Saint Ignatius of Antioch: The Patronal Feast
October 18, 2020
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.
When I reread Ignatius’ letters, as I do annually in advance of this celebration, I always find it amazing how much of today’s church is recognisable in Ignatius’ writings. There is Baptism and Eucharist, administered by the Bishop or those he authorises (Smyrnaean, 8:1). He knows and quotes not only the Jewish scriptures that Jesus and his followers knew, but also the Gospels and the letters of Paul. He places Mary in a position of honour. There is a church and a community with deacons, presbyters, and bishops, that he wished would “gather together more frequently to celebrate God’s Eucharist”(Ephesians, 13:1). He calls for our words to match our deeds, urging us to “harmonise [our] actions with God’s mind” (Ephesians. 3:2). He operates in a globalised world, dominated by a great empire, in which his teaching about peace and unity, founded in Jesus Christ rather than in the divine authority of the Emperor, is a counter-cultural message. Ignatius’ church, separated as it is from us by thousands of miles and just over nineteen hundred years, is remarkably vivid and familiar.
Of course not all the issues he discusses are major concerns for us today. Ignatius is particularly obsessed with making sure that the authority of bishops, among whom he is one, is universally respected, and he finds Judaising a particularly pernicious heresy. His refutation of the Docetic heresy, which states that Jesus’ was not really human and that his suffering was not real, has more resonance, however, in these pandemic times. It is, in fact, with our current crisis in mind that I went through the small Ignatius corpus again, looking for the wisdom and perspective he might offer us.
And what, in fact, were the first words I read? “The source of your unity and election is genuine suffering which you undergo by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ, our God. Hence you deserve to be considered happy” (Ephesians, salutation). Not a particularly auspicious start. Yes, it has been universally remarked that Covid-19 has united the world in suffering. The inequalities across lines of race and class that the pandemic has revealed, along with the sheer scale of the pain and loss, however, can not be considered felicitous, and can not be seen as expressions of the will of God. Our view of illness and death can not support the notion that this has been brought on us by God so that we might be tested, and in and through our suffering be considered “happy.”
Equally unhelpful are Ignatius references to the immanent end of the world. To the Ephesians, he writes: “The last days are here. So let us abase ourselves and stand in awe of God’s patience, lest it turn out to be our condemnation. Either let us fear the wrath that is to come or let us value the grace we have: one or the other (Ephesians, 11:1);” and to the Magnesians he proclaims: “Yes, everything is coming to an end, and we stand before the choice—life or death—and everyone will go ‘to his own place’” (Magnesians, 5). I have seen one too many memes and cartoons remarking on the strangely apocalyptic nature of 2020 to find that an helpful reference point, either. Thinking of our present moment as the culmination of all things and a sign of God’s desire for us to experience righteous suffering may be one Christian approach to plague, but it is not mine.
Ignatius, however, still can help us with a Christian perspective on navigating the turbulent waters of our present moment. Ignatius’ twin emphases on Christian unity and the power found within the gathered church speak to us clearly, sending a message of hope that can strengthen us over the months that still lie ahead. Ignatius experienced not simply the suffering of his imprisonment and martyrdom, but also what it was to live in very difficult times. He faced hardships and sought to overcome them through the power of Christ that he found in the Church standing as one, gathered around the Eucharist.
Each of the communities he addressed faced real threats to its existence, whether persecution by the authorities or division from within. Ignatius’ answer to meeting these challenges was always the same. Over and over again in his letters, he urges his correspondents to remain united. “For there are many specious wolves who, by means of wicked pleasures, capture those who run God’s race,” he tells the Philadelphians. “In the face of your unity, however, they will not have a chance” (2:2-3:1). “You need to abide in irreproachable unity if you really want to be God’s members for ever,” he told the Ephesians (4:2); and to the Magnesians he insisted, “Only what you do together is right. Hence you must have one prayer, one petition, one mind, one hope, dominated by love and unsullied joy—that means you must have Jesus Christ” (7:1).
This unity is rooted in Jesus Christ. We are one, because we are united with Jesus for ever in his passion and resurrection, through baptism and participation in the Eucharist. He tells us, “Be careful to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar” (Philaselphians, 4:1). It is in the gathered community that we are sustained through the trials we face. Together we have the strength to meet our adversaries, even ones that are unseen (Ephesians, 10:2-3).
I have no idea what Ignatius would have made of the dislocation we have endured these past six months and the means we have used to stay united and remain in community with each other. He did believe, however, that people who are separated by physical distance can remain one in spirit, connected by our love for each other and for Christ. This was, in many ways, the whole point of his correspondence. He wanted to connect Christians who could not gather with one another and remind them of the things they held in common. He was not merely urging the Ephesians, for example, to remain united with each other, but promoting their connexion with their brothers and sisters in Smyrna, Magnesia, Philadelphia, and at Rome. Indeed, they were bound by friendships and interpersonal relationships, and his letters are full of individual remembrances and greetings that make the humanity of the church palpable. Additionally they were intertwined by the ministry of bishops and, ultimately, by Christ himself, symbolised in the Eucharist that was universal from one place to another.
As Ignatius used letter writing and the postal routes around the Mediterranean, we have used email, Zoom, and YouTube, along with the humble telephone and beleaguered U.S. Postal Service, to remain connected, unified, as we have faced the trials and privations of the Covid-19 pandemic, the upheavals unleashed by centuries of white supremacy and racial injustice, and the uncertainty and anxiety generated by the failures of our leaders. We have remained one body, even separated as we were for a time (and as some remain) from the Eucharist that was so important to Ignatius. We have done so through love and patience, following the example of Christ.
Saint Paul, whom Ignatius clearly admired and imitated, also understood the despair and frustration that we experience in the face of suffering. He, too, knew the temptation to believe that we are alone and unsupported. In the portion of his own letter to the Romans appointed for today, he asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’” It is, in many ways, the question of the moment.
Unequivocally Paul answers by asserting that none of these things shall separate us from Christ. “No,” he says, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing in heaven or on earth has the power to break the relationship we have with each other and with God that is forged in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is the core of Ignatius’ message to the churches. It is also the core of the reassurance he gives himself as, accompanied by his Leopards, his cohort of Roman soldiers, he travels to the centre of the known world to face trials that will likely end in his own death. Nothing will ever separate us from our fellow Christians. Nothing will ever separate us from God in Christ. No number of days at home or in the hospital, no amount of social distancing, no face covering, none of it, will break our relationship with Christ begun in baptism. “Let your baptism,” Ignatius told his friend and fellow bishop Polycarp,” be your arm; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your endurance, your armour” (Polycarp, 6:3). We are protected and we are loved, united for ever.
Let this assurance fill our hearts and minds. Let it seep into our very bones and remember that we have a community with which we are connected for ever. We have a local community here at Saint Ignatius’ own church here in New York City. We also have a global community of fellow Christians who have been baptised with the same baptism with which we were baptised and who are nourished with the same Eucharist. They are even united with us in the ministry of their bishops, descending, like ours, from the apostles and their successors, like Ignatius himself, who would have especially appreciated this plug for the episcopacy. Above all, we are strengthened by the knowledge that we are united in Jesus Christ, who was truly the son of God, who was truly human and knew what it is to suffer as we do, and who defeated the powers of death so that we may all live.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Ignatius of Antioch, 17 October 2020
All references to the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch are to the translation and edition of Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, Library of Christian Classics, I (New York: Colier, 1970).
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume