02 January 2010

'I Am Passionately in Love with Death'—St Ignatius of Antioch

Today, 20 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-bearer (c. 35-107), Bishop of Antioch and one of the great ‘Apostolic Fathers’. [1] In a homily on St Ignatius, a later son of Antioch, St John Chrysostom, calls him ‘this blessed and noble martyr Ignatius’. [2] Michael Holmes has provided us a thoroughly eloquent introduction to this holy Hierarch:

Just as we become aware of a meteor only when, after traveling silently through space for untold millions of miles, it blazes briefly through the atmosphere before dying in a shower of fire, so it is with Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria. We meet him for the first and only time for a few weeks shortly before his death as a martyr in Rome early in the second century. But during those few weeks he wrote, virtually as his ‘last will and testament’, seven letters of extraordinary interest because of the unparalleled light they shed on the history of the church at this time and what they reveal about the remarkable personality of the author. Because of the early date of these writings and the distinctiveness of some of his ideas, particularly with regard to the nature and structure of the church, Ignatius’s letters have influenced later theological reflection and continue to be a focus of scholarly contention and discussion regarding early Christian origins. [3]

Here is the account of St Ignatius’s life in the Prologue:

This holy man was named the ‘God-Bearer’ because he always carried the name of the living God in his heart and on his lips. Also, by tradition, he was thus named because he was held in the arms of God incarnate, Jesus Christ. On a day when the Lord was teaching His disciples humility, He took a child and set it among them, saying: ‘Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the Kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 18:4). This child was Ignatius. He was later a disciple of St John the Theologian, together with Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna. As bishop in Antioch, he governed the Church of God as a good shepherd, and was the first to introduce antiphonal singing into the Church, in which two choirs alternate. This way of singing was revealed to St Ignatius from among the angels in heaven. When the Emperor Trajan passed through Antioch on his way to battle with the Persians, he heard about Ignatius, summoned him and urged him to offer sacrifice to idols, so that he could be made a senator. The Emperor’s urgings and threats being in vain, holy Ignatius was put in irons and sent to Rome, escorted by ten bestial soldiers, to be thrown to the wild beasts. Ignatius rejoiced to be suffering for his Lord, and prayed to God that the wild beasts should be the tomb for his body, and that none should hinder his death. After a long and difficult journey from Asia through Thrace, Macedonia and Epirus, Ignatius reached Rome, where he was thrown to the lions in the circus. They tore him to pieces and devoured him, leaving only a few of the larger bones and his heart. This glorious lover of the Lord Christ suffered in the year 106 in Rome, in the time of the Emperor Trajan. He appeared many times from the other world and worked wonders, helping to this day all who call on him for help. [4]

Referring to the Hieromartyr’s writings, Fr John McGuckin comments on his designation as ‘the God-bearer’: ‘As confessor martyr and as bishop, Ignatius both sees and designates himself as God-bearer (theophoros).’ [5] The namesake of this Hieromartyr, St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), cites an ancient tradition concerning the finding of the great Bishop’s heart which sheds further light on this designation:

When they were taking him to be devoured by wild beasts and he had the name of Jesus constantly on his lips, the pagans asked him why he unceasingly remembered that name. The Saint replied that he had the name of Jesus Christ written in his heart and that he confessed with his mouth Him Whom he always carried in his heart. After the saint had been eaten by the wild beasts, by the will of God among his bones his heart was preserved intact. The infidels found it, and then remembered what St Ignatius had said. So they cut the heart into two halves, wishing to know whether what they had been told was true. Inside, on the two halves of the heart that had been cut open, they found an inscription in gold letters: Jesus Christ. Thus St Ignatius was in name and in fact a God-bearer, always carrying Christ our God in his heart, written by the reflection ( or meditation) of his mind as with a reed. [6]

St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) adds that the Hieromartyr ‘was taught the Prayer of Jesus by the holy Evangelist [John] and practiced it in that flourishing period of Christianity like all other Christians.’ [7] Although I have emphasised before (here) that I think the most important thing is that we acknowledge the historical practice of prayer of the heart generally, and not so much the use of the Jesus Prayer formula specifically, surely if we interpret ‘the Prayer of Jesus’ broadly we are forced to concede that the early Christians obviously invoked the name of our Lord by some means, and it does not seem too much to believe that such invocation would be the basis for acquiring prayer of the heart for many of them. But I leave this matter to wiser and more learned judges.

