Saint Ignatius of Antioch: The Patronal Feast
October 22, 2023
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.
The feast of our patron is always a day that marks time for me. Today begins my seventeenth year as your rector. And indeed, we have been through a lot together. I won’t even begin to make a catalogue, although if you want to take a stroll down memory lane, I refer you to the splendid little book we published for our one hundred fiftieth last year. (If you haven’t got a copy, just ask me or one of the churchwardens.) Looking back, however, at our celebrations of the feast of our patron, I have assiduously avoided any lengthy discussion of his martyrdom or that passage from his Letter to the Romans we heard as our first lesson, given how strange and unsettling it can be to modern sensibilities.
For this reason, each year, I have, invariably, taken a different (and, I hope, timely) look at the themes that dominate his other letters. Ignatius gives us, in fact, a real window into the life and thought of the earliest years of the church. As bishop at Antioch before the year 100, fewer than seventy years after Jesus’ death and resurrection (that is the same as our looking back to 1953), Ignatius is truly one of the formative figures in the development of what came to be called Christianity. He was the first to use the word “catholic,” or universal, in referring to the community of the Body of Christ and one of the first to call followers of Jesus “Christians” (Rom. 3:2). He stressed the theme of Christian unity, both theological and political. He saw unity personified in the form of the bishops who gathered the local communities and together led the broader church. He emphasised the importance of the sacraments, especially of the Eucharist, cautioning, “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” (Phil. 4:1).
I have stressed these themes, not simply because they are interesting or edifying, but because they speak to us directly. As I have said before, I like to think that were Ignatius to walk into our church, he would recognise what we do today as consonant with his vision for Christianity. Today, however, I want to think about the text from his letter to the Romans and his martyrdom.
The stories about Ignatius’ death in the Flavian Ampitheatre – now better known as the Colosseum – at the paws and teeth of the lions are quite late, dating to the fifth and sixth centuries, and completely unreliable in detail.(1) Don’t get me wrong, they make a great story, a great stained glass window, and give us our lion mascot. And I have no doubt that he was, indeed, killed at Rome for his recalcitrant insistence on (Richardson 1970, 83) professing his belief in Jesus Christ over and against the gods of Roman civic religion. It is just that the historic record does not help us very much.
We do, however, have his own reflections on what he thought lay ahead of him at Rome. Ignatius wrote his letter to the Romans from Smyrna, and had it delivered by some trusty Ephesians, in advance of his arrival, while he was still making his way there (Rom. 10:1), accompanied by that band of Roman soldiers he named his Leopards (5:1). (We are all about adopting the big cats associated with Ignatius’ end.)
Ignatius’ letter is very much a conscious imitation of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which was certainly circulating with his other epistles by the end of the first century. As with the rest of Paul’s letters, Ignatius’ other letters were written to people he already knew, communities and leaders with whom he already had a relationship. This one is different. Like Paul, Ignatius wrote to the Romans, sending a sort of calling card to a community he did not yet know personally, in part to ask that they not interfere through some well-meaning effort to save him from martyrdom, and in part, perhaps, to brace himself “for the coming ordeal.”2 He wrote, “Just pray that I may have the strength of soul and body so that I may not only talk [about martyrdom,] but really want it. It is not that I want merely to be called a Christian, but actually be one” (3:2). Ignatius wanted to make a splash, be really clear about who he was and what he believed, and so it has a different tone from his other letters. It is grander, more figural (Richardson 1970, 102) in its use of language, more poetic.
It is, indeed, pretty strong stuff, and has always made me a little unfomortable. Cyril Richardson, the translator of the most accessible English edition of Ignatius’ letters, remarks that “it betrays an excess of zeal which is strange to most of us, and even repugnant to some,” indeed, “some will find in the letter a perverted masochism; others will discern in it the splendour of the martyr spirit.”3 Ignatius addresses the Romans: “Though living as I write to you, I am longing to die. My desire has been crucified, and there is no longer in me the fire that longs for earthly things, but living water that speaks in me, saying to me from within, ‘Come to the Father.’” He further admonishes them, “even if I should in person plead with you [to stop me], do not be persuaded by me, but rather be persuaded by this which I am writing to you.” This is, in fact, tame stuff in comparison to other things he says.
Ignatius is particularly fond of images evoking the wild beasts of the arena, which is why, I think, he chose to call his guard “leopards.” He writes, “What thrill I shall have from the wild beasts that are ready for me! I hope they will make short work of me. I shall coax them to eat me up at once and not to hold off, as sometimes happens, through fear. And if they are reluctant, I shall force them to it” (5:2). He even demands of the Romans: “Let me be fodder for wild beasts – that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a (Richardson 1970, 102) pure loaf for Christ (4:1).” Here he connects this imagery about the beasts and his impending death with the Eucharist, evoking the passage from John we heard this morning: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Taken together, Ignatius weaves a theological, scriptural, rationale for his choice to “imitate the passion of my God” (6:3) and walk into the arena, prepared to sacrifice himself. Thereby he connects himself with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and the Eucharistic sacrifice by which we all participate in it.
Perhaps the culmination of his self-imolating argument, his request to fulfil what he sees as his destiny, is found when he writes, “May nothing seen or unseen begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whol body, cruel tortures of the devil – only let me get to Jesus Christ” (5:3). I imagine that when he wrote this, ringing in his ears would have been Paul’s affirmation and certainty “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.” No matter what he faced, what he might endure, he would be forever embraced by the love of God in Christ.
And perhaps this is where we can find the Good News in this otherwise quite challenging aspect of Ignatius’ story. For all the theological principles for which I admire him, to which I look as model for the church today, Ignatius himself also provides us with a towering model of one who had supreme confidence in the love of God in Christ. Even through the haze of what we might see as a maniacal death wish, he knew that whatever befell him at Rome, in the arena, in the company of the wild beast, nothing could separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It is the specificity of the examples Ignatius and Paul give us that brings this message to life. Would that each of us – and I am very much counting myself here – could embrace such confidence as we simply go about our daily lives, facing whatever might happen with the spirit of one ready to commit with his whole being to living out the very love of God. As John says, “If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honour him.”
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, Martyrs, 16 October 2023
1. 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).
© 2023 Andrew Charles Blume