If it weren’t for St. Ignatius of Antioch, I might not be a Catholic today. How could a first century bishop so influence an American guy two thousand years later? Well, I first learned of this saint at my Baptist university where, in addition to my program’s coursework, we were required to read books from a list of the Western Canon. The list covered everything from ancient to modern so I started my reading at the beginning. I wandered from the Fertile Crescent to Ancient Greece and Rome. I moved through the New Testament and soon found myself in the Early Church Fathers, reading a little blue book with the collected letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. He wrote these letters on his way from Antioch to Rome, a journey he made in chains, fully aware of his impending martyrdom.
As a committed Protestant, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this first century saint (Ignatius was born near 35 AD and died sometime around the turn of the century). At first, St. Ignatius’ writing seemed familiar. The greetings with which he begins his letters are very similar to the way St. Paul often introduces his epistles. And many of his phrases along with some of his style is reminiscent of other New Testament books I’d read many times. He also exhorts his readers to remain strong in faith and charity and to imitate Jesus Christ. But, soon, he began to use language I wasn’t quite sure of.
I had always believed early Christianity was probably a lot like my Evangelical Christianity and that Catholic beliefs in Church authority and transubstantiation were later inventions. But, very quickly, I saw that St. Ignatius not only accepted these two points of doctrine but that he believed passionately in their essential role in the life of the Christian.
Growing up Baptist, we’d always spoken of communion as “the Lord’s Supper,” simply a memorial where we remembered Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Communion was, at most, a symbol. Yet St. Ignatius, in his Letter to the Ephesians, describes the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death, and everlasting life in Jesus Christ.” At first, I guessed that Ignatius was speaking metaphorically and that something was being lost in translation. But, in his Letter to the Romans, he emphasizes the point again, declaring, “Bread of God is what I desire; that is, the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for my drink I desire His Blood, that is; incorruptible love.” I know these passages aren’t proof enough to convince all Protestants of the truth of Transubstantiation. And I certainly wasn’t convinced yet either. However, the description caught me so off guard that I found myself reevaluating what communion might mean.
Yet, to me, more strange than Ignatius’ words on communion were his instructions on hierarchy and unity in the Church. In his Letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius encourages his fellow Christians, “Let there be nothing among you tending to divide you, but be united with the bishop and those who preside – serving at once as a pattern and a lesson of incorruptibility.” To the Ephesians, Ignatius writes, “Surely, Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, for His part is the mind of the Father, just as the bishops, though appointed throughout the vast, wide earth, represent for their part the mind of Jesus Christ.” Then he goes on to say, “Certain it is that your presbytery, which is a credit to its name, is a credit to God; for it harmonizes with the bishop as completely as strings with a harp.” In all of his other letters – to the Philadelphians, the Trallians, the Smyrnaeans – Ignatius stresses the importance of allegiance to the bishops as well as the tradition handed down from the Apostles.
As a Baptist, the foundation of my faith was individuality. Salvation depended only on a personal relationship with Jesus. All Scripture could be understood and correctly interpreted by every individual Christian. The “Church” was simply a kind of collective noun for Christians so there was no need for an institution – much less a hierarchy. Yet, here was a first century Christian telling me that submission to someone else’s authority was absolutely crucial for the life of the Church. So important, in fact, that he would spend his last days pleading this point.
Of course, for St. Ignatius, the Eucharist and ecclesiology were not just dry doctrinal points with which to wrestle or speculate on. They were a matter of life and death. During the terrible persecution of his time, Ignatius could clearly see how both were inseparable from a life in Christ; Jesus fully present in the bread of the altar and truly active in his bride, the Church.
As Ignatius stresses these points in his multiple letters, there is certainly a sense of urgency. Afterall, he knew he would be killed soon. However, Ignatius never falls into panic or worry. In fact, he writes with fondness of his pending death, even asking the recipients of his letters not to interfere. In his Letter to the Romans, Ignatius writes, “I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
St. Ignatius did become this bread of Christ and was torn apart in the Roman Colosseum. He was a martyr for Jesus and he remains a martyr in the original sense of the word. Martyr means “witness” and, even today, St. Ignatius of Antioch is a witness to the vital nature of the Eucharist and the Church. So much so that he can convince a Baptist who happens upon his words.