Our Fellow Scholar: The Faith and Love of Saint Ignatius of Antioch

Last week we remembered St. Polycarp of Smyrna, one of the three Apostolic Fathers. Polycarp ensured the preservation of the seven epistles of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, another major apostolic father, whose Feast Day is recognized on February 1st in the Anglican liturgical calendar. Ignatius was born in 35 AD, two years after Christ’s Resurrection. He became bishop of Antioch, and later was martyred under the Roman Emperor, Trajan. His epistles were written mostly from prison while he waited for his execution, and they are eloquent, stirring exhortations to faith in Christ. He stresses the importance of corporate worship, the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the Authority of Scripture and orthodox doctrine, especially Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection in a physical human body. Above all, Ignatius is the first Church Father to emphasize the profound importance for Christians to live in obedience and communion with a bishop dedicated to the pure Gospel, and to the priests and deacons whose authority they represent.

Of corporate worship, Ignatius wrote to the Ephesians, “A man who excludes himself from the sanctuary is depriving himself of the bread of God, for if the prayer of one or two individuals has such efficacy, how much more powerful is that of the bishop together with his whole church.” Encouraging his friends in Rome not to despair over his own imminent execution, he wrote, “For good does not reside in what our eyes can see; the fact that Jesus Christ is now within the Father is why we perceive Him so much the more clearly. Christianity lies in achieving greatness in the face of the world’s hatred.” Holy Communion provided a comfort for Ignatius as a sign of his hope beyond the loss of his earthly life: “There is no pleasure for me in any meats that perish, or in the delights of this life; I am fain for the bread of God, ever the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is the seed of David, and for my drink I crave that Blood of His which is love imperishable.”

Of the clergy responsible for administering Holy Communion and the congregations committed to their charge, Ignatius wrote, in the Epistle to the Ephesians mentioned above, “…your justly respected clergy, who are a credit to God, are attuned to their bishop like the strings of a harp, and the result is a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ from minds that are in unison, and affections that are in harmony. Pray, then, come and join this choir, every one of you; let there be a whole symphony of minds in concert.” A bishop himself, Ignatius stressed that it is from Christ, not men, that clerical authority comes; he writes, “I am by no means perfect in Jesus Christ as yet; I am only a beginner in discipleship, and I am speaking to you as fellow-scholars with myself.” Ignatius continues in that same letter: “Faith is the beginning, and love is the end,” and his letters show how an orthodox faith upheld by bishops, priests, and deacons and the congregations, in worship and in service, is the earthly manifestation of Christ’s love.

by Anthony G. Cirilla

The Fires of Polycarp: Bishop, Martyr, and Saint

Read at St. Stephen’s on Sunday, January 24th, in recognition of the feast day of St. Polycarp (69-155) of Smyrna, celebrated in Anglicanism on the earlier date of January 26th, rather than February 23rd.

Born on 69 AD, only 36 years after the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Polycarp is one of the three Apostolic Fathers, along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. Much of his life is recorded in the second century text, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a major source for this brief discussion. As an Apostolic Father, Polycarp forms an important historical link between the apostles’ ministry in the Book of Acts and the councils held over scriptural doctrines by the early Church Fathers in the second, third, and fourth centuries. A bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp knew John the Presbyter and others, who had witnessed the ministries of Jesus Christ and St. Paul on a personal level. For refusing to worship a false idol, the Roman emperor had Polycarp burned at the stake, but the accounts read that the flames would not touch him, so they killed him by the sword.

As bishop, Polycarp met with other ecclesiastical authorities frequently, including the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus. The two bishops discovered disagreements between themselves about worship practices, including the date of Easter, but agreed that doctrinal and spiritual unity was more important than differences of liturgical tradition – as important as they nevertheless recognized these to be. He also played a role in preserving and copying much of the New Testament. But flexibility on lesser matters did not weaken Polycarp’s commitment to total integrity in his faith to Christ. When the heretic Marcion, angry that Polycarp ignored him, asked, “Do you know me?”, Polycarp replied, “Yes, I know you, the first-born of Satan.”

Polycarp’s integrity shone most brightly, of course, when the threat of burning at the stake was presented to him. He replied to the Roman Emperor, “Eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong… How then can I blaspheme my king and saviour? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked!” About his own death he said, “I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the Martyrs I may show the cup of Christ.”

It is clear that the fires of the Holy Spirit were with Polycarp in the testimony of his life, which can be seen in his sermon to the Philippians, preserved in the writing of his younger contemporary, St. Irenaeus. We close with a sample of his stirring exhortation: “To Him all things in heaven and on earth are subject. Him every spirit serves. He comes as the Judge of the Living and the Dead. His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him. But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved.”

By Anthony G. Cirilla

Deeming all things in His Hand: The Ministry of St. Anthony of Egypt

A version of this was delivered at St. Stephens Anglican Church on January 17th, the feast day of St. Anthony of Egypt.

Eleven saints are known by the name of Anthony, most of whom are either named after or took their names from St. Anthony of Egypt, an early promoter of the monastic life modeled after Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness. Born to wealthy parents, Anthony never received a formal education or even learned how to read, instead learning all he knew of Scripture from faithfully attending worship and listening carefully to what he heard there. His parents died when he was eighteen years old, leaving him to care for his younger sister and his parents’ estate. Dutifully, he continued to worship at the Lord’s House with his sister, and after sixth months of this he heard a reading from the Gospel: “If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor; and come and follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.” Convicted by these words, Anthony set aside enough money for the care of his sister, and sold the rest of his parents’ estate and gave it away to the poor. This incredible act of faith would pale in comparison to the rest of his testimony, recorded in The Life of St. Anthony by his contemporary, St. Athanasius, one of the bishops involved in the formulation of the Nicene creed which we recite still every Sunday.

Athanasius knew St. Anthony personally, and wrote “that all regard him with wonder…for not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Anthony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God.” For his devotion to the Gospel, Anthony struggled against demons, who first tempted him with sin, and then gathered around him in the darkness tormenting him with dark visions, lies, blasphemies, evil illusions, and even physical attacks. But Anthony persevered in his prayers, rebuking the demons with the bold words, “Faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.” Athanasius reports then that as Anthony looked up, “he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him.” The demons vanished.

Anthony continued to battle demons and pray for miracles by the grace of God, giving wise counsel according to Scriptures to many who sought him out. Anthony showed respect to all deacons, priests, and bishops he met, himself never seeking ordination and humbly seeking their spiritual guidance. He battled the Meletian heresy which diminished the purifying power of repentance, the Arian heresy which diminished the divinity of Christ, and the Manichean heresy which diminished the goodness of God’s creation. He astonished the Greek philosophers with how eloquently he defended the Gospel against their educated arguments, and corresponded with Emperor Constantine and other powerful members of government without fear of offering rebuke when it was needed.

Easy it must have been for St. Anthony to live free from fear of men, for he knew and had faced the full wrath of Satan and his demons, and knew those fallen angels tremble in fear of the Lord. Athanasius records one of his sermons, where he said, “Let us not have a thought of cowardice in our hearts, nor frame fears for ourselves, saying, I am afraid lest a demon should lift me up and cast me down… but rather let us be courageous and rejoice always… if they see us rejoicing in the Lord… deeming all things in his hand… we shall see the snares of the demons are like smoke, and the evil ones themselves flee.”

By Anthony G. Cirilla