20 December 2015

Remembering Holy God-bearing Father Ignatius of Antioch

The three earliest known Fathers of the Church, St. Clement of Rome, St. Polycarp of Smyrna and St. Ignatius of Antioch, were all contemporaries in the early Church and friends in Christ. As the Prologue of Ohrid has it (from which I borrow quite heavily here), Father Ignatius was the very child whom Our Lord held in His arms when He said, ‘Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.’ After Our Lord ascended into Heaven, Ignatius was left in the care of St. John the Theologian, and was his pupil along with St. Polycarp. Upon reaching adulthood, he succeeded to the bishopric of Antioch, following in that office Holy Apostle Evodius of the Seventy upon his martyrdom at the hands of Nero.

Ignatius was a conscientious and God-inspired caretaker of his flock, and it is said of him that he introduced antiphonal singing, with two alternating choirs, into the Antiochian Church, having been inspired by a revelation from the angels in Heaven. With diligence he protected and succoured the Christians under his care from the cruel persecutions of the emperor Domitianus, exhorting them to spiritual strength and solidarity, no matter how many of them went to their deaths or into exile, being blamed by the pagans for every instance of natural misfortune. However, the storm of persecution passed with Domitianus’ death – for his flock, Holy Father Ignatius was relieved, though it is clear from what befell him afterward that he had no fear of martyrdom himself.

It was emperor Trajan who ordered Holy Father Ignatius’s death. Trajan had instituted a policy which demanded a public sacrifice to the pagan gods throughout the Empire, in support of a new war of subjugation and annexation in Armenia, and none were exempt. The penalty for failing to offer the sacrifice was death. On his way to do battle with the Persians, Trajan sojourned in Antioch and bade all of the townspeople offer the sacrifice. Naturally, the saintly bishop of the city not only refused, but he busily circulated a notice to all the Christians of the city forbidding them from making impious offerings to the Roman idols. Trajan had Ignatius arrested and hauled before him; alternating between highfalutin promises of accession to the Senate and threats of torture and death, the emperor himself attempted to persuade Ignatius to perform the sacrifice. Ignatius stood immovable before the Emperor himself, unswayed either by delusions of earthly grandeur or by mortal fear, which were all that Trajan could offer him. Instead, he answered every attempt to cajole and coerce him with an eloquence and fortitude which could only have been born of the Holy Ghost. Infuriated, Trajan ordered that the bishop be fettered, transported to Rome under a guard of ten heavily-armed soldiers, and thrown to wild beasts for entertainment and to make an example for the masses.

Holy Father Ignatius went not only fearlessly, but even exultantly, to his martyrdom. He exhorted his fellow Christians in Rome not to aid him and so rob him of the martyr’s reward, and not to put themselves in peril for his sake. Instead, he used his final days to pen several epistles, one to his friend St. Polycarp and the rest to the Christian congregations throughout the Roman Empire, which have been of unfathomable spiritual value to the subsequent generations of Church Fathers. The epistles of Saint Ignatius have been particularly valuable in the development of the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist as a spiritual medicine, and in the upbuilding of a truly Orthodox ecclesiology, in harmony with its Christological function as Our Lord’s body.

The Romans fed Ignatius to the wild beasts in the year 106, but even afterward he never left his flock in Antioch without guidance, whether from his pen or from the miracles he continued to perform even after his death.

The stirring celebration of your victorious fight
Is an announcement of the One who is to be born of the Virgin.
In your eagerness to possess Him forever,
You hastened to be devoured by the wild beasts.
Therefore, O glorious Ignatius, you were called the bearer of God!

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