Like so many martyrs of the first couple of centuries, Ignatius gloried in being able to die for his Lord, and begged his fellow Christians en route to Rome not to prevent his death.
Now at last I am beginning to be a disciple.
No earthly pleasure can bring me any good, no kingdom of this world.
It is better for me to perish and obtain Jesus Christ than to rule over the earth.
Let me win through to the Light; that done, I shall be complete.
Let me suffer as my Lord suffered.
Undoubtedly he had a strong desire for martyrdom
My desires are crucified, the warmth of my body is gone.
A stream flows whispering inside me;
Deep within me it says:
Come to the Father.
Ignatius of Antioch, surnamed Theophorus, which in Greek means "God-Bearer," was probably a convert and disciple of St. John the Evangelist. We know nothing of his early life, except he was born around the middle of the first century. The fourth-century Church historian, Eusebius, wrote that the Apostles Peter and Paul, who planted the faith in Antioch, left directions that Ignatius should succeed Evodius as bishop of that city; he further stated that Ignatius retained the office for forty years, proving himself in every way an exemplary pastor. During the persecution of the emperor Domitian, from 81 to 96, Ignatius sustained the courage of his flock by daily preaching, praying and fasting. After Domitian's death there was a cessation of the persecutions during the fifteen months of Nerva's reign. However in Trajan's reign, his successor, there were many martyrs, even though there was no general persecution. In an interesting letter to the younger Pliny, then governor of the Black Sea province of Bithynia, Trajan laid down the principle that Christians should be put to death if formally reported, but not otherwise sought out for punishment. The Emperor was a humane man, yet the gratitude that he felt he owed to his own pagan gods for his victories over the Dacians and the Scythians later led him to authorize the death penalty for those Christians who refused to acknowledge these divinities publicly.
There is a legend that the emperor Trajan wintering in Antioch examined the aged Bishop Ignatius with questions such as these:
"Who are you, spirit of evil, who dare disobey my orders and goad others on to their destruction?"
"No one calls Theophorus a spirit of evil," the bishop replied.
"Who is Theophorus?"
"He who bears Christ within him."
"And do we not bear within ourselves the gods who help us against our enemies?"
"You are mistaken when you call gods those who are no better than devils. There is but one God, who created heaven and earth and all that in them is; and one Jesus, made Christ, into whose kingdom I earnestly desire to be admitted."
"Do you mean Him who was crucified under Pontius Pilate?"
"Yes, the same, who by His death has crucified both sin and its author, and who has proclaimed that every malice of the devil shall be trodden underfoot by those who bear Him in their hearts."
"Do you then," asked the Emperor, "bear Christ within you?" "Yes," said Ignatius, "for it is written, 'I will dwell in them and will walk with them.'"
For such daring answers to the Emperor, Trajan ruled that Ignatius should die in Rome.
I thank you, Lord and Master,
that you have deemed to honour me
by making complete my love for you
in that you have bound me with chains
of iron to your apostle Paul.
Whether this legend is true, we do know that during a time of persecution in the early years of the second century Ignatius was sentenced to death for not honouring the Roman gods. Thus Ignatius was bound and conveyed to Rome, to be devoured by wild beasts in the Coliseum. For a greater part of the journey he had as companions a deacon, Philo, and a friend, Agathopus, supposedly the authors of an account of his martyrdom. On shipboard Ignatius was guarded by ten soldiers so brutal that he speaks of them as "ten leopards," and adds that they only grew worse when kindly treated. Wherever the ship put in, the local Christians sent bishops and priests to meet the venerable bishop, and crowds gathered to receive the benediction of one who was already revered as a martyr. He informed them:
I know what must be done.
Only now am I beginning to be a disciple.
May nothing of powers visible or invisible prevent me,
that I may attain unto Jesus Christ
come fire and cross and grapplings with wild beasts,
the rending of my bones and body,
come all the torments of the wicked one upon me,
only let it be mine to attain unto Jesus Christ.
As he approached Rome, the faithful came out to meet him.
My prayer to God has been heard, and I have been permitted to see your holy faces, so that I have been granted even more than I was asking. For in bonds in Jesus Christ I hope to salute you, if it be God's will that I should be accounted worthy to reach the end. For the beginning is well ordained if I may attain the end and so receive my inheritance without hindrance. For I fear lest your very love should do me wrong. It is easy for you to accomplish whatever you will, but for me it is difficult to attain unto God unless you let me take my own way.
The Christians in Rome rejoiced in his presence, but grieved that they were to lose him so soon. He prevented them from taking steps to obtain his release.
Grant me just this privilege of being poured out as an offering to God, while the altar is now prepared; and do you as a choir of love sing praises to the Father in Christ Jesus that he has counted the bishop of Syria worthy to be brought from the land of the sunrise to the sunset. It is good to be setting to the world for God, that I may rise to him.
Blessed be the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who of his great and abundant goodness;
willed that I should be a partaker
of the sufferings of his Christ
and a true and faithful witness of his divinity.
According to tradition, he reached Rome on December 20, the last day of the great games, and was brought at once before the prefect, to whom the Emperor's letter was delivered. At the prefect's command, the prisoner was hurried off to the Coliseum.
Near to the sword,
I am near to God;
In the company of wild beasts,
I am in company with God.
Only let all that happens be in the name of Jesus Christ,
so that we may suffer with him,
I can endure all things if he enables me.
I am God's wheat
May I be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts,
Until I become the fine white bread
That belongs to Christ.
When two fierce lions were let out into the coliseum Ignatius prayer was swiftly answered.
There is evidence that some fragments of the martyr's remains were taken to Antioch and venerated. St. Jerome, visiting Antioch nearly three hundred years later, tells us that these remains had been placed "in a cemetery outside the Daphne gate." It is believed that they were brought back to Rome in 637 to rest in the church of San Clemente. From the ancient Syrian martyrology we learn that the martyr's feast was kept in the East on October 17. St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, preached a famous panegyric on Ignatius, but even then legend was beginning to play its part; he supposed that Ignatius was appointed to the see of Antioch by the Apostle Peter himself.
That trip to Rome has been a blessing for the Church as those letters Ignatius wrote to the Christian communities of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia and Smyrna, revealed much about the church at that time. He also wrote to the church in Rome, and individually to Polycarp who, a few years later would also be martyred for the faith. In those letters Ignatius has given us one of the first authentic accounts of the organization of the early Christian church into a three-fold ministry. He urged Christians to be faithful to their respective community, of which each had a presiding bishop assisted by a council of presbyters (elders) and deacons. Unity was one of Ignatius prime concerns. Writing to the Magnesians he told them "I urge you to try to do all things in harmony with God, under the presidency of the bishop, who holds the place of God, and of the presbyters, who hold the place of the college of apostles, and of the deacons, who are so dear to me and who have been entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ."
Indeed "I urge you not to do anything in a spirit of divisiveness but only according to the teaching of Jesus Christ," he informed the Philadelphians. He instructed them not to do anything without their bishops, even the celebration of the Eucharist.
The Eucharist was the source of unity, "the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death which gives eternal life in Jesus Christ . . . the bread that is the flesh of Jesus Christ, this flesh which has suffered for our sins." Ignatius expressed his own martyrdom in eucharistic terms when he prayed to be become like wheat grounded by beasts teeth to a fine white grain in Christ.
Those letters also stressed the true humanity and divinity of Jesus and his bodily death and resurrection, as the source of the Christian's new life. As he expressed it to the Christians at Ephesus, "You are all bearers of God, bearers of his temple, bearers of Christ, and so you are adorned with no other ornament than the counsels of Jesus Christ."
In warning Christians against heretical doctrines he was the first Christian writer to stress the virgin birth and to use the term 'catholic church' as a collective term for the faithful.
To the Smyrnaeans he wrote:
I give glory to Jesus Christ, the God who has given you wisdom. For I have perceived that you are firmly settled in unwavering faith, being nailed, as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, fully convinced as touching our Lord that he is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, and Son of God by the Divine will and power, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled in Him, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch truly nailed up for us in the flesh (of whose fruit are we, even of His most blessed Passion); that He might raise up an ensign to the ages through His resurrection, for his saints and believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, in one body of His church.
His letters also told us much about Ignatius himself. Writing to the Ephesians he stated:
I do not command you as if I were someone great, for even though I be bound in the Name, I am not yet perfect in Jesus Christ. For now I do but begin to be a disciple and I speak to you as to my fellow learners. And it were fitting for me to be anointed by you for the contest, with faith, admonition, patience, long-suffering. But since love does not suffer me to be silent concerning you, I have therefore hastened to exhort you to set yourselves in harmony with the mind of God. For Jesus Christ, our inseparable Life, is the mind of the Father, even as the bishops who are settled in the farthest parts of the earth are the mind of Christ.
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.
A Reading from a letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Church in Rome as he prepared for his forthcoming death
My prayer that I might live to see you all face to face has been granted. In fact, I have been given more than I asked for, since I now hope to greet you in the chains of a prisoner of Christ Jesus, if his will finds me worthy to reach my journey's end.
One thing only I beg of you: allow me to be a libation poured out to God, while there is still an altar ready for me. Then you can form a choir of love around it and sing hymns of praise to the Father in Christ Jesus for allowing Syria's bishop, summoned from the realms of the rising sun, to have reached the land of its setting. How good it is to be sinking down below the world's horizon towards God that I may rise again into the dawn of his presence!
I am writing to all the churches and assuring them that I am truly in earnest about dying for God, provided you put no obstacles in the way. I beg you to do me no such untimely kindness. Let me be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am God's wheat, to be ground fine by the teeth of lions so that I become the purest bread for Christ. Intercede with him on my behalf, that by their instrumentality I may be made a sacrifice to God.
All the ends of the earth and all the kingdoms of this world would profit me nothing. As far as I am concerned, to die in Christ Jesus is better than to be king of earth's widest bounds. I seek only him who for our sake died; my whole desire is for him who rose again for us. The pangs of birth are upon me. Have patience with me, my brothers and sisters, and do not shut me out from life, do not wish me to be stillborn. Do not make a present to the world again of one who longs only to be God's; do not try to deceive him with material things. Allow me rather to attain to light, light pure and undefiled; for only when I am come to the light shall I become truly human. Allow me to imitate the passion of my God. If any of you have God within you, let them understand my longings and sympathise with me, because they will know the forces by which I am constrained. '
It is the hope of the prince of this world to get hold of me and undermine my resolve, set as it is upon God. Let none of you lend him any assistance, but take my part instead, for indeed it is the part of God. Do not have Jesus Christ on your lips, and the world m your heart; do not cherish thoughts of grudging me my fate. Even if I were to come and beg you in person, do not yield to my pleading; keep your mind focused on this written resolve. Here and now, as I write in the fullness of life, I am longing for death with all the passion of a lover. Earthly longings have been crucified; there is no spark of desire for mundane things left within me, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, 'Come to the Father.'
We commomorate St. Ignatius on the 17th October
.who died c.107. A.D.