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St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Eucharist and the Episcopacy

October 18, 2006
For the memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch, I offer some of my observations on Ignatius’ understanding of faith, Eucharist and the episcopacy. Since Ignatius is one of the first Christian writers after the time of the apostles, he provides us with a sense of how the earliest Christians understood their faith.

I – Theological Elements

Underlying Ignatius’ understanding of the episcopacy are the themes of imitation and identification. Throughout his seven epistles, these two themes are essential for Christian authenticity in all positions in the ecclesial context, but they converge in the office of the bishop in an exemplary way. Let us examine their rhetorical effect as penned by Ignatius.

Imitation and Identification in the Christian Life

In each of the seven epistles, Ignatius never fails to stress the imitation of Christ and conformity to God. After greeting the Ephesian church, Ignatius writes: “You are imitators of God, and, having kindled your brotherly task by the blood of God, you complete it perfectly” (Ad Eph., 1.1.). To the Trallian church, he remarks: “I received therefore your godly benevolence through him, and gave God glory that I found you, as I had learnt, imitators of God” (Ad Tral., 1.2.) For Ignatius, the imitation of God is the fruit of firm conviction in the promises of God through the passion of Christ, “who died for our sake, that by believing on his death you may escape death” (Ad Tral., 2.1.) The passion, death and resurrection of Christ combine as the object of Christian faith, giving Ignatius’ theology a strong kerygmatic flavor.

Ignatius is quite clear that faith is not coextensive with imitation. Rather, Ignatius delineates faith and love as two distinct, yet inalienable moments in the life of the believer, which operate in tandem as the scope of imitation. Faith is tied explicitly to “the flesh” and love to “the blood” and “the spirit.” It is imperative to note from the start that Ignatius’ anthropology suffers no duality of opposition, as if the flesh of man clashes with his spirit. Rather, while hinting at a real distinction between the two, he understands them to be complimentary under the aegis of Christ. The dualism he permits is not one of anthropology, but one of action. Man, who is a whole in flesh and spirit, is an agent of carnal and spiritual deeds; in faith the Christian is capable of performing eminently spiritual acts of love. Thus, the flesh is able to be elevated with the spirit through faith: “They who are carnal cannot do spiritual things, neither can they who are spiritual do carnal things, just as faith is incapable of the deeds of infidelity, and infidelity the deeds of faith. But even what you do according to the flesh is spiritual, for you do all things in Jesus Christ” (Ad Eph., 8.2.).

Ignatius’ optimism of the union of flesh and spirit clearly comes from his understanding of the Incarnation, which dominates his thought. In a constant polemic against the threat of docetism, Ignatius makes constant reference to the true incarnation of Jesus Christ, often employing creedal formulas as rhetorical devises:

“Be deaf therefore when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, and of Mary, who was truly born, both ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth; who also was truly raised from the dead, when his Father raised him up, as in the same manner his Father shall raise up in Christ Jesus who believe in him, without whom we have no true life” (Ad Tral., 9.1-2).[1]

The flesh of Christ takes on a singular importance in the letters of Ignatius, particularly as the instrument of his suffering and death. The death of Christ is the decisive moment of salvation, flanked by his passion and resurrection: “For he suffered all these things for us that we might attain salvation, and he truly suffered even as he also truly raised himself, not as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was merely in semblance, but it is they who are merely in semblance, and even according to their opinions it shall happen to them, and they shall be without bodies and phantasmal” (Ad Smyrn., 2.1).

Movever, the flesh of man takes on significance, for Christ took upon himself the same flesh, ennobling it and granting a pivotal role in salvation.

Returning again to the tandem of faith and love, we find Ignatius repeatingly tying them to the flesh and blood of Christ. In his epistle to the Magnesians, he intimates that “there may be a union of the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ, who is our everlasting life, a union of faith and love, to which nothing is preferable, and, what is more than all, a union of Jesus and the Father” (Ad Magn., 1.2). Faith, for Ignatius, is the belief in the manifestation of Christ in the flesh and the acceptance of his redemptive death upon the cross, and love is a subsequent identification with the blood shed upon the cross: “Therefore adopt meekness and be renewed in faith, which is the flesh of the Lord, and in love, which is the blood of Jesus” (Ad Tral., 8.1). The “flesh” of Christ refers to his incarnation and passion and the “blood” of Christ refers to his death and resurrection. Just as the blood follows the flesh in sequential motion, so too does love of Christians follow their faith: “None of these things unknown to you if you possess perfect faith towards Jesus Christ, and love, which are the beginning and end of life; for the beginning is faith and the end is love, and when the two are joined together in unity it is God, and all other noble things follow after them” (Ad Eph., 14.1).

Therefore, faith engenders love, the former grasping the reality of salvation, the latter responding to that reality. And this response is precisely the constitution of imitation.
The response of love is an imitation, by the Christian, of the reality of Christ’s passion and death, “and unless we willingly choose to die through him in his passion, his life is not in us” (Ad Magn., 5.2). Through the willingness to suffer, even unto death, the Christian achieves identification with the crucified Christ, who inspires the Christian to endure all hardships, and seeks salvation: “for this reason also we suffer, that we may be found disciples of Jesus Christ our only teacher” (Ad. Magn., 9.1). To be a disciple of Christ is to suffer in solidarity with, and in imitation of, him on the cross: “For I have observed that you are established in immoveable faith, as if nailed to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, both in flesh and spirit, and confirmed in love by the blood of Christ. . . .” (Ad Smyrn., 1.1)

Imitation and Identity in the Episcopacy

For Ignatius, the bishop is the exemplar of the imitation and identity of Christ. With the exception of the church of Rome, Ignatius admonishes every church to remain in union and solidarity with their respective bishop.[2] Not only is the Christian to imitate Christ, but is strive to resemble also their bishop.[3] In fact, Ignatius sees the bishop as bearing in his own person Christ himself: “Therefore it is clear that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself” (Ad Magn., 6.1) For Ignatius, the office of bishop serves as a symbol of unity and the guarantor of the sacrificial presence of Christ in the church.

Unity and union are important themes in Ignatius’ theology of the episcopacy. Unity with the bishop of a local ecclesial community ensures the orthodoxy of faith. The office is a safeguard from all heresy, and the only legitimate means of preserving the teaching of the Gospel. Union with the bishop is the sign of Christian union with God, for the bishop perpetuates and mediates the truth and love of Christ to the faithful.”[4] Only through unity with the bishop may the believer “commune” with God (Ad Eph., 4.2),“for Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the will of the Father, even as the bishops, who have been appointed throughout the world, are by the will of Jesus Christ” (Ad Eph., 3.2).[5] The office of bishop is so inalienably bound up with Christ’s abiding presence in the Church that Ignatius freely juxtaposes Christ and bishop as mediator between God and the faithful.[6] The bishop is also a “type of the Father” (Ad Tral., 3.1), “presiding in the place of God” (Ad Magn., 6.1) so that one may not even speak of “church” without also envisaging the presidency of the bishop (Ad Tral., 3.1).

Ignatius continually forbids his ecclesial audiences from gathering apart from the bishop in any sort of cultic practice.[7] Writing to the Smyrnaeans, he announces the following declaration:

“Let no one do anything relating to the Church, except in dependence on the bishop. Let only that eucharist be regarded as legitimate that is celebrated under the presidency of the bishop or someone the bishop appoints. Wherever the bishop is, there let the community be, just as wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic Church. Only in dependence on the bishop is it permitted for anyone to baptize or celebrate the agape; whatever he approves is also pleasing to God” (Ad Smyrn., 8.1-2).

Commenting on this passage, Raymond Johanny writes:
“Ignatius is here recalling the teaching he has given to the Ephesians. There can be no authentic eucharist that is not celebrated under the presidency of the bishop. Because he represents Christ, he creates unity, and the community must be organized around him. Without him it is impossible to baptize or to celebrate the agape, that is the eucharist (agapēn is parallel to baptizein, showing that the agape in this case is the eucharist). Baptism and the eucharist are the two basic cultic actions that generate the life and unity of the Church, the katholikē ekklēsia.”[8]

Thus, Ignatius ties the bishop to the Eucharist and to the unity of the church.[9] A common metaphor employed by Ignatius to illustrate this aspect of union effected by the episcopacy and Eucharist is that of music. In his letter to the Ephesians he writes: “For your justly famous presbytery, worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as the strings to a harp. Therefore by your concord and harmonious love Jesus Christ is being sung” (Ad Eph., 4.1).[10] The hierarchy of bishop and presbyters forms the very basis out of which the love of Jesus Christ may be effected.

A more frequently occuring metaphor for the gathering of the local ecclesial community is that of the temple (ναός) or “place of sacrifice (θυσιαστήριον).[11] Here the early theme of love as the willingness to suffer and die for Christ is bound up in the imagery used to convey the identity of the worshipping community and the Eucharist. More plainly, the church is the perpetuated sacrifice of Christ. And this made so by the real and actual presence of this sacrifice in the Eucharist, confected by the bishop. The Eucharist is the “flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by his goodness” (Ad Smyrn., 7.1). The sacrament is not simply identified with the flesh of Christ, but the flesh which suffers for the salvation of humanity. Thus, the Eucharist, in perfect continuity with the Christ’s incarnation and expiatory death, is the making present of the sacrifice of the cross through which the Christian is identified with Christ. Hence, the insistence of Ignatius that faith is not complete without the desire for suffering and death in imitation of the Lord though love—the church must lives the paschal mystery. But the bishop participates uniquely in the sacrifice of Christ, as A.-G. Hamman observes: “The bishop makes the Eucharist, but it is also true to say that the Eucharist makes the bishop, in its essential function, the each one assembles the Church in unity and love constructing the unique (mystical) body of Christ, flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.”[12]

In sum, the bishop, as both Christian and president of Christians, is uniquely called to imitate Christ’s passion through faith and love and image the temple in which sacrifice is offered. Yet he is especially identified with Christ in an exemplary fashion as the bearer of the sacrificed flesh through his peculiar function as celebrator of the Eucharist, which makes present the suffering flesh of Christ in the temple of the church. All of this serves as the drive for Ignatius’ understanding and mission of martyrdom, but before moving to his perspective on his own death, I will first conduct a brief foray into the historical context of his writing.

II – Eucharistic Martyrdom

Keenly aware of his shaken flock in Antioch, Ignatius understood the importance of exhibiting a stalwart faith in the promises of faith. Throughout his letters, there is clear indication that he embraced his impending martyrdom as a test of his resiliency. He describes it in terms of discipleship and liturgy, the former involving the completion of his faith and the latter entailing a public, ritualized display. I will discuss each of these aspects individually before relating them to one another.

Because Ignatius delineates faith as the beginning of Christian and love its culmination, he understands his condemnation as the via leading to love. Love is the substrate for the Christian’s imitation of Christ, entailing the desire to suffer and die for the Lord. Ignatius comprehends his imperial condemnation and execution as the means by which he “might be enabled to be a true disciple” (Ad Eph., 1.2). Yet Ignatius is aware of his own fragility. This is especially evident in the most existentially charged passages in the letters. To the Church of Rome he cries: “Only pray for me for strength, both inward and outward, that I may not merely speak, but also have the will, that I may not only be called a Christian, but may also be found to be found to be one. For if I am found to be one, I can also be called one, and then be deemed faithful when I am no longer visible in the world” (Ad Rom. 3.2). Ignatius, while not denying that he has faith, cannot image his imitation and discipleship complete unless he fulfills what every Christian is called to—martyrdom for the sake of Christ.

But let us not forget that Ignatius is a bishop, which accentuates the exigencies of his discipleship, both interiorly (faith and love) and exteriorly (example of imitation for the Christians of Antioch). As mediator between God and his Christian flock, Ignatius attributes a liturgical significance to his martyrdom. As an individual Christian anticipating the moment of Christian witness by the shedding of his own blood, he craves to consume the flesh and blood which is to imitate: “I desire the ‘bread of God,’ which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was ‘of the seed of David,’ and for drink I desire his blood, which is incorruptible love.” (Ad Rom., 7.2). Yet as a bishop, whose identity is with the crucified Christ in the Eucharist, he envisions himself as an imitative sacrifice mirroring that of Christ; Ignatius views himself as a eucharistic offering within the context of a public liturgy.[13]

Both Robin Darling Young and G. W. Bowersock draw attention to a substitution motif functioning in Ignatius’ martyrology.[14] For example, Ignatius writes: “May my soul be given for yours” (Ad. Eph., 21.1), and “may it be mine to have my lot with them in God” (Ad Polyc., 6.1). There is no question that Ignatius views his death as expiatory for others, not because it has value in and of itself, but because through his imitation, he is repeating and representing the fleshly suffering of Christ. But going beyond Young and Bowersock, I would suggest that Ignatius views himself as a sacrifice on behalf of the Antiochene church in particular.