We have been blessed with a most beautiful homily on the Hieromartyr, delivered according to J.N.D. Kelly at the very tomb of St Ignatius himself by perhaps the most gifted preacher the Church has produced—St John Chrysostom—during the first year of his priesthood. [8] Here is a moving passage from this homily:

The season then already calls us to discourse of the mighty works of this saint. But our reckoning is disturbed and confused, not knowing what to say first, what second, what third, so great a multitude of things calling for eulogy surrounds us, on every side; and we experience the same thing as if any one went into a meadow, and seeing many a rosebush and many a violet, and an abundance of lilies, and other spring flowers manifold and varied, should be in doubt what he should look at first, what second, since each of those he saw invites him to bestow his glances on itself. For we too, coming to this spiritual meadow of the mighty works of Ignatius, and beholding not the flowers of spring, but the manifold and varied fruit of the spirit in the soul of this man, are confused and in perplexity, not knowing to which we are first to give our consideration, as each of the things we see draws us away from its neighbours, and entices the eye of the soul to the sight of its own beauty. For see, he presided over the Church among us nobly, and with such carefulness as Christ desires. For that which Christ declared to be the highest standard and rule of the Episcopal office, did this man display by his deeds. For having heard Christ saying, the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep (John x.11), with all courage he did lay it down for the sheep.

He held true converse with the apostles and drank of spiritual fountains. What kind of person then is it likely that he was who had been reared, and who had everywhere held converse with them, and had shared with them truths both lawful and unlawful to utter, and who seemed to them worthy of so great a dignity? The time again came on, which demanded courage; and a soul which despised all things present, glowed with Divine love, and valued things unseen before the things which are seen; and he lay aside the flesh with as much ease as one would put off a garment. What then shall we speak of first? The teaching of the apostles which he gave proof of throughout, or his indifference to this present life, or the strictness of his virtue, with which he administered his rule over the Church; which shall we first call to mind? The martyr or the bishop or the apostle. For the grace of the spirit having woven a threefold crown, thus bound it on his holy head, yea rather a manifold crown. For if any one will consider them carefully, he will find each of the crowns, blossoming with other crowns for us. [9]

It seems to me that it is only in the writings of the Hieromartyr himself that we can find a more eloquent testimony to his virtues. Therefore, here are a few passages from his magnificent Epistle to the Romans:

4. I am writing to all the churches and am insisting to everyone that I die for God of my own free will—unless you hinder me. I implore you: do not be ‘unseasonably kind’ to me. [10] Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I might prove to be pure bread. (2) Better yet, coax the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb and leave nothing of my body behind, lest I become a burden to someone once I have fallen asleep. Then I will truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will no longer see my body. Pray to the Lord on my behalf, that through these instruments I might prove to be a sacrifice to God. . . .

5. . . . (3) Bear with me—I know what is best for me. Now at last I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing visible or invisible envy me, so that I may reach Jesus Christ. Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ!

6. Neither the ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use to me. It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake. The pains of birth are upon me. (2) . . . Do not give to the world one who wants to belong to God, nor tempt him with material things [11]. Let me receive the pure light, for when I arrive there I will be man. (3) Allow me to be an imitator of the suffering of my God. If anyone has Him within himself, let him understand what I long for and sympathize with me, knowing what constrains me.

