The Feast of Saint Ignatius of Antioch: The Patronal Feast
16 October 2016
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.
If we were to form our impression of our patron, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, only from our liturgy and the artistic representations in our building, we would be left with a fairly two dimensional picture of an heroic martyr. We would have the noble Ignatius meeting the lions whom we see in the stained glass window to my left. We would have the impassive, iconic martyr we see at his shrine, also to my left, holding his heart so we can see the name of Jesus inscribed upon it in gold, the indication to the lions that they were eating someone special and that they had better not consume that particular morsel. We would have the eager martyr of his letter to the Romans who wrote, “what a thrill I shall have from the wild beasts that are ready for me! I hope they will make short work for me. I shall coax them on to eat me up at once and not to hold off” (Rom. 5:2). Lions figure heavily in this version of our hero.
Perhaps this is why when I have discussed Ignatius with you from the pulpit on these occasions, I have usually tried to form a more nuanced picture of our patron. In doing so, I have mostly focussed on the elements of his theology that made him so attractive to the founders of our parish. Those second generation Anglo-Catholics appreciated Ignatius’ emphasis on the structures of the church and the authority of bishops, on the importance of the Eucharist in forming Christian community, and on the need for unity among Christians. This latter point is central in his understanding of what it means to be catholic, a term he pretty much coined. Being catholic was all about being at one with other followers of Jesus and was itself symbolised and lived out across geographic space in the ministry of bishops. Indeed, much of what he believed is summed up in this exhortation from his letter to the Smyrnaeans, “Flee from schism as the source of mischief; you should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father” (Smyr. 8:1). These emphases—on unity, church structure, and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist—make Ignatius stand out among early Christian saints as one particularly suited to the concerns of the Oxford Movement and its successors. These are, in fact, some of the primary themes that still drive our community and our forms of worship. In many ways, Ignatius’ message of unity in and through the sacraments is especially important in our age in which our Communion is increasingly fragmented. Ignatius is no remote, early Christian super hero. He is a complex man who struggled with many of the same issues we face today.
When I was rereading Ignatius’ letters this year, however, in addition to seeing both his highly rhetorical desire for martyrdom and those more important theological themes, I noticed another interesting, sometimes overlooked, and very immediately comprehensible thread. It is the theme of the importance of the congruence between one's words and ones actions. It is a theme enshrined in our Prayer Book in the General Thanksgiving’s petition “that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days.” It is a theme I began to explore a few weeks ago when we discussed Jesus’ pronouncement that “we can not serve God and mammon.” I suggested that if we are not acting lovingly and fairly in the day-to-day business of our lives, how can we possibly trust what someone says when they make claims about the spiritual life? I talked about how our actions in the here and now speak louder than what we simply say about God and religion. Our actions in the here and now reveal our true relationship with God, which is nothing less than our faith itself. If we just talk about turning to God and fail to act lovingly in our lives, then we are on the wrong path.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius writes, “Some, indeed, have a wicked and deceitful habit of flaunting the Name about, while acting in a way unworthy of God” (Eph. 7:1). We certainly are familiar with this critique. It is almost a truism, but it is instructive that it bore saying even as the Jesus movement was in its infancy, even in that first generation of people who would recognise the name Christian. Later in the same letter, Ignatius explored this issue further:
That is the beginning and the end of life: faith the beginning and love the end. And when the two are united you have God, and everything else that has to do with real goodness is dependent on them. No one who professes faith falls into sin, nor does the one who has learned to love, hate. “The tree is known by its fruit.” Similarly, those who profess to be Christ’s will be recognised by their actions. For what matters is not a momentary act of professing, but being persistently motivated by faith (Ep. 14:1-2).
For Ignatius the most important things for every person was their faith, their living relationship to God and the love that they showed forth into the world. Faith is something that we can talk about at length, something we can profess and yet not act out in our lives in a way that demonstrates that this faith actually makes a difference, has an impact. Ignatius quotes Matthew’s idea that we are known and understood by what we actually do, what our lives actually look like, in short, by our fruit.
Ignatius puts it again another way, “It is better to keep quiet and be real, than to chatter and be unreal. It is a good thing to teach if, that is, the teacher practices what he preaches. There was on such teacher, who ‘spoke and it was done’; and what he did in silence is worthy of the father” (Ep 15:1-2). If what we do does not show forth God’s love, then all the talk in the world is for naught. We are called to show forth God’s love in our lives, as Jesus showed forth God’s power and Love into the world. In short, “We have not only to be called Christians, but be Christians” (Mag. 4:1).
And what, then, for Ignatius did it mean to be a Christian other than not be schismatic, listen to our bishop, and participate in the Eucharist? What are we to do? In his letter to the Smyrnaeans he wrote,
Pay close attention to those who have wrong notions about the grace of Jesus Christ, which have come to us, and note how at variance they are with god's mind. They care nothing about love: they have no concern for widows or orphans, for the oppressed, for those in prison or those released, for the hungry or the thirsty. They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services or prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of Jesus Christ.... (Smyr. 6:2-7:1).
This is the standard of Matthew 25 and the consequences are the same, “for as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Our patron, as he wrote about his understanding of the Christian life to the growing, new Christian communities of the Roman world, taught that we are to love God and our neighbour and that by loving our neighbour we are loving God. He taught that we were not only to preach this message but to live it and thereby shine the light of Christ into the world.
Ignatius of Antioch, in the second generation after Jesus, preached a message of unity and reconciliation among Christians, a message that suggested that participation in Christian community and sharing the sacraments mattered. He preached a message that suggested that there were things worth struggling and witnessing for. What his final journey to Rome showed was that he was willing to live as he preached, to face up to the consequences of his choices and to show forth the love for God, not just with his lips, with his life, and his death.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Teresa of Avila, 15 October 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume