Christian Saints Podcast

Saint Ignatius of Antioch

January 28, 2023 Darren C. Ong Season 3 Episode 20
Christian Saints Podcast
Saint Ignatius of Antioch
Show Notes Transcript

Saint Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch in the first century. He was a disciple of the Apostle John, and one of the early church leaders who ended up dying for their faith. The letters he wrote had an immense influence on the new church - he is responsible for introducing the phrase "Catholic church", and the idea of a church divided into dioceses, led by a bishop with the help of priests and deacons. He is also noted for his attitude toward his martyrdom, urging Christians in Rome not to interfere with his execution and deny him the privilege of dying for Christ.

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 God is glorious in his Saints! 

Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate St Ignatius of Antioch

Saint Ignatius was one of the most important leaders of the early church. He was born in the first century, soon after the church was established and became the Bishop of Antioch around the year 70. Antioch was a very important center of the new Christian faith. The Bible records that Jesus’ followers were first called Christians in Antioch, and St Peter was its first bishop, before moving to Rome. Tradition holds that St Ignatius was a disciple of St John the Apostle, making him one of the “second generation” leaders of the new faith. St Ignatius would be executed for his faith in Christ, one of the most important martyrs of the early church.

In a 2007 general audience on St. Ignatius of Antioch, Pope Benedict XVI observed that “no Church Father has expressed the longing for union with Christ and for life in him with the intensity of Ignatius.” In his letters, the Pope said, “one feels the freshness of the faith of the generation which had still known the Apostles. In these letters, the ardent love of a saint can also be felt.”
 Born in Syria in the middle of the first century A.D., Ignatius is said to have been personally instructed – along with another future martyr, Saint Polycarp – by the Apostle Saint John. When Ignatius became the Bishop of Antioch around the year 70, he assumed leadership of a local church that was, according to tradition, first led by Saint Peter before his move to Rome.
 Although St. Peter transmitted his Papal primacy to the bishops of Rome rather than Antioch, the city played an important role in the life of the early Church. Located in present-day Turkey, it was a chief city of the Roman Empire, and was also the location where the believers in Jesus' teachings and his resurrection were first called “Christians.”
 Ignatius led the Christians of Antioch during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, the first of the emperors to proclaim his divinity by adopting the title “Lord and God.” Subjects who would not give worship to the emperor under this title could be punished with death. As the leader of a major Catholic diocese during this period, Ignatius showed courage and worked to inspire it in others.
 After Domitian's murder in the year 96, his successor Nerva reigned only briefly, and was soon followed by the Emperor Trajan. Under his rule, Christians were once again liable to death for denying the pagan state religion and refusing to participate in its rites. It was during his reign that Ignatius was convicted for his Christian testimony and sent from Syria to Rome to be put to death.
 Escorted by a team of military guards, Ignatius nonetheless managed to compose seven letters: six to various local churches throughout the empire (including the Church of Rome), and one to his fellow bishop Polycarp who would give his own life for Christ several decades later.
 Ignatius' letters passionately stressed the importance of Church unity, the dangers of heresy, and the surpassing importance of the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality.” These writings contain the first surviving written description of the Church as “Catholic,” from the Greek word indicating both universality and fullness.
 One of the most striking features of Ignatius' letters, is his enthusiastic embrace of martyrdom as a means to union with God and eternal life. “All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing,” he wrote to the Church of Rome. “It is better for me to die in behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth.”
 “Now I begin to be a disciple,” the bishop declared. “Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”
 St. Ignatius of Antioch bore witness to Christ publicly for the last time in Rome's Flavian Amphitheater, where he was mauled to death by lions. “I am the wheat of the Lord,” he had declared, before facing them. “I must be ground by the teeth of these beasts to be made the pure bread of Christ.” His memory was honored, and his bones venerated, soon after his death around the year 107.

Saint Athanasius wrote several letters that have had immense influence in the chruch. One of his writings describes the leadership structure of the church, in which Bishops administer churches in a diocese, assisted by priests and deacons. This structure is how many churches, for example in the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions are organised still today.
 But perhaps one of his most important writings is his epistle to the Romans, which he writes in anticipation of his exile to Rome and his martyrdom. Rather than asking for help in escaping execution, Ignatius asks the Christians there to not interfere, but rather allow him the honour of dying for Christ. This letter inspired many generations of Christian martyrs, and also shaped the Christian understanding of martyrdom and sacrifice. Let us read an excerpt of this letter:


