The letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch—one of the Church’s earliest and most famous martyrs—glow with an otherworldly light and joy.
“Heartiest greetings of pure joy in Jesus Christ from Ignatius,” begins his first letter to the church at Ephesus. “Out of the fullness of God the Father you have been blessed with large numbers and are predestined from eternity to enjoy forever continual and unfading glory.”
Ignatius was on his way to a grisly death in the amphitheater at Rome (sometime in the late 1st century or early 2nd century). He was thrown to “wild beasts”—what we can presume were lions or their like—who “devoured” his body, leaving only the “harder portions,” according to a traditional account of his martyrdom. Ignatius was well aware of what kind of death he faced. He famously described it this way in his letter to the Romans:
I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body. … May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me.
These are not the words of a man who is resigned to a harsh fate, who has accepted his duty with a steely determination. There is no sense of lamentation. His letters are not mournful farewells. Was he a madman? If so, Ignatius was surely one of the strangest in history: he is consumed not with hate, but love. Was he delusional? A most bloody and painful bout with the beasts is in store for him and his earthly life will most assuredly come to an end as a result. Certainly, he seems under no illusions about that.
How to explain St. Ignatius of Antioch? Put simply, he was not of this world. “‘I would rather die,’ and get to Jesus Christ, than reign over the ends of the earth,” he tells the Romans. “I am going through the pangs of being born.”
While not of this world, Ignatius’ faith was firmly grounded in the truth of God’s presence in this world. Far from imaginative flights of fancy to a life hereafter, his letters evoke a spiritual vision that is centered on Christ and the cross. “For I detected that you were fitted out with an unshakable faith, being nailed, as it were, body and soul to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and being rooted in love by the blood of Christ,” he writes to the Smyrnaeans.
Ignatius is insistent on the concrete reality of the Incarnation and the cross. He continues:
Regarding our Lord, you are absolutely convinced that on the human side he was actually sprung from David’s line, Son of God according to God’s will and power, actually born of a virgin, baptized by John … and actually crucified for us in the flesh. … And he genuinely suffered, as even he genuinely raised himself. It is not as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was a sham. It’s they who are a sham! Yes and their fate will fit their fancies—they will be ghosts and apparitions [emphasis added].
For Ignatius, everything it seems, relates back to the cross. In the span of a few short sentences in his letter to the Ephesians he explains his understanding of the Church, the Trinity, and the theological virtues all in terms of the Cross:
Like stones of God’s Temple, ready for a building of God the Father, you are being hoisted up by Jesus Christ, as with a crane (that’s the cross!), while the rope you use is the Holy Spirit. Your faith is what lifts you up, while love is the way you ascend to God.
His commitment to Christ and the cross led to lively faith in the Eucharist. In his letter to the Ephesians, he calls the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality” and the “antidote” to death. And, in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, he scolds heretics and unbelievers who do not share this belief: “They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” He even describes his impending martyrdom in vivid Eucharist language: he likens himself to the “wheat of God” who will be ground by the jaws of the beasts into the “pure bread of Christ” (full quotation cited above).
Ignatius was born in or close to 50 AD, when the first book of the New Testament was being written (the Letter of St. James). He died sometime between 98 and 117, just years after the last book (the Gospel of John, between 90 and 95). His letters leap with the irrepressible joy of one who lived in that first generation of Christians, witnesses to a new dawn in history.
Two thousand years have elapsed, yet his letters have lost none of their luster, his words still burn with a heavenly love. As In St. John Chrysostom, already several centuries later, put it in his homily on the martyr, Ignatius was a “soul which despised all things present, glowed with Divine love, and valued things unseen before the things which are seen.” May we all heed Chrysostom’s advice: “Not only today, therefore, but every day let us go forth to him, plucking spiritual fruits from him.”
Note: While the above links are to versions of the letters available on newadvent.org, many of the quotations are taken from a different translation available in the book Early Christian Fathers, edited by Cyril Richardson, available from Simon & Schuster.