Today we in the Roman Catholic tradition remember the martyrdom of St Ignatius of Antioch, third bishop of that city. The Eastern churches mark his day on December 20th.
Ignatius is best remembered for his seven letters writtern to the churches which lay across his path. These letters were penned and sent during his triumphal procession across the Empire through Asia Minor towards Rome. There he was martyred in the arena under the Emperor Trajan around the year 107 A.D. I choose to use A.D., Anno Domini, rather than the more PC but less Christocentric designation C.E., common era.
Ignatius is worthy of note for at least two reasons. First, his letters are the earliest extra-biblical witness to the important role of ordained clergy, bishop, priests and deacons, in the early Church. He wrote extensively to clergy and about their role as an alter christus, another Christ. But that is fodder for another post.
Today I want to consider Ignatius of Antioch as the prototype for the eventual cult of the martyrs, that early Christian desire to give the ultimate witness (Greek martyria) to Christ through death.
Ignatius himself wrote to the Romans:
" I am God's wheat, ground fine by the lion's teeth to be made purest bread for Christ....
No early pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire. The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. "
Isn't this approach a bit uncomfortable to our modern ears?
We associate martyrdom with fanaticism and fundamentalist religion. My stomach turned this past Saturday as I watched the opening scene of United 93. Part of my revulsion was a morbid fascination with the obvious piety of the skyjackers who drew dozens of people to their deaths after them. The overlay of prayer recitiation from the Koran was difficult to take, and more difficult to ignore. Such martyrdom is difficult for us in the West to undertstand.
However, Ignatius' similar strong desire to depart this life is in line with other ancient writers and the best of the apostolic tradition. This tradition is strongly witnessed by the bloody deaths of all of the Apostles, except John, who endured a living death of exile on Patmos.
More to the point, do you and I believe so deeply in the saving significance of Jesus Christ and His Church that we are willing to die for Him? We do so either daily by the mortification, putting to death, of our flesh or at the end of life by giving the ultimate witness for Him, the willing sacrifice of our lives. It's hard to accept, but even harder to deny, that our Lord demands such service.
What is God asking you to die to today?
Almighty God, we praise you for your bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present to you the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept the willing tribute of our lives, and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever