When I think of the early martyrs I often think of Tertullian’s words, “The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (Apologeticus Ch. 50) That simple sentence contains the answer to many questions about the martyrs’ willingness to face death.
Ignatius of Antioch was one of those martyrs, a century earlier than Tertullian.
Almost nothing is known about Ignatius prior to his arrest in 107 A.D. when Roman soldiers took Ignatius to Rome to be killed. At stops along the way Ignatius wrote seven letters to various churches. These letters are very informative. One of the issues was to defend his strong conviction that it was necessary for him to accept martyrdom. He begged his friends not to act in his defense. He also wrote about other things such as the significance of the Bishop gathered with his people, at the Holy Eucharist. To the Church in Smyrna Ignatius wrote, “Where the Bishop and the people are gathered there is the Church.” (Cf. Ignatius’ letter to Smyrna)
It took several months to get to Rome. A stop was made in Smyrna, in Asia Minor. There he met Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp was martyred about 50 years later.
It is thought that Ignatius was born in Syria about the year 35. It seems highly likely that he could have met people who still remembered the missionary work of St. Paul firsthand. The verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans read today are very appropriate for this feast. “There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:38-39)
The words from St. John for today’s Gospel reading are also very appropriate.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)
On one level this can be understood to mean dying to self in order to live for Christ.
But we can see how those words relate also to Ignatius’ acceptance of the inevitability of his death by martyrdom. His own analogy of his sacrifice can be seen in these words; “I am God’s wheat, to be ground fine by the teeth of lions so that I become the purest bread for Christ.” (Cf. Ignatius’ letter to the Church in Rome in Celebrating the Saints, p.381, Robert Atwell, ed.)
May you find inspiration from those same verses from Paul’s Letter to the Romans and John’s Gospel for your own growth in faith when you face any trial or difficulty.
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