Saint Ignatius of Antioch: The Patronal Feast
Sunday, 18 October 2009
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Deacon Paul S. Kahn
Almighty God,we praise thy Name for thy bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present unto thee the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept, we pray thee, the willing tribute of our lives, and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of thy Son Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans
“I am yearning for death with all the passion of a lover.”
+In the name...
I must tell you that I’m having something of a problem with our Blessed Saint Ignatius. It’s because he was so determined to die. I know it’s glorious to be a martyr and all, but a determination to die is something foreign to me. I was discussing this a few days ago with a deacon colleague, and she brought up some modern situations in which people may actually choose to die. Someone with a fatal form of cancer, for example, may decide not to receive some new, experimental treatment with horrible side effects which may prolong life just a bit longer: this I can understand. Or someone on death row, for instance, might tell his lawyers not to file any more appeals on his behalf.
He might be guilty and want his punishment, or maybe he’s just tired of fighting and wants it all to be over with, or maybe the alternative to execution for him is life in prison without the possibility of parole, and death seems like the better option. And I can understand that. But here we have Saint Ignatius writing to the Christian community at Rome, where he is being taken to be thrown to the lions. He pleads with them not to intercede with the authorities on his behalf. He’s not just willing to be a martyr, which is admirable: he is determined to be a martyr. And no one had better try and stop him.
The great French writer, Georges Bernanos, in his play “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” tells of a convent of nuns persecuted during the French Revolution. One exceptionally zealous nun insists that she and all the other nuns should take the vow of martyrdom, and they follow her lead. She believes that by giving up their lives they will, in some way, actually save their order. Ironically, the zealous nun is not with the others when they are arrested, and their chaplain prevents her from going to the guillotine with the others voluntarily. “It is not for us to decide if our humble names shall one day be inscribed among the martyrs,” Bernanos tells us. Martyrdom is really like any other calling: God does the choosing, not us.
Saint Ignatius, of course, was born way too early to read Bernanos. But he might have reminded the playwright that martyrdom is not only about dying. It is more importantly about witnessing, the original meaning of the word. And leaving aside Ignatius’ apparent death-wish for the moment, it is to his total giving of himself as witness to the Gospel that we must look for illumination. And one crucial part of the Gospel message is that life itself is not the most important thing. A difficult concept for most of us. Most of us, no matter how much faith we have, no matter how much we look forward to plucking a harp at the heavenly banquet, really don’t want to die. It is simple human nature to want to live, at all costs. But Jesus, in his wonted subversive way, tells us those costs: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” I don’t believe Jesus is saying that we must die for his sake, and we must do it now. He tells us, and Ignatius echoes, that we must be willing to do so. That if this life is what is most precious to us, we will be in no position to love and serve the Lord. I don’t believe that the things of this world are bad in and of themselves, as today’s readings may seem to suggest. It’s really a simple question of priorities. What is the first great commandment? Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.
And the second: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Anything else we love must be secondary -- even our own lives. Saint Paul tells us so eloquently that nothing can separate us from the love of God, but there is something that can separate us from loving him back: self-interest. And self-interest is, ultimately, self-defeating. We must be willing to detach ourselves, to put to death whatever is separating us from that love. And as Bernanos reminds us, to detach ourselves we must even be free from our own self-detachment. That’s one reason it’s not easy to become a saint!
As for our saint, Ignatius: I’m still a little uncomfortable with the “yearning for death” part. But there’s a reason he is accounted not just a saint, but a towering figure of early Christianity. It actually baffles me that there are not more churches named after him. In all of his letters which have been passed down to us, in every part of his life that is known to us, we see someone who is willing to sacrifice everything he has to love and serve the Lord. In his disdain for the things of this world he bears witness to his faith in the life everlasting promised to us by Christ through his own sacrifice.
It is highly unlikely that any of us will be called to die for our faith, although there are Christians in other parts of the world, even today, who are imprisoned and even killed simply because they are Christians. But in our Eucharistic rite, that Eucharist that was so vital to Saint Ignatius, we offer “our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” to the Lord. Let us, with Saint Ignatius, with every part of our being, bear witness to the love of God, to love imperishable.
The Lord is glorious in his saints/O come, let us adore him.
©2009 Paul S. Kahn