[Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]
Of the seven letters sent by Ignatius on his way to Rome—where death and triumph in equal measure await him—surely the most intimate and impassioned is the one written and dispatched to the church of Rome herself. It is an intensely personal account, having little if anything to say about either shoring up the Office of Unity or unmasking the heretics, themes which clearly dominate the other six letters in the correspondence. It is instead all about Ignatius and the martyrdom he appears so eager to embrace:
Let me be fodder for wild beasts—that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ…Then I shall be a real disciple of Jesus Christ when the world sees my body no more. Pray Christ for me that by these means I may become God’s sacrifice.
What are we to make of this? How is one expected to respond to language so lurid, so unsettling, so strangely liturgical even? With horror and revulsion? Because, clearly, what is on display here is an excess of zeal so over-the-top that, at the very least, what we are dealing with is a kind of spiritual psychosis entirely alien to the modern mind and sensibility. Had we been there to advise this poor deluded creature back in the early second century, would we not have suggested, say, extensive therapy for a soul so obviously unwell? A pharmacological solution, perhaps, to his problems?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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And, of course, we’d have been flat-out wrong, having utterly and hilariously missed the mark.
Because there is nothing the least bit unbalanced about this man. If there were any maladjustment going on here, it would not be at play in the mind of Ignatius, which is in perfectly good working order. Under the aspect of the heavens—having vouchsafed us an order of grace within which nature and history are themselves nestled—nothing could be healthier, more normal, than the attitude taken by this saintly man. Pursuant to God and His holy will, he is behaving exactly as the baptismal script prescribes for every honest Christian:
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
What else is martyrdom but an outward expression of an inward reality implicit in the act of becoming a Christian? Isn’t this, after all, the meaning of Baptism, embedded in the very logic of the rite itself? Christian Initiation is an absolutely necessary and indispensable putting on of Christ, of dying in Christ, in order to rise with Christ. “For whoever loses his life for my sake,” says Christ in all three Synoptic Gospels, “will find it” (cf. Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 17:33).
The sheer certainty of persecution, therefore, followed by martyrdom, as von Balthasar reminds us in The Moment of Christian Witness, “constitutes the normal condition of the Church in her relation to the world, and martyrdom is the normal condition of the professed Christian.” It can hardly be the fault of Ignatius if those of us wedded to a fallen world refuse to conform our lives to Christ, disdaining the cruciform shape his own life assumed.
This does not mean, of course, that every Christian will be expected to endure martyrdom in the end. The teaching of Vatican II is very clear about this. “From the earliest times,” we are told in Lumen Gentium,
some Christians have been called upon—and some will always be called upon—to give this supreme testimony of love to all men, but especially to persecutors. The Church therefore considers martyrdom as an exceptional gift and as the highest proof of love.
And while the numbers may be few, nevertheless, “all must be prepared to confess Christ before men and follow him along the way of the cross through the persecutions which the Church will never fail to suffer.”
The point is, Christ having plainly told us to expect no other fate than the one He Himself faced, we are obliged to view the whole sweep of our lives in relation to His own bloody end. “Martyrdom provides,” says von Balthasar, “a horizon for the Christian life as such.” Not an ideal we yearn someday to reach but, rather, a reality in which, by virtue of our Baptism, we are already immersed.
Christian heroism is not a goal toward which we hope to be moving when at last all the pieces fall into place, in other words, but as part of the redeemed actuality in which we presently live. “In the New Testament,” he explains, “the heroic element disappears, since man no longer needs to advance toward this extreme point, but is seen rather as originating from a point that Christ has already reached.” While, under the old dispensation, the heroism of the martyr “illustrates how strong the faith of a Jew ought to be, martyrdom in the New Testament reveals that such a faith, founded on the crucifixion of Christ and imparted by grace to his followers, is already real and existent.”
And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
If God wishes, moreover, to see an outline of His Son in the lives of men and women annealed to Him in hope, why should it then be regarded as unusual, or even unseemly, for Christians to be asked to suffer and die in His name? For instance, the holy bishop Ignatius, announcing in advance of his reaching Rome, that it will be as a prisoner for Christ Jesus, the one whom he loves above all, that he hopes soon to arrive. “Things are off to a good start,” he ventures to tell them. “May I have the good fortune to meet my fate without interference!”
Grant me no more than to be a sacrifice for God while there is an altar at hand. Then you can form yourselves into a choir and sing praises to the Father in Jesus Christ that God gave the bishop of Syria the privilege of reaching the sun’s setting when he summoned him from its rising. It is a grand thing for my life to set on the world, and for me to be on my way to God, so that I may rise in his presence.
What moves Ignatius to make so grand a gesture, the thing that finally determines the trajectory which ends in his death, is nothing other than love of the divine Eros. “Of all possible virtuous acts,” declares St. Thomas in the Summa, “blood witness is the greatest proof of the perfection of love.” And, yes, while it often happens that men will die for this or that cause, the death of a Christian martyr is different, most strikingly so. “To die for love of the one who died for me in divine darkness,” writes von Balthasar, consists of a “face-to-face encounter that is one of a kind, and it characterizes the uniqueness of Christian truth and existence.”
To choose martyrdom, therefore, means nothing more than a bearing witness to the one who bore witness to me in the dark night of an unspeakable death.
Every source of grace—faith, love, and hope—springs from this night. Everything that I am…I am solely by virtue of Christ’s death, which opens up to me the possibility of fulfillment in God. I blossom on the grave of God who died for me. I sink my roots deep into the nourishing soil of his flesh and blood.