letters described above as written by Ignatius on his way to Rome, which have come down to us in their entirety, are accepted as absolutely authentic by modern scholars. Their great importance is the light they throw on the organization, beliefs, and practices of the Christian Church, about eighty-five years after Christ's death. Ignatius is the first, outside the New Testament writers, to lay stress on the Virgin Birth. To the Ephesians he writes: "And from the prince of this world were hidden Mary's virginity and her child-bearing, in like manner also the death of the Lord." The doctrine of the Trinity, too, he plainly takes for granted, and we detect an approach to later definitions of Christ's nature when we read in the same letter: "There is one Physician of flesh and spirit, begotten and unbegotten, God in man, true life in death, son of Mary and son of God, first suffering and then beyond suffering, Jesus Christ our Lord." No less remarkable are the phrases he uses to describe the Eucharist. It is "the flesh of Christ," "the gift of God," "the medicine of immortality." Repeatedly he emphasizes the loyalty and obedience due the bishop as the transmitter of true apostolic tradition, and the necessity of unity and peace. Finally, it is in his letter to the church of Smyrna that for the first time in Christian literature "the Catholic Church" is spoken of. "Wheresoever," he writes, "the bishop appears, there let the people be, even as wheresoever Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." Ignatius' martyrdom and his important contribution to the development of Church doctrine make it fitting that his name should occur in the Canon of the Mass.
Excerpts from Letters of Ignatius
To The Ephesians
I do not command you as if I were someone great, for even though I be bound in the Name, I am not yet perfect in Jesus Christ. For now I do but begin to be a disciple and I speak to you as to my fellow learners. And it were fitting for me to be anointed by you for the contest, with faith, admonition, patience, long-suffering. But since love does not suffer me to be silent concerning you, I have therefore hastened to exhort you to set yourselves in harmony with the mind of God. For Jesus Christ, our inseparable Life, is the mind of the Father, even as the bishops who are settled in the farthest parts of the earth are the mind of Christ.
4. Hence it is fitting for you to set yourselves in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as indeed you do. For your noble presbytery, worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as the strings to a lyre. And thus by means of your accord and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung. Form yourselves one and all into a choir, that blending in concord and taking the keynote of God, you may sing in unison with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, that he may hear you and recognize you through your good deeds to be members of His Son. Therefore it is profitable for you to live in blameless unity, that you may always enjoy communion with God....
10. And for the rest of mankind pray unceasingly-for there is in them hope of repentance, that they may attain unto God. Let them also be instructed by the example of your works. In face of their outbursts of wrath be patient; in face of their arrogant words be humble; meet their revilings with prayers; where they are in error be steadfast in the faith; in face of their violence be gentle. Be not anxious to retaliate on them. Let our forbearance prove us their brethren. Endeavor to imitate the Lord, striving who can suffer the greater wrong, who can be more defrauded, who can be set at naught, that no rank weed of the devil be found in you. In all purity and sobriety abide in Christ Jesus in flesh and in spirit.
To The Romans
1. My prayer to God has been heard, and I have been permitted to see your holy faces, so that I have been granted even more than I was asking. For in bonds in Jesus Christ I hope to salute you, if it be God's will that I should be accounted worthy to reach the end. For the beginning is well ordained if I may attain the end and so receive my inheritance without hindrance. For I fear lest your very love should do me wrong. It is easy for you to accomplish whatever you will, but for me it is difficult to attain unto God unless you let me take my own way.
2. ... Grant me just this privilege of being poured out as an offering to God, while the altar is now prepared; and do you as a choir of love sing praises to the Father in Christ Jesus that he has counted the bishop of Syria worthy to be brought from the land of the sunrise to the sunset. It is good to be setting to the world for God, that I may rise to him....
4. I write to all the churches and charge them all to know that I die willingly for God, if only you do not hinder. I beseech you, do not unreasonably befriend me. Suffer me to become the food of wild beasts, through whom I may attain to God. I am God's grain, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts to become my tomb and to leave no trace of my body, that when I have fallen asleep I may not be a burden to anyone. Then I shall truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see even my body. Entreat the Lord for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice to God. I do not order you, as did Peter and Paul. They were Apostles and I am even until now a slave. But if I suffer, I am Jesus Christ's freedman, and in Him I shall arise free. Now in my bonds I am learning to give up all desires....
6. The goals of the earth and the kingdoms of this world shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die for the sake of Jesus Christ than to reign over the ends of the earth. I seek Him who died for us. I desire Him who rose. My birth-pains are upon me. Forgive me, brethren, hinder me not from entering into life; desire not my death. Consign not to the world one who yearns to be God's; nor tempt me with the things of this life. Suffer me to receive pure light. When I come thither then shall I be a man indeed. Suffer me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If any man has Him dwelling in him, he will understand my desire and feel with me, knowing what constrains me....
To The Smyrneans
1. I give glory to Jesus Christ, the God who has given you wisdom. For I have perceived that you are firmly settled in unwavering faith, being nailed, as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, fully convinced as touching our Lord that he is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, and Son of God by the Divine will and power, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled in Him, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch truly nailed up for us in the flesh (of whose fruit are we, even of His most blessed Passion); that He might raise up an ensign to the ages through His resurrection, for his saints and believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, in one body of His church.
4. ... For if these deeds were wrought by our Lord in mere semblance, then too are my bonds mere semblance. And why moreover have I surrendered myself to death, to face fire, sword, and wild beasts? For to be near the sword is to be near to God, in the midst of wild beasts is in the midst of God, if only it be in the name Jesus Christ, that we may suffer with Him. All things I endure, since He, the perfect man, makes me strong.
(Crawley, <The Epistles of St. Ignatius>, 1919.)
1 St. Polycarp, a convert of St. John the Evangelist, was then bishop of Smyrna. One of the last survivors of the generation that heard the teaching of the Apostles, he was martyred in his extreme old age, around the year 155.
2 The Docetists of the second century, like the Gnostics of whom we shall hear later, were unable to accept the doctrine of the twofold nature of Christ, as the Church had learned it from St. Paul and the other Apostles. If Jesus was truly divine, they felt that he could never have been truly man; they believed the historic Jesus had been a spirit or phantom, with the outward appearance of a man but never in reality knowing hunger, pain, or death.
3 Philadelphia was in eastern Palestine, beyond the Jordan; it is now known as Amman.
4 The Acts of the Martyrs <(Acta Martyrum)> include two types of documents, namely, official records of the trials and executions of martyrs, and accounts of their lives and deaths written, or purporting to be written, by contemporaries and eyewitnesses. The material to be found in the latter category varies greatly in value and authenticity.
5 St. John Chrysostom, born in Antioch about 347, was one of the great preachers and teachers of the early Church; the Byzantine liturgy bears his name.
6 The word Catholic derives from the Greek adjective meaning universal.
7 This figure of speech is an allusion to the anointing of an athlete before the games.
8 The allusion here is to the chorus which sang ritual hymns around the altar during a pagan sacrifice.
9 That is, the wild beasts.
(Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.)