As mentioned previously, St. Ignatius was condemned to death during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. His writings give us a unique glimpse of the life and beliefs of the Church at the close of the first century. In his writings we are still very close to Christ and his Apostles. Can we see the face of Jesus reflected in his writings?
St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Philadelphians, speaks of the unity we share through our fellowship or communion through the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the focus of the oneness we profess in the creed. It is a sacramental sign of this unity. St. Ignatius writes;
“Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup which leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God” (Ignatius to the Philadelphians 4.1).
Later in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, St Ignatius addresses a problem with the heresy of docetism. Although not a unified movement, the early Christians had to correct the tendency among some early Christians to consider the humanity and sufferings of the earthly Christ as merely apparent rather than real. St. Ignatius links this belief to a very low regard for the Eucharist. He notes;
“They abstain from Eucharist and prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by his goodness. They then who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes; but it were better for them to have love, that they also may attain to the Resurrection” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 6.2). Seeing the face of Jesus clearly in the face of the early Church allows one to profess as well our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Earlier in his letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius refers to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20.2).
Our unity focuses not just on the Eucharist by also on the Bishop. St. Ignatius writes;
“You must all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. (2) Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop.” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 8.1-2)
This passage highlights the role of the bishop in preserving the unity of the Church. In numerous other passages St. Ignatius emphasizes a divine hierarchy of the bishop, presbyters, and deacons. The Catechism reminds us that the bishop is the “guarantor and servant of the unity, catholicity and apostolicity of his Church” (CCC 1292). The Eucharist is celebrated under the authority or presidency of the bishop. The Catechism notes, “The bishop of the place is always responsible for the Eucharist, even when a priest presides; the bishop's name is mentioned to signify his presidency over the particular Church” (CCC 1369). St. Ignatius observes that only the Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop is valid. It is not permissible to hold an agape feast without the authority of the bishop.
St. Ignatius is also the first Church Father to use the word ‘catholic.’ Scholars will dispute whether it is appropriate to capitalize the word as ‘Catholic.’ Generally the basic meaning of ‘catholic’ is taken as the universal Church as opposed to the local church. William Schoedel has pointed out that studies of the original Greek word for ‘catholic’ make it unlikely that it refers to geographic extension, or universal as opposed to local. In the context of St. Ignatius the meaning of ‘catholic’ is more likely a reference to an organic unity under the bishop which parallels the universal church is an organic unity under Christ. Schoedel observes, “Thus we may say that the ‘catholic’ church here is not the universal church opposed to heresy, but the whole church resistant by its very nature to division.” Later the unity of the Church reflected in the whole allowed the Church to call herself ‘Catholic’ in the sense of the fullness of unity in distinction to heresy and in her mission for geographic extension to the whole world (Matthew 28:18-20). The Catechism notes that “the word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ in the sense of ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in keeping with the whole.’ There is a double sense in which the Church is ‘catholic’. The Church is ‘catholic’ because Christ is present in her (giving her correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession) and secondly because “she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race” (CCC 830-831).
We can see the face of Jesus in the community reflected in the letters of St. Ignatius. As Pope Benedict has recently noted, “In Christ, charity and truth becomes the Face of his Person, a vocation for us to love our brothers and sisters in the truth of his plan” (Caritas in Veritate, 1). Just as St. Ignatius answered those who thought Jesus only seemed to be flesh, today we must constantly dialogue with a dictatorship of untruth and the mere appearance of human opinion rather than a truth based in the person of Christ. Holy Mary, Seat of Wisdom, Pray for us.
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