Saint Ignatius, Bishop and Martyr
Two days more, and the happy season of Christmas will be over! This is the vigil of its termination, and lo! there comes to gladden us one of the grandest Martyrs of the year–Ignatius surnamed the Theophorus (i.e. he that carries God, or, he that is carried of God), Bishop of Antioch. A venerable tradition tells us, that this old man, who so generously confessed the faith before Trajan, was the child whom Jesus took into his arms, and showed to his Disciples as a model of that simplicity, which we must all have, if we would enter into the kingdom of heaven. Today he appears before us, standing near the Crib, in which this same Jesus gives us His own divine lessons of humility and simplicity.
But, in this the Court of our Emmanuel, Ignatius stands near to Peter, the Feast of whose Chair we kept a few days since; for the Prince of the Apostles made him his second successor in his first See of Antioch. From so honoured a position Ignatius derived that courage, which made him resist a powerful Emperor even to his face, defy the wild beasts of the amphitheatre, and triumph by a glorious martyrdom. As it were to show the supremacy of the See of Rome, Divine Providence willed that he, with his chains upon him, should go to see Peter (Gal. i. 18), and finish his course in the Holy City, and thus mingle his blood with that of the Apostles. Rome would have been imperfect without the glory of Ignatius’ martyrdom, which is the pride of her Colyseum, rich as it is with the blood of so many thousands of Martyrs.
Ignatius’ character is impetuosity of love for his God. He has but one fear–it is, that the prayers of the Romans will stay the lions from devouring him, and his desire of being united to Christ be thus denied him. Let us admire this superhuman fortitude, which shows itself thus suddenly amidst the pagan world, and let us acknowledge, that so ardent a love of God, and so vehement a longing to possess him, could only have come from the accomplishment of the Mysteries of our Redemption, which showed man how much God loved him. The Crib of Bethlehem, even had there never been the Sacrifice of Calvary, would, of itself, be sufficient to convince us of all this. God comes down from heaven for the sake of His creature, man; He himself becomes Man, nay, a Child, and is laid in a manger! Such miracles of love would have sufficed to save the guilty world; how, then, shall they not have power to prompt men to give their whole heart to their loving God? And would it be too much, if we made a sacrifice of our very lives to repay our Jesus for only that much of his love, which He showed us by being Born among us?
The Church gives us, in the Lessons of today’s Office, the brief account of our Saint given by St. Jerome in his Book On Ecclesiastical Writers. The holy Doctor has inserted a few sentences from the Martyr’s admirable Epistle, written to the Faithful of Rome. We would have gladly offered the whole of this Epistle to our readers, had it not been for want of space. But the passages quoted by St. Jerome are some of the finest.
Ignatius was the third Bishop of the Church of Antioch, St. Peter the Apostle being the first. During the persecution under Trajan, he was condemned to be devoured by wild beasts, and was sent in chains to Rome. During this voyage, which was made by sea, he had to stop at Smyrna, where Polycarp, the disciple of St. John, was Bishop. From this city, he wrote several Epistles; one to the Ephesians, a second to the Magnesians, a third to the Trallians, a fourth to the Romans. When he had left Smyrna, he addressed an Epistle to the Philadelphians and Smyrneans, and one to Polycarp himself, recommending to him his Church of Antioch. It is in this last named Letter, that he quotes from the Gospel, which I have lately translated, a passage bearing testimony to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I cannot pass by this mention of so great a man, without citing a
few sentences from the Epistle, which he wrote to the Romans.
“From Syria,” he says, “even unto Rome, I am fighting with wild beasts, both by sea and land, both night and day, for I am fastened to ten leopards, I mean, to the soldiers who have care of me. When I show them a kindness, they grow more brutal. Their injuries are my instruction, but I am not thereby justified. I long for the wild beasts, that are prepared for me, which I heartily wish may rush upon me, and torture me, and devour me, and not be afraid to touch me, as has happened with other Martyrs. Nay, if they refuse to approach me, I will make them come on, I will rush upon them, that so they may devour me. Pardon me, my little children: I know what is for my own welfare.
“Now do I begin to be a disciple of Christ, and care for nothing in this world, that so I may find Jesus. Let fire, or the cross, or wild beasts, or the breaking of my bones, or the cutting me to pieces, or the shattering of my whole body, yea, all the tortures of the devil–let them all come upon me, only let me enjoy my God.”
When he was sentenced to be devoured by wild beasts, and heard the roaring of the lions, his impatience to suffer made him exclaim: ” I am the wheat of Christ–let me be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may become the pure bread.” He suffered in the eleventh year of Trajan’s reign. His Relics are at Antioch, in the Cemetery outside the Daphne Gate.
All thy desires were satisfied, O glorious Martyr! Thou hast died for Jesus–thou art with Jesus. Rome’s sons and daughters filled the Colyseum; their savage joy made it tremble with their cheers as they saw thee mangled by the lions. It was the hour thou hadst prayed for–thy sacrifice for Him, who had sacrificed himself for thee, is over, and thy soul is buried in his divine embrace! Generous and impetuous lover of Christ! thou wast ambitious to pay thy debt to the Crucified–the debt of suffering. It seemed to thee, that thou hadst no right to His kingdom, until thou hadst repaid his Passion by some cruel tortures endured for Him. O worthy companion of Stephen, Sebastian, Vincent, and Agnes! how rich and verdant is the Palm thou holdest over thy Jesus’ Crib! Canst thou look upou us, weak Christian cowards, and not pity us? Pray for us that we may at least be faithful to our Lord, when we are persecuted by the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil; that we may, at least, give our hearts to his service, if we are not to be permitted to give our bodies to be tortured for His name. Thou wast chosen, when a little child, as the model of the simplicity which our Saviour was teaching to His Disciples, and this innocence never left thee:–ask for us from Him, who is the King of Little Children, that one of the graces of the Christmas we have been keeping, may be this holy Simplicity of heart.
Successor of Peter in the See of Antioch! pray for the Churches of thy Patriarchate, that they may return to the true Faith and Catholic unity. Intercede for the holy City of Rome, which thou didst water with thy blood, and which is now in possession of thy sacred Relics, that were saved from the lions’ jaws. Watch over the maintenance of ecclesiastical discipline and order, of which thou hast left such admirable rules in thy Epistles; and obtain for the Church, that all the members of her hierarchy may be united in the bonds of duty and love, that thus she may be beautiful in the strength of her unity and terrible to the enemies of God, as an army set in array (1 Cant. vi. 3).
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.