Why Martyrdom Matters

There is no doubt whatsoever regarding St. Ignatius of Antioch's great love and esteem for the city of Rome, or, more specifically, the Church of Rome.

[Editor’s Note: This is the twelth in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]

While current scholarship is unclear on the matter of St. Ignatius of Antioch ever having been to Rome before going there to die, there is no doubt whatsoever regarding his great love and esteem for the city. Not the pagan side of the place, of course, that being the reason for his martyrdom, but the Church of Rome herself, for whom he felt profound, even mystic, devotion. Knowing that here was the place where, by God’s design, foundations were laid, that the Petrine Office began—that the blood of Peter and Paul and countless others annealed in Christ had been shed—stoked his imagination like no other place on the planet.  

Such examples would most certainly have helped steel his nerve for the coming crisis as well. Plus, the current state of things in Rome seemed most wonderfully edifying to behold. His Letter to the Romans, therefore, is replete with references that testify unmistakably, effusively even, to a community of believers who appear not to have a single stain or defect.  

“You are a credit to God,” he tells them in the very first paragraph. “You deserve your renown and are to be congratulated. You deserve praise and success and are privileged to be without blemish.” And citing a reputation widely renowned for numerous acts of charity, he reminds them that, “Yes, you rank first in love, being true to Christ’s law and stamped with the Father’s name.

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To you, then, sincerest greetings in Jesus Christ, our God, for you cleave to his every commandment—observing not only their letter but their spirit—being permanently filled with God’s grace and purged of every stain alien to it.

If this be gilding the lily, then let us make the most of it. In any case, upon such encomia as these, Ignatius proceeds to answer the most burning question of all: Why has he come to Rome in the first place? 

Here, for Ignatius, is the heart of the matter, the central and pivotal point upon which everything else turns. “The still point of the turning world,” the poet Eliot has called it. The place of intersection where time and the timeless, history and mystery, come together. “Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” Here is where all the lines are fated to converge. And not just in the life of Ignatius but in the life of Everyman.  

Thus we see, writes von Balthasar in a splendid little essay called “Martyrdom and Mission,” found in a collection called New Elucidations, “the true and decisive motive of Christian martyrdom, which today as ever distinguishes it from every other self-offering, however heroic.” It is simply a matter of giving witness, of giving testimony in one’s own blood, to an event absolutely singular and unrepeatable; an event concerning which, not since St. Paul, have we seen so perfect an expression as the following:

I am crucified with Christ. I live; and yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me. But what I am now living in the flesh, I live in faith in the Son of God who loved me and delivered himself up for me. (Galatians 2:19-20) 

Nevertheless, this was not the only reason Ignatius found it necessary to write his letter. There is the added business of making certain what it is the good Christians of Rome must not do—indeed, the very thing from which he will urge them most vehemently to abstain from doing. “Since God has answered my prayer to see you godly people,” he declares, “I have gone on to ask for more.” 

And the more, of course, is that nothing be done, that no one stand in the way of his divine destiny. Which is, quite simply, to suffer and die in the Colosseum. For Christ, that is, who (again) is his sole reason for being there. That being the case, then, “it is as a prisoner for Christ Jesus that I hope to greet you, if indeed it be God’s will that I should deserve to meet my end.” But only, of course, if they do not interfere, if nothing be done to interrupt the show, the drama—the divine dance—which from all eternity God wishes to see his servant Ignatius perform.

So, if it is death that Ignatius desires, is there nothing he fears? What of the dread certainty of being torn to pieces, does that not give him pause? Not if we are to believe his own testimony, which is set down in the plainest possible language. “What I fear,” Ignatius tells the members of the Church in Rome, “is your generosity which may prove detrimental to me. For you can easily do what you want to, whereas it is hard for me to get to God unless you let me alone.”

Once again, therefore, they are solemnly enjoined not to come between him and his destiny, one which God Himself has appointed. If the good Christians of Rome wish to ingratiate themselves with the saintly bishop of Antioch, who is both a prisoner of Christ and the Empire, they must hasten to remove all possible impediments in the way of his fulfilling that destiny.  

However much they may be moved to action, to seize the initiative to set Ignatius free, they must not give in, they must resist doing anything. “For if you quietly let me alone,” he explains, “people will see in me God’s Word. But if you are enamored of my mere body, I shall, on the contrary, be a meaningless noise.” Only by becoming “fodder for wild beasts” can Ignatius prove himself worthy of the Lord—and so eligible at last to enter the Precincts of Eternal Felicity.

What a thrill I shall have from the wild beasts that are ready for me! I hope they will make short work of me. I shall coax them on to eat me up at once and not to hold off, as sometimes happens, through fear. And if they are reluctant, I shall force them to it. 

This is brave talk, is it not? But, at the same time, it is the deepest truth of his life, the meaning of his life, which is the ineffaceable fact that it belongs not to him but to Another, to Christ. What Ignatius is saying here is that, as von Balthasar so beautifully puts it, 

there is one who, anticipating my existence, has suffered a martyrdom completely different from any that I or anyone else—even if he were Socrates—can suffer: a martyrdom for me, for my sake, vicariously for me who should have suffered it.

What precisely sets Christianity apart from every competing creed in the cosmos is the fact (not theory, not any sort of speculative conceit) that human life is based on, anchored to, the death of Another; rooted, therefore, in God’s own death, which He freely enacted in the human being Jesus, the Incarnate Word Himself, pierced and crucified for our sins. “The Christian is indebted to Another,” says von Balthasar, and giving him the last word, he asks:

And how else can he seriously acknowledge this debt than by following the same path as his Lord, since he has been very expressly invited to such discipleship and been just told in advance that the same thing will happen to the servant as to his master and to the pupil as to his teacher? This is the distinctive, special characteristic of the Christian martyr: he is “crucified with Christ,” and the giving up of his life is an act of proper response, of self-evident gratitude. He does not die for an idea, even for the highest—not for human dignity, freedom or solidarity with the oppressed (although all these may be included and play a role). He dies with someone who has died for him in advance.

And so it is to Rome that Ignatius must go.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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