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Death by Lions: St Ignatius of Antioch

“Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world.” — Ignatius

Public Domain

“The first reaction to truth is hatred.” Tertullian

Great faith can be found in few men, and in fewer men can greater faith be found than in that of St Ignatius of Antioch.

Before his martyrdom in the days of Roman persecution, he was a disciple of John the Apostle.

“St. John Chrysostom lays special emphasis on the honor conferred upon the martyr in receiving his episcopal consecration at the hands of the Apostles themselves,” New Advent states.

This was a man who knew men who knew Christ. The gospel was very real for him. It shows in his writing. Any Christian can learn from the life of his words.

In The Unity of the Catholic Church/De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate (circa 251/256 A.D.), St Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, was bemoaning how the Christians of the mid-third century had already lost the zest of the faith that the first Christians had. This is a stark warning for us who believe we have faith today.

“But with us unanimity has been so diminished that even the liberality of our good works has been lessened. Then they sold their homes and estates, and, laying up treasures for themselves in heaven, they offered to the Apostles the proceeds to be distributed for use among the poor. But now we do noteven give a tenth of our patrimony, and, although the Lord orders us to sell, we rather buy and increase. So has the vigor of faith withered in us; so has the strength of believers languished. And therefore the Lord, looking upon our times, says in His Gospel: ‘When the Son of man comes, do you think that He will find faith on the earth?’We see that what he foretold is coming to pass. There is no faith in the fear of God, in the law of justice, in love, in works. No one considers fear of the future; no one thinks of the day of the Lord and the anger of God and the punishments to come upon unbelievers and the eternal torments decreed for the faithless. Whatever our conscience would fear, if it believed, because it does not believe, it does not fear at all. But if it did believe, it would also be on guard; if it were onguard, it would also escape.” [1]

The third-century Christians, to who St Cyprian gave this message, were amazing Christians! It was an age of many saints and martyrs. Cyprian himself died a martyr’s death. But he said to them: “ the vigor of faith withered in us.”

It would benefit us to now read Ignatius’ chapter from the Lives of the Saints. Let us learn of the man who Cyprian compared himself and his flock to.

ST. IGNATIUS, Bishop of Antioch, was the disciple of St. John. When Domitian persecuted the Church, St. Ignatius obtained peace for his own flock by fasting and prayer. But for his part he desired to suffer with Christ, and to prove himself a perfect disciple. In the year 107, Trajan came to Antioch, and forced the Christians to choose between apostasy and death. “Who art thou, poor devil,” the emperor said when Ignatius was brought before him, “who settest our commands at naught?” “Call not him ‘poor devil,’” Ignatius answered, “who bears God within him.” And when the emperor questioned him about his meaning, Ignatius explained that he bore in his heart Christ crucified for his sake. Thereupon the emperor condemned him to be torn to pieces by wild beasts at Rome. St. Ignatius thanked God, Who had so honored him, “binding him in the chains of Paul, His apostle.”
He journeyed to Rome, guarded by soldiers, and with no fear except of losing the martyr’s crown. He was devoured by lions in the Roman amphitheatre. The wild beasts left nothing of his body, except a few bones, which were reverently treasured at Antioch, until their removal to the Church of St. Clement at Rome, in 637. After the martyr’s death, several Christians saw him in vision standing before Christ, and interceding for them.

We will end with words from Ignatius himself. Meditate on them. Let them form your faith. Not even lions could destroy a faith this strong.

“Do not have Jesus Christ on your lips, and the world in your heart.”
“My dear Jesus, my Savior, is so deeply written in my heart, that I feel confident, that if my heart were to be cut open and chopped to pieces, the name of Jesus would be found written on every piece.”
“It is not that I want merely to be called a Christian, but to actually be one. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings … let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the evil torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”
“I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.”
“But pray unceasingly also for the rest of men, for they offer ground for hoping that they may be converted and win their way to God. Give them an opportunity therefore, of becoming your disciples. Meet their angry outbursts with your own gentleness, their boastfulness with your humility, their revilings with your prayers, their error with your constancy in the faith, their harshness with your meekness; and beware of trying to match their example.”
“We recognize a tree by its fruit, and we ought to be able to recognize a Christian by his action. The fruit of faith should be evident in our lives, for being a Christian is more than making sound professions of faith. It should reveal itself in practical and visible ways. Indeed it is better to keep quiet about our beliefs, and live them out, than to talk eloquently about what we believe, but fail to live by it.”
“Christianity is not a matter of persuading people of particular ideas, but of inviting them to share in the greatness of Christ. So pray that I may never fall into the trap of impressing people with clever speech, but instead I may learn to speak with humility, desiring only to impress people with Christ himself.”

“Reflection [2]. — Ask St. Ignatius to obtain for you the grace of profiting by all you have to suffer, and rejoicing in it as a means of likeness to your crucified Redeemer.”


[2] reflection from Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler


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