Saturday, October 17, 2009
Feast of Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr
Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was also known as Theophorus which means "borne by God. He was either the second bishop of Antioch successor of St. Peter himself (according to Origen), or the third bishop, succeeding Euodius, according to Bishop Eusebius in his Historia Ecclesiastica. He lived in the late first-early second century, long before Antioch became an important Patriarchate. He was arrested during the persecution by Trajan, and was sent to Rome to be fed to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre, a fate he embraced as his calling. He traveled through Asia Minor on his way to Rome with ten guards, whom he called his "ten leopards."
When the Christian communities in Asia Minor heard of his arrest and journey to Rome, they sent delegates to meet him along the way. His contingent stopped in Smyrna for a while and he wrote letters to the Christians in Ephesus, Magnesia, Troas, and Rome. Their next stop was Troas, where Ignatius wrote letters to the Christians in Philadelphia and Smyrna, and also a letter to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. They then continued on to Rome where he won the crown of martyrdom. There are also two letters to John the Apostle attributed to Ignatius, and a letter to the Blessed Virgin Mary (with a reply!) but these letters are most probably forgeries.
Ignatius was bishop during a period of ecclesiastical change; the Syrian church depicted in the Didache, a church of traveling prophets, evangelists and missionaries was becoming a clergy-dominated church. The Spirit-directed church of St. Paul and the apostles was becoming a church of Bishops, Deacons, and Presbyters. He was concerned with strengthening the authority of the clergy, but especially the bishop. He wrote to the Magnesians: As then the Lord was united to the Father and did nothing without him, neither by himself nor through the Apostles, so do you do nothing without the bishop and the presbyters. In his letter to the Trallians he wrote: Likewise let all respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as the bishop is also a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and the college of Apostles. Without these the name of "Church" is not given. Yes, he was very much in support of clericalism! He was somewhat worried about Judizers; this may have been a problem in Antioch but it may have been more of a problem in Magnesia. He also spoke out against the Docetists, a Gnostic group who did not recognize the humanity of Jesus; as far as they were concerned only his divinity mattered, and they took things much farther in this direction than did those in Alexandria. The Docetists believed that the body of Jesus was not flesh and blood, but a mere illusion. In his letter to the Trallians, Ignatius spoke of the importance of the humanity of Jesus: Be deaf, therefore when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, and of Mary, who was truly born, both ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth; who was truly raised from the dead, when his Father raised him up, as in the same manner his Father shall raise up in Christ Jesus us who believe in him, without whom we have no true life. In this passage I see the seed of the theological battle which raged between Antioch and Alexandria centuries later, culminating in the fight between Nestorius and Cyril.
Ignatius also believed strongly in the Holy Eucharist as a means of unity. In his letter to the Christians in Philadelphia, he writes: Be careful therefore to use on Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup for union with his blood, one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do you may do it according unto God. He told the Christians in Ephesus Try to gather more frequently to celebrate God's Eucharist and to praise him. At these meetings you should heed the bisohp and presbytery attentively and break one loaf, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote that we should not die, but live for ever in Jesus Christ.
Ignatius embraced his martyrdom. Some in Rome wanted to prevent his execution but he begged them not to interfere. He wrote to the Christians in Rome: All the way from Syria to Rome I am fighting with wild animals on land and sea, by night and day, fettered to ten leopards -- a squad of soldiers -- whom kindness makes even worse. Their disgraceful conduct makes me still more a disciple, but that does not justify me. May it be for my good that the wild animals are ready for me: I pray that I may find them prompt. I shall coax them to devour me promptly, unlike some whom they have been afraid to touch; if they are unwilling and refuse, I will compel them to do it. Pardon me; I know what is best for me, and now I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing seen or unseen grudge my attaining to Jesus Christ! Let fire and cross, encounters with wild animals, tearing apart of bones, hacking of limbs, crushing of the whole body, tortures of the devil come upon me, if only I may attain to Jesus Christ! According to The Martyrdom of Ignatius, when he arrived in Rome from Portus, he was met by many Christians who wanted to meet him but were upset that so eminent a man was being led to death. He asked those who were talking about intervening on his part to keep silent so that he could do what God asked of him. Then, with many kneeling before him, he prayed that an end may come to the persecution and that mutual love might continue among the Christians throughout Asia Minor. He was then led "with all haste" into the amphitheatre by the guards. he was immediately thrown in to the arena, "according to the command of Caesar given some time ago." And, just as he had hoped, he was torn apart "promptly" by the wild beasts.
Ignatius may have been a supporter of clericalism, but his letters give us a glimpse of a period of transition in the Early Church and the beginnings of the Antiochian Christology which was such an important part of the formation of Christianity. And that is why we remember his witness today.
Almighty God, we praise your Name for your bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present to you the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept, we pray, the willing tribute of our lives and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I See You!
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