Lent: Day 5 of 40

Did Jesus really suffer, and will I?

Trajan is emperor as a 2nd century begins and he martyrs Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who was taken from Syria to Rome under guard, giving time for him to write to Polycarp and to churches on the way, in blunt, cheerleading prose. Trajan created a popular hero by persecuting Ignatius.  In retrospect, we know that the Roman Empire had peaked, and Christianity was just getting started.  They didn’t know – did they?

The Christian fascination with martyrdom belongs more to this second century than to the first.  Christianity began to present as distinctive and as difficult to assimilate to obedience to the empire. Diarmid MacCulloch’s history in this decade suggests that we got apart to be holy,  with a chip on our shoulder, as much as we were forced into that posture.

Ignatius affirmed ‘Zoë’ or living, rather than ‘gnosis’ or knowing special secrets. This ‘zoë’ life is greater than death, so Ignatius dares, even seeks, martyrdom. Generally a religion of heart, passion, and a pragmatic religion tuned to what works, is preferable to one of ideas of the mind and imagination. As the century continues, the bishops appeal to Ignatius as a role model of persistent witness to the point of martyrdom.

Ignatius denies a purely spiritual Christ. Jesus was flesh and blood, and he really suffered, just as martyrs suffer. Jesus was not just a spiritual emanation or holographic appearance or cartoon. Jesus really died on a cross, and really was physically resurrected. It was not just a show, or shedding body like clothes. Ignatius rejects a competing view, “Docetism.”

Persecution isn’t time for speculation but for loyalty, submission to bishops, key to church unity. Martyrdom is not a setting for experimentation or innovation, relying upon the authority of an idea without legs, but for claiming a bottom line. Persecution is a time for clarity and near-military obedience. Speculation about sophisticated secrets doesn’t help then.

Eucharist, the ‘medicine of the soul’, was Ignatius’ program. He objected to other heretics who declined to come to the table, or denied the presence of Jesus in the sacrament. Similarly, he is the first to use the term ‘catholic’, to refer to a universal or inclusive body, from which a person should not stand aside in some assertion of purity.

Ignatius’ heresies largely prevailed, tested by his own martyrdom, and subsequent persecutions over time, as a way for the movement to resist power – and thus gain power. He reinforced the ascendancy of the bishops and the hierarchy, but also the centrality of solidarity among Christians, equipped and encouraged by martyrs’ confessions. Some writing attributed to Ignatius, may have been tributes by others, including Origen, similar to the ‘pseudo-Paul’ writings of last week’s heretics like us.

Who walks the walk, pays the price, rather than talking the talk and standing apart in small circles? Those are the heirs of Ignatius, the militant if not the mindless adherents of the faith. Who puts the unity of the whole above the individual integrity of their own ideas?  No wonder Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, claimed the name.


Did Jesus really suffer? Yes.  

Will I? Yes.