Pure Bread of Christ
We celebrate today, October 17, one of the most influential figures of the Church. His letters, written while being escorted to Rome to be martyred, form a central part of the writing of the Apostolic Fathers. Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 General Audience said,
“In reading these texts one feels the freshness of the faith of the generation which had still known the Apostles.”
He is considered one of the three top Apostolic Fathers along with Clement I and Polycarp.
When Ignatius became the third Bishop of Antioch around the year 70, a thriving Christian community existed as we know from the Acts of the Apostles. In this community, the name Christian sprouted describing those who believed in and worshipped the risen Lord Jesus Christ. According to tradition, the Apostle Peter was their first bishop.
Ignatius led the Antioch Church during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, the first of the emperors to use the title “Lord and God,” to proclaim his divinity.
His successor Nerva reigned briefly, followed by Emperor Trajan. Under his rule Ignatius was convicted for his testimony to Christ, refusing to participate in Rome’s pagan rites. Consequently, he was sent to Rome under strict military guard. He was taken from Antioch in Smyrna by way of Ephesus and Phillipi to be killed by lions at the Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum).
The fourth-century historian Eusebius recorded the life of Ignatius and his letters which have been handed down through the centuries. In these epistles Ignatius encourages local churches, strengthens the teaching of the apostles, and with a burning fire of love tells them he wants no one interfering with his desire for martyrdom:
“Allow me to become food for the wild beasts… 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…Entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body.” (Letter to Ephesians Ch 4)
Unity and Eucharist
While his martyrdom remains a testimonial hallmark of the early Church’s persecution Ignatius’ teaching on the mystery of the Church and the Eucharist is equally important. Pope Benedict XVI called him the Doctor of Unity:
“Ignatius often used to repeat that God is unity and that in God alone is unity found in its pure and original state. Unity to be brought about on this earth by Christians is no more than an imitation as close as possible to the divine archetype.”
To the Ephesian Christians Ignatius wrote about the necessity of union with the local bishop:
“It is fitting that you should concur with the will of your Bishop, which you also do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the Bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore, in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, you become a choir, that being harmonious in love and taking up the song of God in unison you may with one voice sing to the Father…” (Ch 4)
Ignatius was the first to use the word Catholic to show the nature of the Church as universal, emphasizing the call for unity as well:
“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father… Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Letter to Smyrnaens Ch8)
The most beautiful image of the Eucharist, or second maybe to “Bread of Angels”, comes from Ignatius of Antioch. From his intimacy with Christ who told us that “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have know life in you,” Ignatius floods the cosmos when he tells us in every generation that the Eucharist is our “Medicine of Immortality”.
When I was in Rome for Mother Teresa’s canonization I biked through the city over a few days stopping to pray at seven churches. My final destination was the Colosseum only to pray to St Ignatius, one of my favourite saints. Gazing in silence for a long time, praying and watching a large number of people moving through to see this spectacle, led me to an awareness of Christ’s victory over death and every other power.
While I reflected on Ignatius’ journey, the lions, the crowds, but especially his unwavering, passionate desire to become “ the pure bread of Christ” I became acutely aware of the tangible evidence of Christ’s victory and the fruit of this great bishop’s total love for him. All around me in this incredible city and rising in every corner stood a magnificent church containing the precious Eucharist.
Within every church an infinite number of works of art, it seemed, from paintings to sculptures filled the interior in a majestic song to God. I saw an image of a cosmic explosion of glory springing from the blood of the Martyr’s and through the faith and talents of those Christ chose to fashion a vivid testimony of his victory. Sprinkled throughout this beautiful city stood the ruins of a giant Empire, now gone.
There I stood in a moment of the Church’s life one whose heart Jesus also captured whose soul belongs to him, my everything, my reason for joy through my own tragedies which have no power over me when I cling to Him and trust in His mercy.