Feast Day: February 1st | Bishop, Martyr, Apostolic Father| Patronage: Church in Northern Africa, in Middle East, in Eastern Mediterranean | Attributes: Attired as a Bishop, in chains, surrounded by lions
I have written on St. Ignatius of Antioch twice before, so I will not attempt another variation on his biography, but I direct your eyes to our stained glass window depicting his martyrdom in the Roman arena, and I direct your mind and heart to his words written the Christians in Smyrna around the year 110 AD, probably shortly before his martyrdom.
Let no one be deceived; even things in heaven and the glory of the angels, and the rulers visible and invisible, even for them there is a judgment if they do not believe on the blood of Christ. “He that receiveth let him receive.” Let not office exalt anyone, for faith and love is everything, and nothing has been preferred to them. But mark those who have strange opinions concerning the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary they are to the mind of God. For love they have no care, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the distressed, none for the afflicted, none for the prisoner, or for him released from prison, none for the hungry or thirsty.
St. Ignatius, just one generation after the Apostles, here upholds the true identity of Christ as both fully and fully divine. He writes in warning against Docetism (a variation on Gnosticism, both of those heresies scorning the God-given dignity and purpose of our bodies, and thus the reality of Christ’s Body). Ignatius knows the ramifications of such a doctrine do not just tinker with our understanding of Christ (and whether He actually saves us, body and soul!), but enter deeply into our own lives, and bodies. If our bodies have not been washed with Christ’s Blood, we will be incapable of authentic Christian charity. If charity is absent, Christ is absent.
They abstain from Eucharist and prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by his goodness. They then who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes; but it were better for them to have love, that they also may attain to the Resurrection. It is right to refrain from such men and not even to speak about them in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets and especially to the Gospel, in which the Passion has been revealed to us and the Resurrection has been accomplished. But flee from divisions as the beginning of evils.
Recall that the Church invokes St. Ignatius during the Nobis Quoque prayer of the Roman Canon. The priest had just beaten his breast, declaring his own sinfulness before God (and by extension the sins of all the Church) and begging His mercy that we might be brought into fellowship with the Apostles and Martyrs including St. Ignatius. Sin is only a block to unity if it is not forgiven! That prayer concludes with those tremendous words, spoken with Christ’s Flesh and Blood resting before us on the altar: “admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing our merits, but granting us your pardon.”The fact is that God has admitted us to the company of the saints – in Christ – and pardons us that we might be brought into even greater Holy Communion just moments later.
See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptize or to hold an “agapé” [early Christian reference to the Eucharistic meal] without the bishop; but whatever he approve, this is also pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid. [St. Ignatius, “Letter to Smyrnians”, paragraphs 6-8.]
Finally – after charity, and sanctity – Ignatius emphasizes a third necessity that comes from Christ’s real presence among us: unity. I think we all want these things! Charity, Sanctity, Unity … they are pithy, church-ey, words for sure, but ones that relate directly to our innate desires for kindness, respect, and peace … and perhaps our culture’s desire for tolerance, transparency, and harmony. What Ignatius is getting at is the bedrock truth that we will only find superficial versions of these graces without Christ. And though Our Lord’s grace is not cheap, it is worth seeking and finding.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin does not sign his name with a cross (+) before it, as that practice has for centuries been the mark of a bishop. But early in the Church many priests would place a cross next to their name. This mark certainly was meant to show their union with Christ’s bodily sacrifice on the cross, but surprisingly this was also the first letter of the Greek word “tapeinós”[ταπεινός], meaning “humble” or “sinner”, that key word from the nobis quoque when the priest publicly proclaims his sinfulness to Christ. (Sometimes, especially in Latin documents, a priest would write out the entire word “peccator” before his name.)