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