Saint Ignatius of Antioch

And the Silence of Christ

By Jacob Sparks

September 2019
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…the weakness of God is stronger than men.
— 1 Corinthians 1:25 (RSV)

The New Testament records the history and persecutions of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles, from which we learn about the deaths of the earliest martyrs of the Church: Stephen the Archdeacon, James the brother of John, and countless unnamed victims are among them. However, the persecution of Christianity at the hands of the Roman Empire and Jewish leaders continued long after the last chapter of Acts. One such martyr was a man named Ignatius, an early bishop of Antioch. 


We do not have much historical information about Ignatius’ life. He was born sometime in the early first century, though we do not know exactly when. It has been said that he was the child Jesus took up in his arms in the gospels (see Mark 9:36-37), but this also remains disputed. He was a disciple of the Apostle John and in the late first century was ordained as the bishop of Antioch. He was arrested by Roman authorities and taken to an arena in Rome in the early second century where he was eaten alive by lions. This is nearly everything historical we know about his earthly life (1). 


What is more fascinating than the historical details is Ignatius’ thoughts about his own impending death, which we have recorded in seven letters he wrote to various churches and friends after his arrest by the Roman government. One of the first things we learn is that Ignatius did not think much of himself, nor did he think he was even a good Christian. He believed his arrest was something God-given in order to teach him not to desire worldly things (2):

I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a slave. But when I suffer, I shall be the freed-man of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being a prisoner, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain.
— Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans

Ignatius believed that the Christian life was determined by how people lived rather than how they spoke or what they said they believed. He exhorted the early Christians to silence in imitation of Christ, and was himself a man of silence:

It is better for a man to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not to be one. It is good to teach, if he who speaks also acts. There is then one Teacher, who spoke and it was done; while even those things which He did in silence are worthy of the Father. He who possesses the word of Jesus, is truly able to hear even His very silence, that he may be perfect, and may both act as he speaks, and be recognized by his silence.
— Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians

Ignatius took his belief in the virtue of silence to the most extreme degree possible by imitating Christ’s silence before his accusers who wished to crucify him. When others in the early churches told Ignatius that he did not have to die or that he could try to escape from his sentence of death, he emphatically opposed their suggestions. He commanded the Christians in Rome to not try to free him or save his life in any way. Ignatius wanted to die for Christ:

Pray for me, that I may attain [the object of my desire]. I have not written to you according to the flesh, but according to the will of God. If I shall suffer, you have wished [well] to me; but if I am rejected, you have hated me… I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts…
— Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans

Why did Ignatius want to die? His desire for death was not out of a suicidal longing or a desire to prove himself worthy to anyone. Rather, Ignatius wanted to die because he believed this is what God wanted for him by allowing him to be arrested. He believed it was God calling him to physically give up his life sacrificially for Christ, just as Christ had given himself up for the salvation of the world. Just as Christians offer God bread and wine in the celebration of Holy Communion, Ignatius offered himself to God:


I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ…For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that lives and speaks saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father.
— Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans

Ignatius was able to attain his desire by his death, and in a very literal way thereby became a sacrifice to God. May God accept his sacrifice, and may we imitate Ignatius’ faith through our silence and works. St. Ignatius of Antioch, pray for us!

 

 

1: “Ignatius of Antioch”, Orthodox Wiki. https://orthodoxwiki.org/Ignatius_of_Antioch

2: All quotations from Ignatius of Antioch are taken from the first volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, complied by Philip Schaff and accessed at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01. I have changed the wording of some of the quotations to fit my translation style.

Jacob SparksComment