The life and teaching of Saint Ignatius of Antioch clearly point to the sublime and lofty goal of human nature: eternal communion with God. Man is made for something—Someone—infinitely greater and higher than creatures or created things.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
17 October 2015
For nearly fifty years Saint Ignatius of Antioch labored as the third bishop of Antioch, succeeding St. Evodius (who was the immediate successor of St. Peter), and is accounted an Apostolic Father by virtue of having been a hearer of the beloved disciple and apostle John. About the year 110, during the time of the Emperor Trajan’s reign, Ignatius was sentenced to bloody death as food for wild beasts in the Roman amphitheater. The life and death of St. Ignatius teaches us that the thirsty human heart can only be satisfied by Christ who is himself the life and light of humanity (Jn. 1:4). Further, since we find our origin in God, our end and perfect happiness are found in God alone. As man attains his destiny in God, whose perfection of goodness, love, and beauty is the desire of his heart, the fullness of human life is thus also attained.
He was an old man when he was arrested by the Romans. Given the persecutive climate of the day, this turn of events would not have surprised him. On his forced journey to the Amphitheater, likely one bound in chains under brutal treatment at the hands of soldiers, he wrote seven excellent epistles. Within these, among other things, Ignatius wrote about the true doctrine concerning the authority of the bishop as well as the gift of the Eucharist, which is the heavenly flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
It is clear by what Ignatius wrote that his love for God had become a burning, unquenchable fire in his heart. On his way to Rome, he feared that the Christian faithful of his flock would attempt to intervene and prevent his imminent martyrdom. He was concerned about possible intervention because he longed to shed his blood for Christ, and saw the path of martyrdom as not only his path to God and eternal life but also the path to glory. St. Ignatius had advanced spiritually to a high degree of union with God, one in which the loving presence of God became of such power within him that his only desire was to sacrifice himself for the sake of Divine Love:
I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.
No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of the world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.
The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, excerpt from his Letter to the Romans)
The life and teaching of Saint Ignatius of Antioch clearly point to the goal of human nature: eternal communion with God. In our present age, a vast number of people have lost sight of that goal, having mistaken it for base, earthly desires, of which Ignatius himself speaks. Created things, however, by their finite nature cannot bring permanent happiness but can only provide temporary and fleeting pleasure. This is so because man is made for something—Someone, in fact—infinitely greater and higher. The thirsty human heart can only be satisfied by Christ who is himself the life and light of humanity (Jn. 1:4). Further, since we find our origin in God, our end and perfect happiness are found in God alone. As man attains his destiny in God, whose perfection of goodness, love, and beauty is the desire of his heart, the fullness of human life is thus also attained.
Therefore to be fully human is to live in union with God forever. It is a journey we must set off on, toward a new and yet unseen horizon of immeasurable and incomparable light, love, goodness, and beauty. There will be hardships along the way: we too may encounter hate, brutal treatment, persecution, and imprisonment, and have to look death in the face. If we fail to make this journey, however, one which is comprised of the choices we make each moment, we will never attain our completeness, which means we will forever live in incompleteness, unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
Eternity is at stake.
“A Christian is not his own master, his time is God’s”—Saint Ignatius of Antioch
On arriving in Rome, St. Ignatius received his wish and was sent happily into the arena. Within that great edifice built by Jewish captives, which held up to 60,000 spectators, he was killed and devoured by the beasts. St. Ignatius: bishop and martyr: his flesh and blood were ground for God in order for him to become pure bread for Christ.
Photo Credit: Image modified. Original of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ignatius_of_Antiochie.jpg
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.