The Feast of Saint Ignatius of Antioch: The Patronal Feast
October 20, 2019
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 Christian community at Philadelphia, modern day Amaan, Jordan, is one of the last three he wrote. Unlike his earlier letters, this one was sent to a community he had already visited and that he knew personally. In it he warns his correspondents primarily against the heresy of Judiasing, but in his argument, he lays down for us a sketch of what the church looked like in his day and its sources of authority. The picture he paints is both recognisable and remains instructive for us today in this other great city serving the needs of a global superpower.
As in all his letters, Ignatius shows us especially in his epistle to the Philadelphians that he has a vision for how the church should be. It must be united, both structurally under the bishop and theologically in its rejection of heresy (Phil. 2:1-2). This unity is expressed when the church gathers together for regular celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist (Phil. 4:1). Ultimately, these elements depended on remaining faithful to the gospel. What, however, does that precisely mean?
Ignatius lived at the end of the first century and, despite the much beloved legend that he was one of the children Christ took up and blessed, was born around the year 50, 20 years or so after the events of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. Ignatius’ community already had the Eucharist, the meal that Jesus told his friends to share so that he might always be with them, and appointed leaders (the bishops, their deputies the presbyters, and the servant ministers, the deacons), but they had no Christian Bible as we know it, only the Hebrew Scriptures in the Greek edition of the Septuagint. These were the years that saw the development of the stories of Jesus life and the penning of the letters circulated to the new Christian communities that would eventually grow into the canonical books of the New Testament. That is to say that when Ignatius wrote about the “gospel” he was not referring to any one, or four, for that matter, specific texts, but rather literally to the “good news” that Jesus himself preached: that God had acted decisively to intervene in the world and that the Kingdom of God was inaugurated.
In asking the people of Philadelphia for their support for his mission to Rome, where he knows he will face martyrdom and death, Ignatius wrote,
I am still far from being perfect. Yet your prayers to God will make me perfect so that I may gain that fate which I have mercifully been allotted, by taking refuge in the gospel, as in Jesus flesh, and in the apostles, as in the presbytery of the church. And the Prophets, let us love them too, because they anticipated the gospel in their preaching….Ignatius, supported by the prayers of other Christians, will enter into the life of the gospel, into the life of Jesus’ story. The gospel, then, is not simply a text to be revered, but a reality that is to be lived. It is to be found the person of Jesus Christ and the Good News of his life, death, and resurrection, the memory of which is held in community.
Those who were the original witnesses of the events of Jesus life, passion, and resurrection, especially the apostles, were changed for ever by what they saw. They handed down their memories to the next generation, who became the apostle’s successors in leading the church, the bishops and presbyters. They, in turn, have handed this legacy of memory, the powerful memory that keeps the past alive in this moment, into the present generation, to Ignatius who turns the whole treasure over to us. This legacy of memory, is buttressed by the older historical witness of the Hebrew Prophets, who told us about how the God of Israel acts to and for the people and how God would send a messiah, an anointed one, to reconcile the world with God.
Authority for Ignatius is located in this gospel, the shared memory of Jesus and all he wrought, and in the witness of Hebrew Scripture. Ignatius presses his point, writing,
When I heard some people saying, “If I don’t find it in the original documents, I don’t believe it in the gospel,” I answered them, “But it is written there.” They retorted, “That’s just the question.” To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that came by him (Phil 8:2).The original documents to which his straw man is referring are the Hebrew Scriptures. While some critics have seen here Ignatius disparaging the Hebrew Bible (110), this is not the case. What Ignatius is really saying is that God has done something new in Jesus Christ, whose actions are recorded in living memory and in the living community that emerged and became the church. The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of God’s relationship with Israel and point to the Jesus event and have authority. As he says, “[Jesus] is the door to the Father. Through it there enter Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the prophets and apostles and the Church. All these find their place in God’s unity” (9:1). However, the supreme authority is in the person of Jesus Christ. The most important document, Ignatius tells us, is Jesus himself and his living memory in community.
Ignatius puts it this way,
But there is something special about the gospel—I mean the coming of the Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, his Passion and resurrection. The beloved prophets announced his coming; but the gospel the crowning achievement for ever. All these things, taken together, have their value, provided you hold the faith in Love (9:2).
It is essential that we remember this: that the Gospel is not a text and that we are not a religion of a book. One of the great errors of the Protestant reformation was to elevate the Bible above the other essential markers of authority: tradition (which includes the church and the sacraments) and our own reason (which includes our intellectual faculties that allow us to read the Bible critically). As Anglicans we know this well: that the foundation of our faith is in the person of Jesus Christ, that he gave us the Sacrament before there was a church, that the Eucharistic Church gathered us before there was a Christian Bible, and that we are endowed with that share of the image and likeness of God to use our reason as we live out our fath.
Ignatius of Antioch is a witness for us of the Catholic faith at its best, founded on scripture, tradition, and reason, founded in community in touch through living memory with “Jesus Christ who is the original documents; the inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that came by him.” May we always have the example of our patron before us to remind us that we gather in community, united to hear the story of the gospel, foretold by the prophets, and respond to its life changing reality in and through the one sacrament that sends us back into the world transformed into the very Body of Christ.
All quotations from Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Philadelphians,” in Early Christian Fathers, ed. and trans. by Cyril C. Richardson (New York: Collier Books, 1970).
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Ignatius of Antioch, 17 October 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume