When I was in discernment for ordination, a priest I knew was terrifically devoted to the saints. The saints, she said, could give us something that Jesus could not. Jesus was fully human and fully divine, encompassing all reality. Still…the saints had something different. The saints could repent.
At the time I remember hearing this and feeling a little scandalized, as though Jesus might be offended. More practically, some of the saints encompass such different lives it’s hard to see how their example could offer much at all. It’s especially hard to know what to make of someone like Ignatius of Antioch whom we commemorate today. He was a martyred bishop of the early church—literally eaten by lions—in the year 107 C.E.. Rather than just being put to death in Antioch, he was marched on a months-long journey to Rome, probably to elevate the spectacle of his execution and intimidate other Christians. What we know of him comes mostly from the letters he sent to the church on the way to his death.
In an abstract way, Ignatius’ writing does offer a fascinating window onto the earliest church. The Creeds that laid out orthodox belief would not be clarified for hundreds of years; but his letters offer an example of how the earliest Christians understood who Jesus was.
‘There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.’
—Chapter VII The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians
To modern people who are familiar with the Creeds, nothing here sounds controversial. For the early church that was gripped with controversies about whether Jesus *actually* was human, or if maybe he just *seemed* human, this was crucial (the Docetic heresy, if you want the technical term). Flesh and spirit. Possible and impossible. All of it.
In addition to offering this window on history, the letters are his own personal manifesto of his faith. A significant theme running throughout them is his plea that his people not ‘save’ him. Ignatius wants to die for his faith.
‘The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my [siblings]. 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.
—The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans
It’s not self-aggrandizing, though. He writes in another section,
‘I do not issue orders to you, as if I were some great person. For though I am bound for the name[of Christ], I am not yet perfect in Jesus Christ. For now I begin to be a disciple.’
—Chapter III, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians
‘Now I begin.’ This isn’t a caricature of the ‘woe-is-me’ martyr. Nor does it seem fatalistic or grim or somehow condemning of the life others might live. He sounds sincerely hopeful. It is an infectiously, holy hope: not because of what is possible in his own small life but what is possible in the vast life of our possible-impossible God.
It occurs to me now that my priest friend (who herself has long joined the company of the saints in light) wasn’t just talking about how the saints had been sinners and then turned around and we should do the same. Repentance is a lifelong unfolding of a continual Godward turn. No shortcut, no one- and-done. The saints showed how variously this happens in so many different lives, over lifetimes.
The true meaning of Ignatius’ life doesn’t have to be a call to martyrdom or theological truth. Those are fine, but God is much more interested in how each of us live out our individual calls. Ignatius had a singular vision of the fully human life he was called toward: his life. May we each receive the gift of such clarity!
[Image Credit: Public Domain Photo by Alexas_Fotos via Unsplash; Citations from The Seven Epistles Of St. Ignatius Of Antioch: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=3836]