Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Strange New Joy of Ignatius of Antioch

We have all heard about the early Christians who were persecuted by being "thrown to the lions" during the games in Imperial Rome. It may seem like a cliché to us so many centuries later. 

The second century texts of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, however, speak about this tortuous and humiliating death with strange eloquence, long before anyone in the world had imagined that such a terrible fate could be embraced with heroism, much less longed-for as the crown of life. Yet as his condemnation drew closer, Ignatius wrote letters to the churches in Asia Minor and to Rome where he was destined to meet his earthly end. Before the year 110, he wrote about this "new thing" called martyrdom in astonishing terms. 

What gave a human being the audacity to say that when he was killed and shamed by those who hated him - when his body was torn apart by lions - "then, I shall become a man"...?

Something new had happened in the world: Jesus Christ had died on the cross, and was risen.

Death had been overcome. And in these days so soon after the era of the New Testament, Ignatius was vividly aware that this victory over death revealed the meaning of life. We have been made in God's image and destined to his glory through Jesus, the Father's Son, who took flesh in the womb of a virgin and made his dwelling with us. 

Ignatius bore witness to these very specific events as the central events of history, "mysteries...wrought in the stillness of God": Mary's virginity, Jesus's birth, his saving death... actual events that happened to a real man only very recently, and known only to a few people on the face of the earth. Ignatius bore witness in his final days, as a man condemned to death, that all of it happened, that it was all true, that it changed everything.

Thus, he could exhort Christians then and now to rejoice in God and share this new life with all the world: "You all are fellow travelers, God-bearers and temple-bearers, Christ-bearers and bearers of holiness, with the commandments of Jesus Christ for festal attire... But pray unceasingly also for the rest of men, for they offer ground for hoping that they may be converted and win their way to God. Give them an opportunity therefore, at least by your conduct, of becoming your disciples. Meet their angry outbursts with your own gentleness, their boastfulness with your humility, their revilings with your prayers, their error with your constancy in the faith, their harshness with your meekness; and beware of trying to match their example. Let us prove ourselves their brothers through courtesy" (to Ephesians, chs 9, 10).

This love - bearing witness to the redeeming love of Jesus on the cross - changes life and changes death. The ardent metaphors of Ignatius of Antioch in the face of martyrdom express this love:

"Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ" (to Romans).

The same spirit, the same willingness, the same love endures today. For two thousand years, people have given their lives: people from all over the earth, from every historical period, from the multitude of nations, the most diverse ethnic groups and cultures, men and women, young and old, from every occupation, every social class. They have given their lives, totally, willingly, passionately, with immense love, not for an ideology or a worldview or an emotional sentiment, but for a man ... 

Jesus Christ.

There is nothing in all of history that compares to this testimony of so many, through the ages - all the devotion and human vitality of witnesses who gave freely and are still remembered and celebrated to this day - all for the love of this man, Jesus Christ.

This man, our brother, is God-with-us.

So we have reason to rejoice, to share that joy, and to love everyone in the hope that they too will find this joy, that they will find God who loves them, for whom they have been made.