…is the seedbed of the Church, according to the venerable 3rd century North African Father Tertullian. And this coming Saturday we will remember one of the most important of the early martyrs—one who really made the mark of martyrdom the “standard of excellence” it is: St Ignatius of Antioch.
Not only is Ignatius in many ways (no disrespect to St Stephen the Deacon) the “proto-martyr” of the Church, he is also a supreme witness of the needs of the Church at the beginning of the 2nd century, as well as the centrality of certain beliefs (like the Eucharist). Let’s see what he can teach us.
Arrested for being a leader in a banned cult, the bishop of Antioch was consigned in chains to a journey to Rome, where he was to be thrown to the lions in the Flavian Amphitheatre (aka, the Colosseum). On his way, he wrote several letters to churches in what is now the western part of Turkey: Philadelphia, Smyrna, Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, as well as a letter to his friend and fellow-bishop (and ultimately, fellow-martyr) Polycarp; he also sent one ahead to the church in Rome.
In these letters, we see the desires and concerns that burdened him: longing for, even craving, martyrdom as a way of becoming an authentic disciple; insisting on the reality of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ; the importance of unity in the churches and the role of the tri-fold ministry of bishop/presbyters/deacons in guaranteeing this unity. With the possible exception of #1 (!), most leaders in the Church today would echo his concerns.
What is remarkable is that by the beginning of the 2nd century this complex of ministerial roles had developed to the extent that it had. We have glimmers of this in the New Testament, especially in Acts 14:23 when Paul and Barnabas are described as instituting elders
(presbuteroi/presbyters) in the town where they’d preached), and letters like Philippians, which open with greetings also to the “overseers” and “servants” (aka, episkopoi and diakonoi, what we’d call “bishops” and “deacons”), as well as certain passages in the “Pastoral Epistles” of I-II Timothy and Titus. But in these cases, the ministries seem to be quite practical in keeping the community united and protected from false teaching. By the time of Ignatius, while this responsibility still existed, it was also framed in terms of liturgical context—the bishop is the only one to preside at Eucharist (easy enough in a small community), and the presbyters and deacons were to support him. But I digress…
The incredible witness of Ignatius of Antioch in desiring to follow Jesus as perfectly as possible is reflected in his letter to the church in Rome, of which I will excerpt for you: This
favor only I beg of you: suffer me to be a libation poured out to God… Earthly longings have been crucified; in me there is left no spark of desire for mundane thing, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, ‘Come to the Father.’ …I [long] only for the bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ…and for my drink I crave that Blood of His which is love imperishable.
Happy feast-day, witness of Jesus Christ!