Technological advances in genealogical research have enabled many more people, in recent years, to discover the details of their family heritage. They are able to learn, not only of the lines of descent and relationships (the “begats”) of ancestors, but also to gain information about the occupations, travels, habits, and health of these family members.
The desire to know one’s family history is even greater in the family of God, the Church. For Christians, it is essential to know the stories of our spiritual ancestors and their relationship with God. These stories are provided in Holy Scripture, but our Christian family history does not end with the apocalyptic vision of St. John. Through knowledge of the fathers of the Church – those holy men who navigated the young church through the turbulent waters of persecution and heresy in the first centuries after the Resurrection of our Lord – we are able to maintain the faith of our fathers, to preserve it and pass it on to future generations.
In the first century A.D., St. Ignatius, the third bishop of our patriarchal city of Antioch (St. Peter being the first, and Euodius the second), brings our family history alive and present through seven letters which he wrote on his way to receiving the crown of martyrdom in Rome around the year 106.
Tradition tells us that Ignatius was the young child which our Lord held in his lap when he admonished his listeners that “whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” [Matthew 18:4] We know nothing else of his life until his journey to Rome, when he wrote the letters to the various Christian communities which sent representatives to greet him and encourage him on his way to martyrdom.
The letters tell us much about the plight of Christians during the rule of the Emperor Trajan [emperor, 98-117]: Persecution was evidently selective – at this time, Antioch was singled out more than other cities along Ignatius’ travel route; important people, no matter what their age (Ignatius was in his 80’s) were used as examples to deter other, more vulnerable souls; sometimes the condemned were taken to Rome with a military escort who, in Ignatius’ case, were hostile and taunting; the condemned were often sentenced to be fed to the hungry lions in the amphitheater for the entertainment of a jaded public.
However cruel and distasteful this picture is, we learn from the letters that a faithful Christian leader so condemned rejoiced in his opportunity to be united to Christ in dying for His sake. Bishop Ignatius (who called himself “Theophoros”, “God-bearer”) begged the Roman Christians not to try to have his sentence reversed, knowing that by his example of courage, many others would be heartened. In his famous words, “Let me be fodder for wild beasts – that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ.” [Letter to the Romans]
Through these letters, we also learn something of the assaults on Orthodox Christianity from those who claimed to be within the Church, but who preached a perverted version of Christianity. The heresies that Ignatius warned against included Docetism, the denial of the true humanity and suffering of Christ. In the saint’s words, “Pay close attention to those who have wrong notions about the grace of Jesus Christ, which has come to us, and note how at variance they are with God’s mind. They care nothing about love: they have no concern for widows or orphans, for the oppressed, for those in prison or released, for the hungry or the thirsty. They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” [Letter to the Smyrnaeans]
There were also those who still clung to the idea that Christianity was a Jewish sect, even though that issue had been settled at the council of Jerusalem (described in Acts 15) which set the pattern of conciliar decision-making for the Church. These Judaizers continued to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath and to accept only the Hebrew scriptures. “Do not be led astray by wrong views or by outmoded tales that count for nothing. For if we still go on observing Judaism, we admit we never received grace.” [Letter to the Magnesians] In admonishing the people to resist all heresy, St. Ignatius presents simple, basic creedal statements – no doubt those used in catechizing new converts – statements which preceded the formulation of an official Creed for the Church at the Council in Nicaea in 325. “Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died, in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld. He was really raised from the dead, for his Father raised him, just as his Father will raise us, who believe on him, through Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have no genuine life.” [Letter to the Trallians]
St. Ignatius’ remedy for dissension and heresy was unity under the bishop. “You should act in accord with the bishop’s mind…Your presbytery, indeed, which deserves its name and is a credit to God, is as closely tied to the bishop as the strings to a harp. Wherefore your accord and harmonious love is a hymn to Jesus Christ. Yes, one and all, you should form yourselves into a choir, so that, in perfect harmony and taking your pitch from God, you may sing in unison and with one voice to the Father through Jesus Christ.” [Letter to the Ephesians]
We learn through several letters that the persecution of Antiochene Christians ended, even as its most illustrious victim was still on his way to execution. The prisoner and his entourage of escorts arrived in Rome around the year 106 toward the end of the season’s “games.” The old man, weary from the long journey, was thrown into the arena and immediately devoured by the lions.
Our father in God, Ignatius, added a generation to our Church family tree and, through his letters and his example of courageous martyrdom, he has provided us, his spiritual descendants, with wonderful knowledge to aid us in maintaining the Orthodox faith. Blessed Ignatius, pray for us.
(All quotations from Early Christian Fathers, edited by Cyril C. Richardson)