Love incorruptible: St Ignatius of Antioch (17 October)
Friday 16 October 2020
On 17 October, we mark the feast day of St Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest saints and a man who stood at the very epicentre of the Christian movement at the close of the Apostolic Age.
We know very little about him. He was born in Ephesus on the coast of modern-day Turkey, probably around the year 50 and died in Rome during the reign of Trajan, sometime between 98 and 117.
However, what we do know makes him an extremely influential figure in the history of the Church.
For example, he was mentored by St John the Evangelist, meaning Ignatius was a man who knew people who knew Jesus personally; those who had walked with Jesus, spoken with Jesus, eaten with Jesus.
Ignatius is also the first person to coin the term ‘Catholic Church’.
This came from the Greek word katholikos, in context meaning universal, complete and whole. Ignatius used it in a letter he wrote to the Smyrnaean Church in about the year 107. He wrote: 'Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.' — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8.
The Church, he believed, was open to anyone who wanted to be a follower of Jesus.
Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch, one of the most significant centres of Christianity in the ancient world. It was the town where followers of ‘Christus’ were first dubbed ‘Christians’.
Given Ignatius lived in Ephesus for much of his life, it’s likely he knew the people who received the Pauline letter to the Ephesians and read it for the first time. In his own writing, Ignatius demonstrates a high level of familiarity with the epistle, and all New Testament literature. In fact, he writes his own letter to the Ephesians, which echoes many of the Pauline letter’s ideas. Given that Paul lived in Ephesus for three years, there’s a good chance Ignatius knew St Paul personally.
At the end of the first century, Roman Emperor Trajan persecuted Christians, wanting to enforce a uniformity of culture and religion across the empire. He did not actively pursue Christians on the scale of Domitian and other emperors, but he did execute several prominent Christian leaders. These included St Ignatius Bishop of Antioch and St Simeon, Bishop of Jerusalem.
‘[Christians] are not to be sought out,’ Trajan wrote to Pliny, governor of what is now modern-day Turkey. ‘But if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished.’
Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was arrested for refusing to deny his belief in Jesus Christ and was sentenced to die.
What’s odd about Ignatius’ story, is that he was not martyred in his own town as was common, but transported to Rome for execution.
Ten soldiers were assigned to guard him on the long trip. Bishop Ignatius used the time, travelling over land and sea, to write seven letters to Christian communities along the way.
Much like the letters of St Paul, these letters encourage the Christian community in various places to be strong in the Lord, to serve the poor and needy. In them, Ignatius reminds the members of the Church to be faithful to the Lord and to follow the teachings of their bishop.
Throughout his writing, he constantly stressed the deity of Christ. In an era when ideas about Jesus were not all in agreement, Ignatius made sure the faithful knew that Jesus was God, of both flesh and spirit.
And given the amount of time Ignatius spent contemplating his pending execution, he encouraged Church communities to not shy away from being martyred for the faith. In fact, throughout the letters, he gives the impression that he is honoured at being able to share in the same fate as Jesus and went so far as admonishing any believers who wanted to intervene and prevent him from paying the ultimate price for his faith.
‘I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way... Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God.’
We don’t know exactly when he was martyred or the method, but in his Ecclesiastical History (324), Eusebius of Caesarea wrote that Ignatius was thrown to the lions in the Colosseum in Rome.
In his letters, Ignatius consistently demonstrated humility and love for his fellow believers. ‘Let no rank puff up anyone,’ he wrote. ‘For faith and love are paramount – the greatest blessings in the world.’
Seeing everything on earth as transitory, he urged the faithful to follow his example and not to place undue importance on earthly matters, and instead remember the only thing that mattered was the love of Christ.
‘I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David, and for drink I desire His Blood, which is love incorruptible.’