Friday, October 17, 2014

Letters from a Martyr: St. Ignatius of Antioch

He was on his way to meet a grisly end and the hands (er, the paws) of hungry lions.  There was no mystery about how or when death would come. It would come in an arena filled with blood-lusting hordes gathered to witness the macabre spectacle of Roman execution. It would come through the jaws and claws of wild animals. 

This was the situation in which the bishop of Antioch found himself. He was on a journey to his own demise and was well aware of the fate that awaited him. But yet, the letters that he wrote during the arduous trip betray a seemingly joyful acceptance of his situation. 

This man’s name was Ignatius. He converted to Christianity at a young age and, as a young man, he had been a disciple of the Apostles Peter, Paul and John during their respective stays in his hometown of Antioch. During those formative years, he learned about Jesus and the faith he taught from the lips and examples of those who knew him best (Peter and John) and from the one to whom the Resurrected Lord made a mystical, life-changing appearance (Paul). 

Eventually, Ignatius was ordained as the third bishop of the Church in Antioch (succeeding the Apostle Peter, who had moved on to Rome, and St. Evodius, who seems to have died from natural causes). He served as the chief pastor of the Christians in Antioch from around the year 67 AD until he was arrested during a persecution of Christians under the Emperor Trajan. 

After his arrest around the year 107 AD, the elderly Ignatius, then, was taken from Antioch to Rome, a journey of nearly 1,500 miles. At nearly every stop along the way, leaders of the local churches greeted him. With the help of a secretary, he wrote letters to various local churches and at least one to a fellow bishop during his journey. 

Seven of these letters have been preserved and, although two millennia have elapsed since they were penned, they’re still shining with Ignatius’ unshakeable faith and irrepressible joy of a first-century bishop who witnessed the dawn of the Church. 

You can read the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch today. They are every bit as inspiring to modern eyes as they must have been to their original recipient so many centuries ago. You can find them online, here:

To the Church at Ephesus
To the Church at Magnesia
To the Church at Tralles
To the Church at Rome
To the Church at Philadelphia
To the Church at Smyrna
To Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna

Ignatius' letters are rife with hope, love, and an unshakeable focus on Christ. In the fourth century, another towering figure in Church history, St. John Chrysostom, preached about the martyr Ignatius. He said that Ignatius was a “soul which despised all things present, glowed with Divine love, and valued things unseen before the things which are seen.” 

We, today, could benefit from Chrysostom’s advice to soak in the wisdom preserved in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. “Not only today, therefore, but every day let us go forth to him, plucking spiritual fruits from him.” Today marks the feast day of St. Ignatius of Antioch.