The bishop in Ignatius’ theology is the unitive symbol of the local Church, and representing Christ, he manifests Christ and establishes the fullness of the church.[15] The bishop brings this about in exemplary fashion precisely as the one who confects a valid Eucharist. In his person, the bishop represents the passion and death of Christ before the local church. It follows that the bishop derives his function from both Christ and the church, for the sacrificial death of Christ and its representation in the Eucharist is in every case relative or correlative to those who shall be resurrected. Therefore, Ignatius bears within himself the entire Church of Antioch as its representative head and as occupant of the office of its actualization. Ignatius does not cease to be the bishop of Antioch in absence, but carries his church in his flesh (visible) and spirit (invisible).

The three letters written from Troas, which bear a change of mood according to aforementioned scholars, do indeed convey a confidence that is lacking in the letters from Smyrna. However, I suggest that the confidence is not merely a response with the improved situation at Antioch, but a surety and drive in the will of Ignatius. The letters to the Philadelphians, the Smyrnaeans and to Polycarp are replete with passages indicating a new perspective, a newfound intrepidity.[16] Corresponding to this confidence is more pronounced eucharistic imagery in the letters to the Philadelphians and Smyrnaeans. Incidentally, these letters were written after the letter to the Roman church, whose primary theme is martyrdom. Perhaps, and this is not conclusive by any stretch, after securing the intercession and support of the Roman church, Ignatius possesses a renewed vigor in and apprehension of his discipleship, and as bishop, he understands his peace in the face of martyrdom will to extend to the church of Antioch.

Perhaps there is no greater attestation to this internal peace than Ignatius’ description of his martyrdom with eucharistic imagery in his letter to Rome:

“I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts that they may become my tomb, and leave no trace of my body, that when I fall asleep I be not burdensome to any. Then shall I be truly a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world shall not even see my body. Beseech Christ on my behalf, that I may be found a sacrifice through these instruments” (Ad Rom., 4.1-2).

Here Ignatius views himself eucharistic-ally, his body the wheat of the bread that is the flesh of Christ, and his death the blood of sacrifice. His death will be the culmination of a concrete liturgical sacrifice, having begun with his procession from Antioch to Rome and ending on a Roman altar to sound of hymns from the Roman Christians.[17]

This idea of liturgical sacrifice extends beyond the imitation of Christ that is necessarily for all Christian discipleship. Ignatius is merging his identity as bishop with his function as bishop; the bishop becomes the sacrifice, the sacrifice is the bishop. His mediatorship as bishop dissolves into the Mediatorship of Christ, and his sacrifice dissolves into Christ’s Sacrifice. Therefore, in his person, Ignatius offers up to the Father the church of Antioch to which he is tied. All this through following “the example of the Passion of my God” (Ad Rom., 6.3).

This may serve to clarity the peculiar phrasing at the conclusion of the letter to the Romans, where Ignatius cryptically remarks:

“Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria which has God for its Shepherd in my room. Its bishop shall be Jesus Christ alone, and your love. But for myself I am ashamed to be called one of them, for I am not worthy; for I am the least of them, and ‘born out of time;’ but I have obtained mercy to be someone, if I may attain to God” (Ad Rom., 8.1-2).

Who is this someone that Ignatius may become? I believe he is referring to a complete assimilation of identity into Christ. As bishop in the earthbound, “visible” church, Ignatius is the least of the brethren, the slave to all through the service of his ministry. Yet through this reenactment, or “repetition” of God’s suffering as Young puts it,[18] Ignatius may become someone, namely the fullness of Christ in persona. The entire process of Ignatius’ martyrdom parallels Christ’s own death: Ignatius is put to death by the Roman soldiers, his flesh shall be consumed and his death shall be a substitutive for others, namely the body to which he is the head—the church of Antioch. Hence, the confidence in his own immanent death and trust in the peace of Antioch in the letters subsequent to the letter to the Romans.

