[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]
Of the seven letters of St. Ignatius, all written in great haste along the way from Antioch to Rome—where bloody martyrdom awaited him in the Colosseum—the first in the order of importance, as well as the longest, was the letter sent to the Ephesians, a community of Christians with whom the Apostle Paul had similar dealings a half-century before. In fact, it was Paul who, in the company of Barnabas, had first evangelized the Church of Ephesus into existence, spending no little time there between the years A.D. 52 and 54. In the circumstance, perhaps a brief word about Paul and his apostolate to the Ephesians may be helpful.
It was ten years after his sojourn in Antioch, while languishing in a Roman prison, that Paul got around to writing his letter to the Ephesians, exhorting them to remain steadfast in their common faith, a faith rooted in God Himself, who, Paul assures them, “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him” (1:4).
And because they stood redeemed by the blood of Christ, they were urged to live as though all sin and division had been wiped clean away by the pure Sacrifice of His Cross. Without the torture of execution, and the grace and the truth imparted by Christ’s Passion and Death, there can be no salvation. Therefore, all that is good and true, beautiful and just, depends on Christ, on the Event of His coming among us. Indeed, says Paul, this was the Father’s intention from the very beginning, “the mystery of His will, according to the purpose He displayed in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time—to bring all things together in Christ, things in the heavens and things on earth” (1:9-10).
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Christ, then, is our peace, our only peace. On this point Paul is most wonderfully insistent, knowing that without it the ancient enmity of Jew and Gentile will not end, can never end.
He has made the two—Jews and Gentiles—one, and in his flesh has torn down the dividing wall, the protective hedge, of enmity. He did this by setting aside the Torah with its commandments and regulations, making peace by creating one new man in himself out of two…putting enmity to death by it. (2:14-17)
We are not saved by a mere preacher man, in other words, but by the Son of the living God. And thus, on a note of singular and triumphant hope, the Apostle to the Gentiles will declare to the holy Church of Ephesus: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household” (2:19). Thus, reminding them of their high destiny, he tells them:
You were built upon a foundation of apostles and prophets, and Christ Jesus was its cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and grows into a holy Temple in the Lord, and in him you are being built together into God’s dwelling place in the Spirit. (2:20-22)
These are stirring sentiments, to be sure. Indeed, language so lapidary that it is no surprise that Paul’s letter will enter the New Testament record where, from its canonical perch, it will inspire Christians everywhere. Did it inspire Ignatius? Was he, in writing to the same community of Christians near the end of the first century, aware of Paul’s missive? Was he perhaps influenced by his style? Did he even know of the great Apostle to the Gentiles?
Does it matter? Scholarly opinion may not, even now, be entirely settled on the extent, say, of Paul’s influence (or John’s, for that matter) on the life and thought of Ignatius. Certainly, the experts tell us, he knew a number of Paul’s letters, perhaps the whole corpus, and was especially familiar with 1 Corinthians. But was he a close student of the Letter to the Ephesians as well?
What difference does it finally make? I mean, in the perspective of Jesus Christ? Because, without question, what fired the imagination and fueled the faith of all three, was nothing less than God Himself, the Father of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose Holy Spirit moved each one of them to fall wholly in love with Christ. “A soul seething with the divine eros,” is how St. John Chrysostom described the martyred bishop of Antioch, and who can doubt but that the encomium applies equally to the other two?
So, turning to Ignatius, the question is: What exactly is in this letter to the Church of Ephesus, written on the fly, as it were, on his way to Rome to die? Well, there are three themes that inform its telling, the first and most obvious of which is his approaching death, which he’s determined to get right.
“For you were all zeal to visit me when you heard that I was being shipped as a prisoner from Syria for the sake of our common Name and hope,” he tells those who have come to see him in Smyrna, the setting of four of the seven letters sent by Ignatius. “I hope, indeed, by your prayers to have the good fortune to fight with wild beasts in Rome, so that by doing this I can be a real disciple.”
And, yet, he is not sure, not at all certain, that he will prove himself equal to the task set before him. “For even if I am a prisoner for the Name, I have not yet reached Christian perfection. I am only beginning to be a disciple, so I address you as my fellow students.” And to that end he asks for their “coaching in faith, encouragement, endurance, and patience,” if he is to deserve the crown of martyrdom, which he so ardently desires to wear.
The two remaining themes I will but touch upon briefly, taking each up in greater detail later. On the one hand, there is the theme of unity under the bishop, of annealing one’s life and hope in the Office of Unity, concerning which Ignatius feels very keenly the importance of, owing to his own high episcopal profile.
I hasten to urge you to harmonize your actions with God’s mind. For Jesus Christ—that life from which we cannot be torn—is the Father’s mind, as the bishops too, appointed the world over, reflect the mind of Jesus Christ.
Neatly put, I’d say. And, then, on the other hand, there is the theme of Christ Himself, of the absolute centrality of His Person and work, which not a few heretics and schismatics have sought to subvert. “Some, indeed,” he warns, “have a wicked and deceitful habit of flaunting the Name about, while acting in a way unworthy of God. You must avoid them like wild beasts. For they are mad dogs which bite on the sly.” The language is colorful, but the fear is real enough, against which all the weight of Christian conviction will come into play.
Next time around we’ll have a closer look and see how the drama unfolds.