7. The ruler of this age wants to take me captive and corrupt my godly intentions. Therefore none of you who are present must help him. Instead take my side, that is, God’s. Do not talk about Jesus Christ while you desire the world. (2) For though I am still alive, I am passionately in love with death as I write to you. My passionate love [ὁ ἐμὸς ἔρως ἐσταύρωται] has been crucified and there is no fire of material longing within me, but only water living and speaking in me, saying within me, ‘Come to the Father.’ (3) I take no pleasure in corruptible food or the pleasures of this life. I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ who is of the seed of David; and for drink I want his blood, which is incorruptible love. [12]

On the occasion of St Ignatius’s feast, St John Chrysostom exhorts us, ‘Not only to-day, therefore, but every day let us go forth to him, plucking spiritual fruits from him.’ [13] As we chant in the Kontakion of the Hieromartyr:

The divine and brilliant day * of thine illustrious contests * doth proclaim to all mankind * Him that was born of a Virgin; * for it was for Him that thou didst * thirst to delight in, * and didst haste to be devoured by beasts in thy longing. * Hence, O glorious Ignatius, * the name God-bearer * was rightly given to thee. [14]

But the reference to the Nativity of our Lord in this hymn is only a small example of the beautiful integration of the hymnography of St Ignatius with that of the Forefeast of the Nativity, which begins today and lasts until the eve of the Feast on the twenty-fourth. Thus, throughout the entire Akolouthia for the day, we find a recurring pattern of doxastica devoted to the Hieromartyr and Theotokia looking forward to the Great Feast of our Lord. Here, in conclusion, is just one such pair taken from the conclusion of Lauds at Matins, translated by Fr Ephrem (Lash):

Glory. Of the Saint

Living monument and breathing image, your yearly festival is here, Godbearer Ignatios, and proclaims your priestly service and your deeds of valour; your resistance to shedding of blood on behalf of the Faith; that blest and revered voice which said: I am God’s wheat, and am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts; and so, as you became an imitator of Christ, intercede that our souls may be saved.

Both now. Of the Forefeast. Tone 2. By Byzas.

Cave, make ready; for the Ewe-lamb has come, bearing Christ in her womb. Manger, receive the One who by a word frees us who are born of earth from irrational action. Shepherds abiding in the fields, bear witness to the fearful wonder; and Magi from Persia, offer gold and incense and myrrh to the King; because the Lord has appeared from a Virgin Mother. Bowing low like a slave his Mother worshipped him, and cried out to the One in her arms: How were you sown in me, or how did you come to be in me, my Redeemer and my God? [15]

[1] Fr John A. McGuckin, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology (London: SCM, 2005), p. 25.

[2] St John Chrysostom, ‘Homily on St Ignatius’, NPNF (here).

[3] Michael W. Holmes, ed. & rev., The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot & J.R. Harmer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), p. 79.

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 349.

[5] Fr McGuckin, p. 178.

[6] St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), On the Prayer of Jesus, trans. Archim. Lazarus (Moore) (Boston: New Seeds, 2006), p. 5.

[7] Ibid., p. 6.

[8] J.N.D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom—Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 1998), pp. 66-7.

[9] St Chrysostom, op. cit.

[10] Holmes adds a note here: ‘unseasonably kind: apparently an allusion to an ancient proverb: “an unseasonable kindness is no different than hostility”’ (p. 103, n. 68).

[11] Concerning the term here translated ‘material things’, Constantine Cavarnos notes that St Ignatius employs an Aristotelian term for matter, hyle. Cavarnos concludes that the Hieromartyr ‘probably took [it] over from common use in Antioch, Syria, which was at that time a great center of Hellenic learning’ (Orthodoxy & Philosophy [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2003], p. 18).

[12] Ibid., pp. 103-5.

[13] St Chrysostom, op. cit.

[14] The Great Horologion, trans. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 352.

[15] Taken from this page at Fr Ephrem’s site.


+Bishop SAVAS of Troas said...

The Bishop of Troas is well pleased.

aaronandbrighid said...

I'm glad to hear it! You may also be pleased to note that I have just posted a sort of 'Part 2' to this post, involving St Dionysius the Areopagite & Charles Williams, with a dash of Yannaras!

aaronandbrighid said...