[Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]
Where in the correspondence of St. Ignatius of Antioch can one find an ideal point of entry? Is there a defining vision here that animates everything? In other words, to understand the mind and heart of this extraordinary bishop and martyr of the Early Church, where should one begin? After all, there are only seven letters to work with, not exactly an avalanche of mail. So, where’s the best place to start? Might there be a frame into which everything could be fitted? An axiom of basic, irreducible belief perhaps?
Well, suppose we take the following datum as a point of departure, a privileged place where every Christian is expected to begin, not just the superstars like Ignatius, who seem to climb so effortlessly into the sun and the stars—“Where never lark, or even eagle, flew,” writes John Gillespie Magee Jr., in a marvelous little poem called “High Flight.”
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod /
The high untrespassed sanctity of space, /
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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And what is that datum, that most basic axiom of belief, but the irreducible Event of Jesus Christ, on whom the face of God is wreathed in the human face of Jesus. Not any sort of idea or supposition about Christ, mind you, but an actual event taking place in Jesus Christ. And the result? An entirely new world will have been created, inaugurating an absolutely fresh beginning for the human race.
And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)
The new and eternal Easter, you see, is already underway, paid for by the Passion of the Son. “In the Great Sea of our Usual Life,” says Luigi Giussani, referencing this sundering, transcendent event, “a Continual Newness.” In the light of that profound, transformative event, what then are we to make of the Church? How are we, in the midst of a world redeemed by Christ, to view the Church?
Well, it’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? She belongs to Him, to the very one who bought the Bride, purchasing her with his very own Blood. She is not, therefore, something any of us could make, but rather Someone, a Bride, whom He alone has made, fashioned from the blood and brokenness of His Body as it hung upon the Cross.
Here a line from Augustine practically leaps onto the page: mundus reconciliatus Ecclesia: “The Church is the world, reconciled.” She is the setting for all that now springs eternal. “This new city,” Henri de Lubac reminds us in his magnificent work The Splendor of the Church, “the sheltering womb and matrix of the new world, is the Church—the new universe.” And quoting St. Gregory of Nyssa, he adds:
The foundation of the Church is the creation of a new universe. In her, according to the words of Isaiah, new heavens and a new earth are created; in her is formed another man, in the image of Him who created him.
And so, if that’s the baseline, and few have steeped themselves as thoroughly as Ignatius into its ecclesial depths, then let the following passage from his Letter to the Ephesians provide the most perfect summary, indeed, the most exquisite evocation of it:
A star shone forth in the heaven above all the stars, and its light was unutterable. Its strangeness caused amazement, and all the rest of the constellations with the sun and the moon formed themselves into a chorus about the star. But the star itself outshone them all. And there was bewilderment whence this unique novelty had arisen. As a result all magic lost its power and all witchcraft ceased. Ignorance was done away with, and the ancient kingdom of evil was utterly destroyed, for God was revealing himself as a man, to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Hence everything was in confusion as the destruction of death was being taken in hand.
Here is a vision that dazzles even as it describes. And if you ask on what basis so dazzling a description depends, the answer is Incarnation. “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation,” writes T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets. Only, for Ignatius it is neither half guessed nor half understood. And the implication? That when God chose to become man in Palestine, He willed His grace upon all to shine. “For what Christ once in humbleness began,” says the poet George Herbert, “We him in glory call, The Son of Man.”
The key here is humility—“the only wisdom,” says Eliot, “we can hope to acquire”—without which there can be no Incarnation. Nor any Redemption, either. Ignatius clearly understood this. In fact, pursuant to the truth of it, he will tell the Ephesians about “three secrets crying to be told, but wrought in God’s silence,” which managed totally to escape “the notice of the prince of this world….” And what were those secrets? “Mary’s virginity and her giving birth,” says Ignatius, followed by “the Lord’s death.” From womb to tomb, crib to cross—Christ’s march across the human and finite world, lifting it all onto the plane of infinite and divine glory.
There is the vision that drives the mind and the heart of the Bishop of Antioch, soon to become a martyr of the Church he leads and loves.
So, why should any of these secrets have escaped the notice of the Evil One? Because, clothed as they are in perfect humility, they will all the more easily confound the satanic pride of the Dark Lord, who could never foresee the coming nor, so blinded is he by pride, the inevitable conquest wrought by a God unafraid to immerse Himself in time, in history. It was the unnoticed humility of God that broke the sham kingdom of Satan in two.
“The last days are here,” writes Ignatius. “So let us abase ourselves and stand in awe of God’s patience,” which is itself an exercise in humility. “Either let us fear the wrath to come or let us value the grace we have: one or the other. Only let our lot be genuine life in Jesus Christ.” Either the dread of something worse were we to persist in wickedness, or the delight God wishes to give when we turn to Him.
And then, because the thought of impending martyrdom is never far from his mind—indeed, it hovers constantly about—he will add:
Do not let anything catch your eye besides him, for whom I carry around these chains—my spiritual pearls! Through them I want to rise from the dead by your prayers.
The fact of death, the certainty that he is moving inexorably toward his own rendezvous with death—which, for lesser men, is the event of final cancellation of all that they had hoped to achieve on their own dime—must surely weigh heavily upon him. It is, as I indicated early on, the first of the several themes present in the correspondence. It is there both to occupy his mind and to determine his will. This looming prospect of all that awaits him in Rome, the wild beasts in the arena especially, awakens in his heart the greatest earnest and eloquence of expression.
We shall have occasion to look further into this next time.