Many religions seek to answer the question of what becomes of us when we die. Many try to reconcile the inevitability of death with our fear of it. Many attempt to create a life beyond this one, at least to give us a hope that this world is not all there is.
As Christians we believe that God became man to teach us directly that there is indeed life after death and that as long as we acquit ourselves well in this life we shall attain that afterlife.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest church bishops, appointed by St. Peter himself, tried to teach us that the message of Jesus was much more than just saying there is life after death and that we can see God. He taught us to long for that time, to put aside all fears as not worthy of our calling after Jesus, and to eagerly seek whatever end we are destined for.
What a confusing time he lived in! Some of the twelve apostles were still alive, yet there was already dissention, schism, opportunism, false teachings. Not fifty years after the resurrection of our Savior, people abounded who used his Gospel as a means of dividing others, enriching themselves, and attaining as much power and prestige for themselves as they could achieve. Is this the real message of the early church fathers – that times will never change? Maybe. That could be one message we glean from their writings. And from the Gospels, for that matter.
But then comes St. Ignatius, a convert, a student of St. John the Apostle, and obviously a brilliant and devout Christian. What does he tell us?
There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible—even Jesus Christ our Lord.
He says that Jesus is God existing in the flesh. This is one of the first post apostolic writings that proclaims that Jesus is God, both man and spirit. And if this is so, then the prophets proclaiming that there is life after death must be correct. And he stressed that the Eucharist is the medicine of immortality. Therefore, we must partake of the Eucharist.
Then he says
Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest.
So if Jesus is God and vouchsafed his spirit and teachings upon us, we must also listen to him when he proclaims the Apostles and indicates an hierarchy within the church. So Ignatius is trying to secure those teachings and insure that the truth, the teachings of Jesus, are handed on. “Be not seduced by strange doctrines nor by antiquated fables, which are profitless.” He is trying to build up the authority of the local bishop, one bishop per city or diocese. This in order, again, to preserve correct teachings.
Then he says
I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.
And this all leads to a feeling of joy at death since we will see Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit and live forever. St. Ignatius not only believed this, he lived it. The hardships of his journey to face death in Rome were borne with grace…he even attempts to comfort his captors.
So in today’s reading from Romans, Paul is saying that it is not the law that will lead us to “inherit the world,” but faith, the gift from God. And in the Gospel, Jesus says, “When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say.” Faith.
So isn’t that all the message of St. Ignatius? That it does not matter what will happen to us, nor that we should concern ourselves with how we will comport ourselves at the end, even if it is a violent one. There is “even Jesus Christ our Lord” who will be leading us onward. St. Ignatius is showing us the direct lineage from Jesus to us, from chaos to peace, from fear to faith.
And if we listen to the Gospels and Epistles, we will have all we need to realize this lineage.
Finally, St. Ignatius was responsible for the first known use of the Greek word katholikos, meaning “universal”, “complete”, and “whole” to describe the church. And this concept permeates all his teachings and exhortations. One holy, catholic, and apostolic church. May it ever be so.
Lord, in today’s world there continues to be dissention, schism, opportunism, false teachings. Help us to hear your word and follow the teachings of your son. Let us replace fear with faith and spread that faith to all we meet. Amen.