I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.
 No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.
 The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathise with me because you will know what urges me on.
 The prince of this world is determined to lay hold of me and to undermine my will which is intent on God. Let none of you here help him; instead show yourselves on my side, which is also God’s side. Do not talk about Jesus Christ as long as you love this world. Do not harbour envious thoughts. And supposing I should see you, if then I should beg you to intervene on my behalf, do not believe what I say. Believe instead what I am now writing to you. For though I am alive as I write to you, still my real desire is to die. My love of this life has been crucified, and there is no yearning in me for any earthly thing. Rather within me is the living water which says deep inside me: “Come to the Father.” I no longer take pleasure in perishable food or in the delights of this world. I want only God’s bread, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, formed of the seed of David, and for drink I crave his blood, which is love that cannot perish.
 I am no longer willing to live a merely human life, and you can bring about my wish if you will. Please, then, do me this favour, so that you in turn may meet with equal kindness. Put briefly, this is my request: believe what I am saying to you. Jesus Christ himself will make it clear to you that I am saying the truth. Only truth can come from that mouth by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray for me that I may obtain my desire. I have not written to you as a mere man would, but as one who knows the mind of God. If I am condemned to suffer, I will take it that you wish me well. If my case is postponed, I can only think that you wish me harm. 

Saint Ignatius of Antioch was one of the earliest saints of the church, but his influence is still profound even today. Let me mention the works of Father Stephen Damick, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, based in Antioch where Saint Ignatius is from. He has a very prolific writing and teaching ministry, both in print and online, and has written a lot about Saint Ignatius in particular. I would recommend his book, bearing God: the life and works of st ignatius the god-bearer. I will read an excerpt now from Fr Damick, not from this book, but from a lecture series he gave on St Ignatius:


Men of flesh cannot act spiritually, nor can spiritual men act in a fleshly way, just as faith cannot perform deeds of unfaith or unfaith those of faith. But what you do in relation to the flesh is spiritual, for you do everything in Jesus Christ.—St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Ephesians 8:2

Once the proper relationship of the spirit to the body is established—that the spirit rules the body, not the reverse—then all of life becomes spiritual. There is no spiritual “part” of life. There is only life, which is spiritual. As Ignatius writes: “But what you do in relation to the flesh is spiritual, for you do everything in Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 8:2b).

This vision is decidedly different from those who try to inject the secularized vision of compartmentalization even into church life. Some people believe that there are “spiritual” parts of life in the parish and “business” parts, and they try to arrange authority and responsibility accordingly. The division that exists in their own lives, where some things are “spiritual” but other things are otherwise, is being projected onto the very Church of God.

This approach to church life is sometimes called the “upstairs/downstairs church.” That is, the “spiritual” part, governed by the clergy, happens “upstairs” in the church. Everything else, governed by the lay leadership, happens “downstairs” in the parish social hall. The laity don’t tell the clergy how to run the church services, and the clergy don’t tell the laity how to spend the money.

But such a division is alien to Ignatius. For him, everything the Christian does “in relation to the flesh is spiritual,” because he does everything in Jesus Christ. The Christian is always a God-bearer, whether he is serving the Divine Liturgy or scrubbing toilets, and so he is subject to the authority and ways of the Kingdom of God, not secular society. It is contradictory to suggest that there can be any “secular” side to either a Christian or his parish community, because God is always there with us.

Ignatius says, “Nothing escapes the Father’s notice; even our secrets are near him. We should therefore do everything on the assumption that he dwells in us, so that we may be his temples and he may be our God in us—as is the case, and as will be manifest before our face by the effects of the love which we justly bear toward him” (Ephesians 15:3). If we are temples where God dwells, everything that we are and everything we do is spiritual. If, as Ignatius says, we are “God-bearers,” then there can be no secular life for the Christian. 

And there can also be no “upstairs/downstairs church” for a parish. All that is to be done can only be done as prayer, under the spiritual leadership of the bishop and his appointed representative. It is not that clergy are qualified to do everything—they need the expertise and experience of everyone in the parish. It is that everyone—including the laity—is a minister in the church, and the bishop or his presbyter is the chief minister, the one who directs all and helps all to see how we may “do everything on the assumption that he dwells in us, so that we may be his temples and he may be our God in us.”

Saint Ignatius of Antioch is celebrated on 20 December in the Eastern Orthodox church, and 17 October in the Roman Cathollic church and Anglican church. He is also celebrated on January 29 in the eastern orthodox church, which commemorates the transfer of his relics.

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 By sharing in the ways of the Apostles, / you became a successor to their throne. / Through the practice of virtue, you found the way to divine contemplation, O inspired one of God; / by teaching the word of truth without error, you defended the Faith, even to the shedding of your blood. / Hieromartyr Ignatius, entreat Christ God to save our souls.