[1] cf. Ad Eph., 20.2; Ad Magn. 11.1; Ad Smyrn. 1.1-2: “…that he is in truth of the family of David according to the flesh, God’s son by the will and power of God, truly born of a Virgin, baptized by John that ‘all righteousness might be fulfilled by him,’ truly nailed to a tree in the flesh for our sakes under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch, and of its fruit are we from his divinely blessed Passion, that ‘he might se up an ensign’ for all ages through his Resurrection, for his saints and believers, whether among the Jews, or among the heathen, in one body of his church.”
[2] Of these six churches, he mentions four of the bishops by name and addresses one letter directly to another (Polycarp). The bishops are as follows: Onesimus in the Ephesian church, Damas in the Magnesian church, Polybius in the Trallian church, and Polycarp in the Smyrnaean church. Ignatius does not mention the Philadelphian bishop by name.
[3] Ad Eph., 1.3. cf. Ad Magn., 6.2: “Let there be nothing in you which can divide you, but be united with the bishop and with those who preside over you as an example and lesson of immortality.”
[4] “Et l’union à l’evêque est le signe de notre union avec Dieu dans l’Agapè, parce que, ne faisant qu’un avec l’espirit de Jésus-Christ, l’évêque perpétue dans l’Église le don de l’Agapè de Dieu. Aussi, tenant ici-bas la place du Christ, l’evêque tient-il également la place de Dieu, Père de Jésus-Christ.” Jean Colso, Agapé chez Saint Ignace d’Antioche (Paris: Éditions S.O.S., 1962), 59.
[5] cf. 5.3; Ad Magn. 6.1; 13.2; Ad Tral., 2.1; Ad Phil., 3.2; 7.2.
Ad Eph., 19.3: “for was manifest as man for the ‘newness’ of eternal life;” Ad Magn., 8.2: “there is one God, who manifested himself through Jesus Christ his son, who is his Word proceeding from silence;” Ad Rom. 8.2: “(Jesus Christ) is the mouth which cannot lie, by which the Father has spoken truly;” Ad Eph., 4.2: “It is therefore profitable for you to be in blameless unity (with the bishop), in order that you may always commune with God;” 5.3: “let us then be careful not to oppose the bishop, that we may be subject to God;” Ad Tral., 2.1: “For when you are in subjection to the bishop as to Jesus Christ it is clear to me that you are living not after men, but after Jesus Christ, who died for our sake, that by believing on his death you may escape death;” Ad Phil., 3.2: “For as many as belong to God and Jesus Christ, these are with the bishop.”
[7] Consider the sharp warning: “He who honors the bishop has been honored by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop is serving the devil.” Ad Smyrn., 9.1.
[8] Raymond Johanny, “Ignatius of Antioch,” in The Eucharist of the Early Christians, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, 48-70 (New York: Pueblo, 1978), 59.
[9] See John D. Zizioulas, Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries, trans. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Brookline, MA: 2001), 87-88.
[10] Cf. Ad Rom. 2.2.
[11] Ad Eph. 5.2; Ad Magn., 7.2; Ad Tral., 7.2; Ad Phil., 4.1. Here, Ignatius is drawing from Pauline theology, a claim substantiated by Clayton Jefford. See Clayton Jefford, Reading the Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 67.
[12] A.-G. Hammand, trans. and ed., Les évêques apostoliques: Clément de Rome, Ignace d’Antioche, Polycarp de Smyrne (Paris: Migne, 2000), 101: “L’évêque fait l’eucharistie, mais il est aussi vrai de dire que l’eucharistie fait l’évêque, dans sa function essentielle, l’un et l’autre rassemblent l’Église dans l’unité et la charité construisent l’unique corps (mystique) du Christ, chair et sang de Jésus Christ.”
[13] Robin Darling Young has come to a similar conclusion in her reading of the Ignatian epistles: “Like the Book of Revelation, Ignatius’ letters were shaped by the connection between persecution and sacrificial ritual.” In Procession Before the World: Martyrdom as Public Liturgy in Early Christianity (The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology 2001; Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001), 18.
[14] G. W. Bowersock, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 80. Both Bowersock and Young suggest that Ignatius may be drawing from the persecution/sacrifice from the Maccabean literature.
[15] See Ad Smyrn., 8.1-2.
[16] Ad Phil., 5.1; 8.2; Ad Smyrn., 4.2; 11.1; Ad Polyc., 2.3; 7.1.
[17] “Grant me nothing more than that I be poured out to God, while an altar is still ready, that forming yourselves into a chorus of love, you may sing to the Father in Christ Jesus, that God has vouchsafed that the bishop of Syria shall be found at the setting of the sun, having fetched him from the sun’s rising. It is good to set to the world towards God, that may rise to him.” Ad Rom., 2.2.
[18] Young, In Procession, 18.


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