Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch

The year was 107 AD and Theophorus (“Bearing God” in greek(1)) stood calmly and joyfully at the entrance to the floor of the Flavian Amphitheater. He was about to fulfill a desire held deep in his heart for more than 20 years. He was not only about to demonstrate to the citizens of Rome his undying love for his Lord and savior Jesus Christ, but he was about enter into “...a more deep and intimate relationship with the Lord.”(2) Theophorus, known today as Ignatius of Antioch, was about to be martyred in the Roman Colosseum on account of his unbreakable love for Jesus.

He came close before during the persecution of Christians by emperor Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God”(3) who compelled citizens to recognize him as such. Christians, Ignatius being one of them, were willing to die rather than place the emperor on par with Jesus, who they knew to be the one true God and many earned the crown of martyrdom. The Domitian persecution ended, but for Ignatius, it was a bittersweet victory. As the successor of Bishop Evodius, Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch. As Bishop and shepherd, Ignatius was joyful and relieved that God’s sheep, entrusted to him by Peter the Apostle(4), would no longer suffer persecution. Yet he still longed for the crown of martyrdom and the intimate relationship with his Lord and Savior that accompanied it.

It appeared now to Ignatius that Jesus’ words, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matt 7:7) were going to be demonstrated. Before he left on his journey to Rome and martyrdom, the Emperor Trajan visited the city of Antioch and discovered Christians refusing to offer sacrifice to the pagan Gods. The emperor called their leader, Bishop Ignatius, to answer for these transgressions. Trajan seeing the resolute nature of the Antiochan Christian leader declared,

“We command that Ignatius, who affirms that he carries about within him Him that was crucified, be bound by soldiers, and carried to the great [city] Rome, there to be devoured by the beasts, for the gratification of the people.” 

To which Ignatius cried out to God,

“I thank you, O Lord, that You have vouchsafed to honour me with a perfect love towards You, and have made me to be bound with iron chains, like Your Apostle Paul.”(5) 

From there he began his travels to Rome to fulfill his utmost desire. The journey was long, but he had the opportunity along the way to minister to Christians throughout the Empire. From the port of Seleucia in Syria, he headed to either Tarsus or Attalia. From there he traveled overland through Asia Minor and through Philadelphia, Sardis, and Smyrna, home to Polycarp, a fellow auditor Saint John the Apostle. From there he sent letters to the congregations of Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles encouraging them to follow their Bishop and avoid heresy. He also wrote to the citizens of Rome asking them not to act to prevent his martyrdom. Leaving there his party passed through Troas where he sent letters to the Christians of Philadelphia and Smyrna, and to Polycarp. From here they continued on by sea and land until they arrived in Rome where soon after his arrival Ignatius won his long-coveted crown of martyrdom in the Flavian amphitheater.(6)

Almighty ever-living God,
who adorn the sacred body of your Church
with the confessions of holy Martyrs,
grant, we pray,
that, just as the glorious passion of Saint Ignatius of Antioch,
which we celebrate today,
brought him eternal splendor,
so it may be for us unending protection.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.(7)

Painting of Ignatius of Antioch from
the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)


(1) Church History, Fr. John Laux p 49
(2) The Martyrdom of Ignatius. Ch 1.
(3) Scannell, Thomas. "Domitian." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 22 Jan. 2017.
(4) O'Connor, John Bonaventure. "St. Ignatius of Antioch." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 22 Jan. 2017. 
(5) The Martyrdom of Ignatius, Ch 2
(6) “St. Ignatius of Antioch”, The Catholic Encyclopedia
(7) Liturgy of the Hours, Collect for the feast of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, October 17th.