Presumably of Syrian origin, nothing is known of the early life of Ignatius of Antioch or even of his episcopate before his last journey from Antioch to Rome, during which he was under military guard because he had been condemned to death for being a Christian in Trajan’s persecution of the Church. In the course of this journey, while still in Asia Minor, he wrote seven letters which make him one of the most important witnesses to the faith and order of the subapostolic Church. Four of the letters were written at Smyrna, where he had been received with great honor by Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, and many others of the faithful. These letters were addressed to the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome. The remaining three letters to Polycarp and to the churches at Philadelphia and Smyrna were written while he was at Troas.
The letters reveal Ignatius to be ardently devoted to Jesus Christ, whose deity and resurrection from the dead they clearly affirm. Against the docetic teaching that exalted the deity of Jesus against his humanity, Ignatius writes: “Stop your ears therefore when anyone speaks to you that stands apart from Jesus Christ, from David’s scion and Mary’s Son, who was really born and ate and drank, really persecuted by Pontius Pilate, really crucified and died while heaven and earth and the underworld looked on; who also really rose from the dead” (To the Trallians, 9). The letters also urge unity in and through the Eucharist and the local bishop, who presides at the Eucharist: “Take care, then, to partake of one Eucharist; for, one is the Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup to unite us with his Blood, and one altar, just as there is one bishop assisted by the presbyters and the deacons, my fellows servants. Thus you will conform in all your actions to the will of God” (To the Philadelphians, 4). Against those who object that a teaching is not in the “official records”, that is, in the Old Testament Scriptures, he insists that Jesus Christ is himself the content of the Scriptures: “When I heard some say, ‘Unless I find it in the official records – in the Gospel I do not believe’; and when I answered them, ‘It is in the Scriptures,’ they retorted: ‘That is just the point at issue.’ But to me the official record is Jesus Christ; the inviolable record is his Cross and his death and his Resurrection and the faith of which he is the Author” (To the Philadelphians, 8).
Ignatius believed the Church to be God’s holy order in the world, so he shows great concern for the proper ordering of the Church’s teaching, worship, and common life. He writes: “You must all follow the lead of the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father; follow the presbyters as your would the Apostles; reverence the deacons as your would God’s commandment. Let no one do anything touching the Church, apart from the bishop. Let that celebration of the Eucharist be considered valid which is held under the bishop or anyone to whom he has committed it. Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church” (To the Smyrnaeans, 8). Of note, this is the first occurrence of the word “catholic” as a description of the Church. Ignatius describes the church at Rome as the one founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, and therefore worthy of special reverence.
Ignatius describes himself as a servant, a disciple, and the “bearer of God” (theophoros), convinced of Christ’s presence within him. On his way to Rome for execution, he called himself “God’s wheat…and by the teeth of wild beasts I am to be ground that I may prove Christ’s pure bread.” He was thrown to the lions in the Colosseum and died almost at once. His letters were soon translated into Latin and several Eastern languages. One of his letters was cited by the sixth century British cleric, Gildas the Wise.
The Church at Antioch has kept his feast on the seventeenth of October from very early, as the Roman Church has done since 1969, and since that time, many Anglican Churches as well. The Book of Common Prayer (1662) keeps his feast day on the seventeenth of December, the date of the translation of his relics.
prepared with material from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
and Ancient Christian Fathers: The Epistles of St Clement of Rome and St Ignatius of Antioch (trans. James Kleist)
Almighty God, we praise your Name for your bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present to you the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept, we pray, the willing tribute of our lives and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and Martyr, are published on the Lectionary Page website.