The Fourth century church historian Eusebius tells us that St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch was condemned to die in Rome by becoming “food for wild beasts on account of his testimony to Christ” (Ecc. Hist 3, 36). St. Ignatius was condemned during the reign of the Emperor Trajan (107 A.D.). He was transported “under the strictest military surveillance” which he recounts as “being bound amidst ten leopards that is, a company of soldiers who only become worse when they are well treated.” Ignatius was taken as far as Smyrna where he was greeted by Polycarp the local bishop. From Smyrna Ignatius writes letters to four local churches. He writes to Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia (modern day Turkey), and to the neighboring cities of Magnesia, Tralles and Rome. Ignatius is then taken to Troas in the north-west corner of Asia. From Troas he wrote letters to the Philadelphians, to the Smyrnaeans and to Bishop Polycarp.
I would like to begin this reflection by focusing on Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians. In this letter he highlights the role of the bishop as a source of unity in the Church. He writes,
“Thus it is proper for you to act together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing. For your presbytery, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre. Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 4:1). Later he adds a warning to those who might attempt to act without a bishop, “Let no one be misled: if anyone is not within the sanctuary, he lacks the bread of God. . . Therefore whoever does not meet with the congregation thereby demonstrates his arrogance and has separated himself . . . Let us, therefore, be careful not to oppose the bishop, in order that we may be obedient to God. (Ignatius to the Ephesians 5:1-3).
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius addresses the intriguing question of why Jesus allowed himself to be baptized by John the Baptist?” Recently Pope Benedict XVI has reflected on this question in his work Jesus of Nazareth. He observes,
“Baptism itself was a confession of sins and the attempt to put off an old, failed life and to receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could do? How could he confess sins? How could he separate himself from his previous life in order to start a new one?” (p. 16-17).
The answer on one level is that Jesus did this to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Pope Benedict notes, “Righteousness is man’s answer to the Torah, acceptance of the whole of God’s will, the bearing of the “yoke of God’s Kingdom.” (Jesus, p. 17). St. Ignatius addresses this question by recounting a primitive confession of the Church, “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit. He was born and was baptized in order that by his suffering he might cleanse the water” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 18:2). St. Ignatius affirms that Jesus was baptized in order to “cleanse the water.”
In the Eastern Church the Feast of Epiphany is Jesus day of Baptism. Eastern iconography depicts the waters of Jesus’ Baptism as a liquid tomb leading down to Hades. There is a close connection between Jesus Baptism and Easter. St. John Chrysostom writes, “Going down into the water and emerging again are the image of the descent into hell and the Resurrection.” Jesus’ Baptism purifies the waters of Baptism and joins them to the entire mystery of salvation. Pope Benedict notes, “The sacrament of Baptism appears as the gift of participation in Jesus world-transforming struggle in the conversion of life that took place in his descent and ascent” (Jesus, p. 21). As St. Paul, notes, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). It is through baptism that we are brought into communion with Christ, and so into communion with his suffering, death and Resurrection. Earlier St. Ignatius describes the mystery of Christ’s person in another early creed, “There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 7.2). It is only through the mystery of Christ who is “flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man” that the waters of Baptism become a life giving means of grace and the foundational Sacrament of initiation. Flowing out of this baptismal union with Christ is a universal vocation to holiness and apostolic witness. The Christian life becomes an active participation in the life of Christ and a light to the world in which we live. Holy Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, pray for us. (Novo Millennio Ineunte 74).
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