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A Pedagogy in Love – Br. Sean Glenn

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Br. Sean Glenn

St. Ignatius of Antioch

Romans 8:35-39 
Psalm 31:1-5
John 12:23-26

Today in the calendar of the church, we remember the first century Syrian bishop and martyr, Ignatius of Antioch. One of the last of the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers,’ tradition tells us that Ignatius worked alongside the apostles and their communities, such as St. Peter and St. John the Evangelist, from whom we read he received his theological formation. St. John Chrysostom tell us that Ignatius received his episcopal consecration from the hands of the apostles themselves. 

Ignatius was martyred around 115 CE under the emperor Trajan. Seeking to reinforce the universality of his dominion by an act of religious conquest, Trajan decreed that Christians were to unite with their pagan neighbors in the worship of the civic gods. Persecution was threatened, and death named the penalty for any who refused participate. Sensitive to the danger, Ignatius did all in his power to thwart the advance of the imperial program, which would lead to his arrest and execution.

Ignatius’ final letter to Christians at Rome urges them to allow the brutal Roman sentence of death to fall upon him without appeal.  “The only thing I ask of you,” he writes, “is to allow me to offer the libation of my blood to God. I am the wheat of the Lord; may I be ground by the teeth of the beasts to become the immaculate bread of Christ.”[1]

Although Ignatius’ keenness to freely give his body even to the violence of a public spectacle may strike us as a borderline masochistic desire, I think it would be mistaken to view Ignatius’ self-offering in such a way. In light of the controversies that swirled about in the diverse church of his day, his unmistakably corporeal offering serves as an embodied pedagogy in love. Very truly, I tell you, 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.[2]

Of great concern to Ignatius was the rise of the heresy that would come to be known as Docetism. Docetism developed as a teaching about the incarnation in line with tensions created by cultural preconceptions about God’s impassability. As Ola Sigurdson has stated the problem, “In general terms, one might say that the problem of incarnation in Christian theology concerns how one imagines God’s difference in a way that makes it consistent with God’s presence in our world. Can the absolute be present in the concrete without coming too near or being too far away?”[3] For the Docetists, God’s transcendence meant that Christ’s body must not have been a fully human body, but some kind of phantasm or supernatural substance. His sufferings, and therefore his humanity, were only an appearance, rather than a reality. 

For Ignatius’ mind, trained and formed at the feet of Saint John the Evangelist, the Docetis’ claims about Christ’s body unnecessarily confined the salvific reality of God’s special initiative in Christ—risking thereby the loss of the body and its knowledge in the work of God’s salvation. For the Word became flesh. God has met the human being in the body, as much as the soul. 

For us, twenty centuries removed from his bold witness, Ignatius’ martyrdom speaks a word from one body-preoccupied culture to another. To a culture that ardently seeks a radical body positivity, Ignatius witnesses to the reality that we still treat the body with incredible contempt. Ignatius asks as serious question of our culture as well as his own: what is the body for? Even as we laud the body and celebrate bodily freedom, we simultaneously incarcerate almost 2.2 million people in the U.S. alone.[4] To a world that holds more than 40 million people in slavery,[5] Ignatius’ witness asks: what is the body for? To a culture than prizes physical strength, beauty, and perfection while creating nearly religious burdens around our body size, exercise, eating, and sexual habits, Ignatius asks: what is the body for? Very truly, I tell you, 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.[6]

Pointing to the tortured body of Jesus on the cross, Ignatius answers his question with the ultimate paradox of the Christian faith: this body shows us the body is for Love. If the Word took upon himself our humble form and exalted it in Christ, it does no good to elide or erase the wisdom and knowledge of the body as we work out our salvation. For the human person is not merely body or soul but both body and soul. As our soul in this life comes to experience the myriad baptismal deaths to the world and the self, so too at our final surrender our bodies will experience the final breaking of their fragile forms. As new life issues from the wounded shell of buried grain, we share in the on-going death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Ignatius’ martyrdom reminds us that God has met and promises to meet us in the body; and, as such, any spirituality that denies the body a place and role in the redemption of the human person must confront the cross of Jesus. God has met the human being truly and concretely in the tortured, suffering body of Jesus. All bodies may become chalices of God’s active grace—but in particular those bodies the world find deficient, broken, disturbing, or repugnant. Not the bodies we have moralized into a strong, sound independence; but the broken bodies, discarded, harassed, or ignored, dependent upon God and one another.   

 As we fall into the fertile fields of God’s love, the spiritual deaths that mark our walk with Christ become but a prelude to the ultimate surrender in bodily death, when God will take the seed of our life—body and soul—into the darkness of his soil, to be transformed at last. The world may try to tell us the body is for any number of things. As we remember St. Ignatius today, we remember that the body is really for love.

Amen.


[1] https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-ignatius-of-antioch/

[2] John 12:24

[3] Ola Sigurdson, Heavenly Bodies: Incarnation, the Gaze, and Embodiment in Christian Theology, trans. Carl Olsen (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 7.

[4] https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/28/us/mass-incarceration-five-key-facts/index.html. It is worth noting that profit has been a significant motivation for the large population of incarcerated people in our own country.

[5] https://www.freetheslaves.net/our-model-for-freedom/slavery-today/

[6] John 12:24

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